Where My Story Intersects with Africa by Emmanuella Nyamnjoh

 

Stories are important and crucial in the enterprise of knowledge creation about Africa, as Donna Haraway shows in Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective with the unmasking of “the doctrines of objectivity because they threatened our budding sense of collective historical subjectivity and agency and our ’embodied’ accounts of the truth.”

It is with this informed reasoning that we are creating a new direction of flow of ideas emanating from reflective inquiries into personal understanding and representation of African realities.

In the first piece, Oumarou Abdoulaye Balarabe discussed his “African dream.” In this new addition, Emmanuella Nyamnjoh describes what it felt like to grow up as an “outsider” in the continent and how her early ideas of beauty and gender were shaped.

 


Where do I begin? Born in Cameroon to parents who took the plunge into the world of academia long before I was conceived, I was raised not only to believe in but also value the importance of having a good and well-rounded education. And so the journey began. Growing up in a home where culture and respect were held to high standards, I inherently took on these values, subsequently equating being shy and quiet to being respectful to elders; as the saying goes “speak, only when spoken to”. Kicking off my education in Cameroon (at an age I cannot even try to remember), and being the shy person that I was, I went to a primary school in a town called Buea where I endured a lot. Getting good grades was the least of my worries as I had to contend with a fellow student who made it his life mission to make my stay miserable as he bullied me every day. Going to school during that time was a daily struggle for me as I knew the constant bullying that awaited me upon my arrival in class. Not only would he make me tell him the answers to the work given to us in class, but he would also hit my head against the wall on occasion. Pregnant at that time, our teacher couldn’t be bothered with my situation when I would take it up to her. She would simply reply “tell him to stop”; as if that were enough. Hence, being the shy and reserved person that I was (with him being older than me and me valuing respect), I found myself unable to stand up for myself and do something about my bully. I could not even bring myself to tell my parents about my predicament. This resulted in me quietly enduring his hurtful disdain towards me which consequently took a toll not only on my self-esteem and confidence but also on how I viewed myself. All I could do was quietly hope and pray that he would someday lose interest and stop his torments. Joy and peace came at last when my father got a job at the University of Botswana and he took us all with him. This was going to be a fresh start for me, free of bullying and I could finally smile.

Arriving in Botswana was exciting for me; it was a new place and I had finally gotten rid of my bully and was looking forward to making new friends. Little did I know that a different kind of bullying awaited me. I enrolled in a school called BAOBAB and kicked of the term to a good start – winning the class rosette in the first week for teaching the class a new song. I began to make some friends (3) with whom we later on became a clique. This, coupled with winning the class rosette for a second time, gave my self-esteem a well-needed boost. However, before I knew it, my self-esteem was once again kicked in the guts with the start of a new form of bullying; why couldn’t they leave me in peace and not in pieces? Being an outsider (better termed as “makwerekwere”) who had just come and has already received the class rosette two weeks in a row, is making friends and was made the captain of the school Netball team, many were not happy about these turn of events and so the bullying started. I remember always being last to be picked when playing in teams during recess; that is if I were lucky to be picked as there were times when I was not picked at all as “miraculously”, we were sometimes uneven in numbers and they would just not bother with me at all. I was the unwanted leftover. It was either that or I was forced to be first in line when it came to activities that they were not particularly interested in participating in. I also remember once asking a fellow classmate of mine for his sharpener and he said no; as if I were going to eat it. I cried and reported him to the teacher who was baffled by my reaction yet kindly pleaded with him to give me his sharpener. This did not make matters easier for me as I was now being ridiculed by the class as a “cry baby”. Taking on Gender Studies in the future as one of my majors for my undergraduate degree, (through the help of intersectionality) I would later on come to understand how my lived experiences in Botswana were influenced by my positionality as an outsider.

Next came Senegal; after four years in Botswana, we relocated to Senegal. Not knowing a word in French, I went to my new school Ecole Actuelle Bilingue (where the teaching is in French), mentally preparing for the new wave of bullying that I knew I was going to experience. I was, yet again, going to be an outsider. However, to my great surprise and happiness, things took a turn for the better; I was finally being accepted. My identity as an outsider was no longer a handicap which resulted, more often than not, in me being tossed to the side by individuals who could not be bothered by me. Friends and lasting memories were the end result of my acceptance in Senegal.

At the tender age of 10 (one year into my stay in Senegal), I was deemed “ripe” for boarding school by my parents who then began “grooming” me. Enrolled in “How to Take Care of Yourself 101” (taught by my mother), I began learning how to clean, do laundry and iron as these were not services provided at the boarding school in Cameroon (which I was to attend). I also needed to learn how to stand up for myself as the motto for boarding school was “any man for himself and God for us all”; this was survival of the fittest. Throughout my grooming, the dreaded moment came – I had to shave off my hair as my boarding school did not allow the growing of hair. I considered my hair as a key component of my identity, so allow me to tell you why this was a dreaded moment for me which resulted in a bucket of tears on my part.

Growing up, to say that I loved Barbie would be an understatement. She was my role model; I woke up with her and I went to bed with her. The long silky blonde flowy locks, the long slender legs, the trim figure, the blue eyes; I wanted nothing more than to be like her. Barbie was my definition of beauty and in my opinion, her hair played an integral role in that. Her hair was not a kinky afro but rather long and flowy, which made my decision to put chemicals in my hair (so as to achieve this look) a “no-brainer”. I wanted to be beautiful just like she was hence every three months I would retouch my hair and leave the relaxer in as long as I possibly could (even when I felt the burn). That did not matter to me as after all, beauty was pain and I wanted that at all cost – no pain, no gain. Looking back on this now, I will definitely say that little Emmanuella did not see the role of society and the media in how I thought and was being gendered. In my little mind, women needed hair to be beautiful, so I would feel so sad for any woman I saw who did not have hair. In my eyes, she was not pretty enough and that was a sad thing. Not having hair not only meant that she was not pretty enough, but she would also have a hard time finding a man to marry; after all, being married and having children was the end goal and requirement as a woman. Women were meant to do this; they were made for this. From this thinking, cutting my hair not only meant that I will no longer be pretty, but it also meant that I will have a hard time finding a man who would want me. This made me feel less of a woman.

The hair was eventually cut, tears were shed and I was “shipped” off to boarding school. Scared and alone, I retreated to my shy ways and kept to myself for the first couple of days. However, that all changed when a classmate of mine told me that I looked pretty. That comment shocked me as I did not think that I looked pretty without hair; yet she did and that was the start of a new friendship and many more to come. Slowly but surely, I began to see myself in a different light and finally came to accept that you can look and I was pretty without any hair. This was new to me and I started mold my identity without my hair as a factor though it still had some hold on me.

Seven years went by and I was finally done with boarding school, leaving with both an O and A level certificate; I was proud of myself for having made it through. Leaving boarding school in June 2011 meant the start of a new phase – University, which also meant that I was finally free to grow my hair back. I could not begin to tell you how much I looked forward to this, even if I tried. I was excited to grow silky long locks (like Barbie’s) through the help of chemical relaxers that were dangerous to my scalp. Growing my hair natural was not an option to me as my opinions of kinky hair were influenced by the media and society’s derogatory and negative perceptions of Africans. In their eyes and subsequently in my eyes, our natural hair was unruly, untamed, primitive, ugly and unprofessional. Hence for three years after leaving boarding school, I subjected myself to the constant relaxing of my hair in an attempt to achieve that silky hair which I so desperately craved; my chase for beauty never relinquished.

However, throughout these 3 years, something happened; my perception of beauty began to change. This was influenced by introduction to Gender Studies whereby a gendered lens was given to me and I was finally “woke”; I took a step back and began to analyze the role and influence of the media and socially constructed structures towards my lived experiences. I started watching YouTube videos on natural hair and both admired and envied these women who had freed themselves from their puppet master (society) and began to form their own identity and perceptions of themselves and beauty; this was empowering to me. Consequently in July 2014, I made the decision to have my last relaxer and transition to natural hair; I was finally attempting to break free and this was exciting to me. Two years down the line and I am still natural and loving it.

This is my story; or at least some part of it. It is quite hard to put yourself on a piece of paper in a few pages as you struggle to choose what part of your life to write on and what part to discard. As I tried to give a glimpse into my life on paper, I began to realize just how much of a role the media and social institutions play in governing and dictating our lives and individual lived experiences, of course as a result of our positionality. As a woman, I am gendered to be docile, soft-spoken, subordinate and gentle. These attributes were all reflected in my predicament with my bully in the primary school in Buea. One can also see the role of the media in simultaneously controlling and empowering me in different instances; controlling as it informs my perceptions of beauty and pushing me to strive for it, and empowering as it gives me the permission to venture towards natural hair. With this, I think I can safely end with the quote “man was born free but lives in chains”.

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