I am an heiress to life
in the fullest of its forms.
To full-bellied laughter and
places and people in which to find
refuge and respite.
I am expansive,
corrosive to terror,
conducive to love,
worthy of death and of resurrection
an ambient vessel of hope.
I am crowned in light
soiled by play
attuned to wonders of my soul.
Holding worlds you will never imagine if you try.
I am quietly becoming
slowly taking root
sinking deep, reaching high
Stretching over life's terrain
Etching myself onto its far-reaching plains.
I am healing,
ever taking shape.
I am here,
housing life and all of its chaos.
Takondwa Priscilla Semphere
My village is a dusty part of a world tucked away in the outskirts of a city in the middle of a slowly painful and painfully slow expansion. As I begin writing this piece, I'm sitting in the middle of swirling smoke from the open fire that my cousin, Nelia, a dark girl with a Chewa lilt in her tongue, is tending to. We are unveiling a tombstone today of a family member who passed away a while ago. As typically happens in my family, our dead are buried without a tombstone. Most times for financial reasons, but sometimes, as my mother explained to me, because the dirt in which they are buried must sink into place before the stone is laid on top of it. I ask my mother if, perhaps, the burying is left incomplete so that the death must similarly sink into the hearts of the bereaved. She concurs.
Between stirring the pot of rice she is making, Nelia is talking my ear off about some cousin or another whose wedding is this same afternoon. It is a scandal of the sort that causes waves of gossip in the village, a mild abomination that celebration happen concurrently with commemoration of loss. Nelia narrates it with a tone sporting feigned outrage and blatant delight over gossip. Her dress is threadbare, her hair covered up in a faded doek.
Around us, a bustle of aunts, first and second and third cousins, once and twice and thrice removed. Shoeless, braless, smiling, laughing, stirring, chopping, casting furtive glances at me as I sit here with my cellphone, listening. I am self-conscious and perched, rather uncomfortably, on my knees on a Mkeka as I wait for a one of my cousin-aunts to finish off with the one knife we have in circulation so that I have a go at the pile of cabbages that sit fatly in the the flat basket in front of me. So, admittedly to escape the discomfort of being gazed-upon and discussed in hushed whispers- the ‘cousin from town’, whose cosmopolitan upbringing renders her useless in the domestic domain- I am writing this.
It's difficult for me to write this place, to put it to paper. Without feeling complicit to depicting only certain parts of Us- the parts that are systemically and socio-economically broken. Without confronting the disparity that has it so that I can for and of my cousins, most of whom could not write for and of themselves if afforded the chance.
On the one hand, they are dressed in threadbare clothes, those who are wearing shoes are wearing mended and re-mended shoes. But on the other hand, what does it matter, and to whom, and to what end, that they do not? I feel like paying none of this any mind- I feel the need to describe them not with what they do not have, but more with what they do. But this feels inorganic. It feels forced and untrue to speak of abundance when lack is the order of the day.
Contemplating class, then, becomes as strange an affair as there ever was. Strange because when I'm abroad, I have the most I've ever had in my life, but I feel poorest. The converse is true for home where, while by no means a part of the wealthy class, I FEEL the richest. My life is spent ping-ponging between different throngs of class. At the very top (within the bounds of my socio-economic world) on one end- conspicuously wealthier than my cousins in the village- and at the very bottom on the other- an international student on an almost full financial aid package in one of the most selective liberal arts colleges in America. The rest of the time is spent in between.
Am I socio-economically privileged? Where is the tipping point between being unfairly advantaged over someone else, and their being deprived of necessary capital; social, economic and otherwise? Do I have too much, or do they have too little? Does this capitalist, neocolonial world leave me endowed with more privilege than I should ideally have, or does it leave others inhumanely deprived? How much is enough? What is the threshold for wealth? At what point are we rich, at what point are we poor, and in what ways does the presence of the other define what group we are to belong to at any point?
Would love to hear your thoughts!
And then one day,
When the calm had settled in,
I picked up all the fragments of my soul,
Gathered them inside the span of my tired arms,
Vowed, with a tongue raw from the taste of apologies,
To make no more room for fickle love,
love that crumbles under the very weight of me.
And on that day, I determined
That my worth was not found in anybody’s possession of me,
Or any body’s possession of mine-
I did not exist to be had.
(We do not exist to be had).
That I was a wide canyon brimming over with laughter and with light,
Resounding with echoes of kindness;
To self, to foe, to maybes and to certainties.
I determined that I was held forever in love;
That in love, I lived, in love, I breathed, and in love, I had my very being.
And in my weakness, I found strength.
And in my strength, I found my song.
And by its melody, the healing echoed out into my bones.
And on that day,
with my tears aflow,
I ventured once more into life
Apologized only as necessary,
Grew at home within myself and,
told all the stories of all my loves
With a tone the colour of joy.
Pay me no mind,
for I will tell you only things
that will kill your will to love.
I will speak truths and lies
like they're the same.
I will recount my loss
rehash my pain
embellished in drama.
I'll give only my version of events.
These bodies of us are famished, these souls are parched, these spirits are prowling, these hearts have grown cold. We are never enough, never deserving, but somehow worthy. Always worthy. Sometimes, when we've been lazy, we've told good men that our hearts were not "at peace", that we didn't her a holy voice call down from the heavens, command the seas of our bleeding souls to part and instruct us to go forth, on dry land.
Love is sticky,
There is nothing inherently miraculous about the choice to love. It is a logical, economical step to take when you're twenty-three and uncertain about the direction of your life. You leave your door ajar and give yourself permission to find something to love about the next decent person who walks in. Not because they're enough, or deserving, but because you've made strange peace with companionship divorced from inspiration.
When my friend Mma recently visited a gynecologist in the United States, the woman examining her told her that the process was going to hurt, but since she was from Africa, she must be used to it. I really wish I could say I was horrified when Mma recounted the incident, but I wasn’t. Instead, I slipped into momentary torpor, and as my system rebooted itself, my mind scrunched the incident up and tossed it into the ever-brimming recycle bin of Trashy Things Westerners Say to Africans Abroad (TTWSTAA).
TTWSTAA are exactly the sorts of things that gave steam to movements like #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou a couple of years ago. Photographs of skyscrapers, white beaches, and luxury resorts from around the continent pop-corned all over my timeline. I liked them. I shared them. I, too, was going to change Africa’s image in The West, one triumphant hashtag at a time. But as time has passed, I've grown weary of what I now feel are the misdirected attempts that many of us make at “fixing Africa’s image” to The West.
Don't get me wrong- there is immense value in that has come out from our efforts to present ourselves as a dignified people. The impulses that drive our efforts are understandable and extremely justified. We've had a pathetically long history of Africa being cast as everything from war-torn, to disease-ridden, to (according to Mma's doctor) teeming with girls who are used to having their lady parts probed with metallic objects. It’s understandable that we’ve grown frustrated. However, as frustrating as it is, I am through with trying to fix the image. Here's why:
1. Africa's Parasocial Relationship With the West.
America enjoys a level of notoriety on the world’s stage that makes it the epicenter many of the world's aspirations. The geopolitical, social and economic power it holds make much of the world look to it, learn about it, consume its films, and its music, all the whiles aspiring to end up on its screens, in its schools, and in its corporations. The American Dream is, in a lot of ways, the third world’s dream. Every Nambian child dreams of the day when they will frolic on the gold-paved streets of this country. Many people in the world gaze towards The West with intense longing (this is, of course, not true for everyone out there but please, go with me). What results is an imbalance. The relationship between America and my neck of the woods is parasocial, i.e. “a one-sided relationship where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the persona, is completely unaware of the other's existence.” It’s a tragic brand of unrequited affection. In a social sense, the West does not know us. Not beyond the general way a celebrity has a concept that their fans exist. Regardless of their economic dependence on many of our countries (don’t flinch, you read that correctly), we are obscure fragments at the peripheries of their consciousness. And insofar as it has nothing to gain, America (read, “The West”) has no need to learn about us, or about the fact that we don’t live in trees. Whether or not we live in trees is of little importance, and makes no livable difference in the realities of the inhabitants of the West. The result? A whole army of Africans ready to teach and correct perceptions about an Africa that few Westerners care to learn about. This is why I am done trying.
Our Image May Not Really Be What We’re Trying to Fix
The more I think about it, the more I realize that what our attempts at fixing Africa’s tarnished image really are trying to do is reclaim dignity. There’s something that happens to your very sense of self when someone regards you as inferior in your appearance, knowledge or skillets because of where you call home. It's a preposterous reduction that's made of us, and it is justified that we want to push back against it. As noble as these attempts are, however, they are often misdirected and reduced to superficial indicators of ‘progress’, like how many skyscrapers we do or no not have, or how English, French or some other colonial language is our official language. The truth is, all these things that we offer up as evidence are simply meant to reinforce the fact that we are deserving of dignity. But they can be harmful, because dignity is much more than a towering building with ninety-eight floors.
Ignorance Mutates Into More Insidious Forms
In my brief experience of America, I’ve noticed that ignorance in The West can evolve and get replaced by a more subtle evil- quieter, more 'positive’ generalization of Africans that de-complicates them in the same way that negative stories do. There is something insidiously archetypal when someone overestimates your abilities for the same reason that their counterparts might underestimate you. You begin to feel like a generic product of a fixed equation- a certainty that comes out at the other end, all things held constant. Things like “African students are always hard working”. “African students sacrifice so much to be here.” "African women are so strong". Africans are this or that, and nothing in between. I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but African students are not all hard working. Some are lazy. Others are exceptional and greater than your faves. Other’s are just your average Thokozani trying to make ends meet.
We are a textured people- we embody every facet of what it means to be human. This generic overestimation is a subtlety that is so difficult to contest that it tires me to even think of trying to fix it. Ignorance isn't just about what you do not know about a place. It's more insidious than that. It is a posture, a disposition that informs the very ways anybody interacts with the persons and places that they're ignorant about.
Who directly benefits from Africa’s fixed image, and at whose expense?
I wrote a couple of years ago about The Africa We’re Ashamed Of. You know, the parts that follow the “I’m From Africa But” statements. E.g. “I’m from Africa but I don’t live in a hut,” or “I’m from Africa but I’m not dying of AIDS.” My greatest concern with this is that while it’s intended to tell a different story, it does so at the expense of the very real lived experiences of many on the African continent. The result of this is that it paints a one-dimensional image of the African continent that is not at all concerned with acknowledging and dealing with some of our harshest realities, but is obsessed with inflating the often superficial and materialistic aspects of it to overshadow them. This means there is no dignity in living in a hut, or living with HIV/AIDS despite the socio-economic, political and societal constraints (and in many other cases, without them). I think our energy is best spent on affecting Africa’s reality- not just its image. Let's carefully interrogate whose gaze, whose benefit, and whose cost goes into our efforts to "fix the Image of Africa".
And Finally, As Evidenced by 45's 'Nambia', The West might (read "will probably") never learn
The West might never regard Africa as an actual place with actual human beings with actual lives, complexities, desires, vices, motivations, quirks, nuances and intellect. It may never see us as people. It may never care or advocate on our behalf for as long as that advocacy does not suit its own agenda. TTWSTAA are probably not ending anytime soon, and I see no need for spending my energy on rectifying and educating people who might simply never get it.
I am happy to engage with those who are open, those whose posture is angled towards learning. Learning that doesn't cost me my dignity, or cast them as the benevolent westerner who condescends to learn about me, even though they don't have to. Learning that isn't tokenizing, that is dignifying. (No ma'am- you don't get points for "getting it" because you worked in the Peace Corps in Uganda). I am open to being a part of what changes people's perceptions of my continent, but it's no longer my life's mission- it is a welcome byproduct of my efforts to do stuff for and to home. Quite frankly, I am blissfully unbothered if, in 2017, you still think I live next door to Mufasa. Joke's on you- your people went and told you those lies, not me. That is not my mess to fix, thank you very much.
Now, if you will excuse me, I'm gonna ride my pet zebra on out of here and call it a day.
I'm Malawian. A non-immigrant alien according to America's official books (fun, fun, fun). I'm JHFC- Just Here For College. I was having a conversation with some friends about the one-dimensional portrayal of Africans in Netflix's Dear White People. Tbvh with you, the recurring colossal failure of hollywood to properly capture Africans is a conversation I'm tired of, so i'm not really going to go there today. The issue is, I'm writing this 20 page paper for a Global Migration seminar about the multiplicity of blackness in America and the misconstrued conflation of immigrant black African people and American black people. As you might imagine, this sort of paper has me drawing up a binary of sorts, and although I'm trying hard to write about the insidious nature of this conflation in that it subsumes a vast array of realities into this mainstream understanding of blackness in America, I find myself guilty of other also insidious sorts of conflated thinking. Like the fact that there's this one "flavour" of blackness my paper seems to be suggesting is the reality in America. Or that African immigrants are, themselves, one group with similar experiences and identity politics (and political identities)- as if we (or they, since I'm a non-immigrant JHFC alien) are all wired the same, all come from the same place, all identify strongly as "African", and undergo the same process of Coming To [terms with] America. If I'm honest, the paper is worth contention, but if it's been useful for anything besides earning me my final grade, I think it's raised a lot of questions about representation.
Specifically, I'm thinking about the ways in which African immigrants themselves (and non-immigrant JHFC aliens) are incredibly diverse, yet certain narratives are, for various reasons, at the fore of our discourse on being black African immigrants. For example, your favourite Instagram comedian who's blazed the trail for all those "You Know Your Parents Are African When," etc is probably Nigerian. So is your go-to black brit blogger. The crazy part is, besides culturally-specific things like jollof and egusi soup, much of it strikes an African chord inside us. We see the gorgeous vlogger with her very Nigerian mother and we see shards of our Malawian Ma in her as well. And since that's mostly what's out there, we settle in and make our home in this reality of what it means to be African. Ah, yes, the sounds of our ancestral drums are in sync with our hearts and We Are. All. Africa... (-_-)
So what, then, is the use of even alluding to the Nigerianization of black African immigrants (or any such sort of phenomenon?)
See, I'm (maybe not so pioneeringly) theorizing that it happens- it's bound to happen. With any group, one narrative- one representation of an entire cluster of people can and will dominate, and it is precisely these narratives into which the rest of those who belong to the larger broader group with these people will be subsumed. By this logic, for all blacks in America, American blackness is blackness. For all black African immigrants (and non-immigrant JHFC aliens) in America, Nigerian Africanness is Africanness. In this case, all other smaller groups must fit into the rubrics of blackness or Africanness as defined by the more dominant group in order to gain social capital. The cup simply goes to those with the most social, economic, socio-economic, geopolitical, socio-political etc etc capital and lezbehonest, my friends- Malawi. Simply. Ain't It Fam. Not by a thousand kilometers.
So what do we do with this, then? Is any sort of visibility enough? Both in the sense of "oh look, Hollywood has an African in this film, but he's pretty dull and talks funny and keeps plopping your classic www.brainyquote.com 'African Proverb' in every other sentence (#ItTakesAVillage)" and in the sense of "oh look, this is such a Nigerian vine but as a Zambian, I mostly relate, so I'm down with it. Is any representation better than none at all?
p/s After I conducted some 'field research' in a group chat and asked, "do you think it's better to be visible, even if it's just stereotypes, or to be invisible?" my friend just hit me with this deep:
"But who are you being seen by. Aren't the only eyes that matter yours? Lol"
Mind=Blown. She's too conscious for this simple life of mine.
A Notice Of Your Art
So you have learned to write. You have learned to tuck yourself away in times of respite from the toss and turbulence of life, and break yourself into a million pieces. You have learned to pick your fears apart, to study them closely and spin them into wistful prose.
Is it everything you needed? Is your writing met with a love as passionate as yours? A fiery love that waits for this work of your heart and welcomes it in a magnificent explosion of light? Or is there a cold silence that meets your laborious love, greeting it with a devilish grin and reeling it into its wiry arms?
A Nod To All Your Fears:
People do not read your work. People read your work, but they do not respond. People misread your work.
People make no time to read your labours of lengthy contemplation.
People mistake you for a passionless fool who spills her soul on dirty roadsides. Trampled. Flattened. Covered up by the dust of years to be seen only if some strange soul will venture in its excavation.
An Ode to your Frustration:
You are weary and worn like an ill-fitting garment. You are seen only when the masses applaud you, ignored when there is no endorsement of your art.
A Reminder Of Your Place
You are brave for your arrival. You are brave for your mistakes. You are heard when your voice whispers, and they listen when you shout. You are real poetry and lyrical genius in a universe of mimicry. You are a burst of goodness; do not dim your shine. Show up as you are. You are putting truth into the world, and they are out there, listening.
A close friend of mine- S- tells me about the first ever spell of heartbreak in her life. It is a story she has told me time and time again. A heartbreak that unfurled before she and I were close enough to call each-other 'friend'. I am sitting on her carpeted floor on a humid afternoon, twirling my shrunken hair between finger and thumb and fussing about how much hair I've lost in the past few months.
"I can't tell if it's the pain in my heart or the chlorine from my swimming class, S," I say, sighing heavily, fingering my hair in frustration. For much longer than I can be at ease with, I have begun to notice tufts of hair slip into my hands and slide down my body into the drain while I shower. For much longer than my pride would like me to admit, my heart has been grieving. If this grief is a song, my hair is right in tune with the melody, falling on cue with the sad notes of my misery. The days have fluttered by like sickly moths and my hair has thinned out, bit by bit. There's been nothing to be done about it except watch in despair as my body weeps. In this moment as I sit there, my mind weaving in and out of memories of when my hair was once thick with life, a quiet anger is my companion.
S looks me over with knowing eyes. She recognizes my agony for she, too is steeped in it. In the past while or so, mere months within one another, we'd both loved, much sooner than either of us had thought was even possible. We'd both felt it was right, that the object of our respective affection was a kiss blown from heaven's throne. In this moment as I sit there, we've both been badly burned and are still asking God Whys and Hows and To-What-Ends.
"Give it time," she says, as much for her own benefit as for my own. We talk a little more about my hair and somehow, as conversations are known to, our chatter meandered off to something distant and unrelated.
S tells me about her first pain of this sort, about how she'd cried and cried. She tells me again about how it was in the midst of these tears that she'd began to know God in a whole different light. She hadn't asked for it- she hadn't known to. It'd just happened. He just suddenly become real to her in the thick of her pain.
I'm in awe as she narrates this, a story that I have heard several times now. I do not know, in that moment, that weeks later I'll stumble across something Audrey Assad said, that "suffering is redemptive". That I'll marvel at the simplicity of that truth and the anchoring gravity of it. As I sit there in awe, she says something that I go on to store in the compartments of my mind where I keep thoughts I intend to revisit.
"I cried for months, and then one night, I couldn't cry over it anymore, so I cried because my grief was coming to an end." This struck something in me. The fact that we can grow so intimate with our mourning that when the healing begins to come, we begin to feel like we're losing a part of ourselves. When the our companionship with pain has it so that the wholeness we've been praying for feels like a new loss in itself.
This is how I've been feeling lately. I do have tears left to cry, but this far they have only come at my expense, so I am not crying anymore. I have realized that the only way to carry on is to accept what was, what is, and give myself fully to what will be. This means that the tears have to stop flowing in that direction. This means that the lethargy, which has trickled into many aspects of my life and has been born of a poisonous sense of inadequacy, has to leave. This means that I must pray, as much as I've pursed my lips and kept my eyes averted from the heavens. It has but also has not been a spiritual defiance. It has been a grief that's a sort of quick-sand, and I've been kicking and screaming and sinking deeper. I've realized that I must be still and wait patiently for help. I must trust that my cry will be heard- that it has been heard. That I will be lifted out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and mire. That my feet will be set on solid ground. That I will be steadied as I walk along. That I will be given a new song of praise to sing. That many will see what has been done for me and be amazed, and that their trust will be placed in the one who does it all for me. (Ps 40:1-4) For now, I pray that my lips will be unsealed, so that I may sing praises. (Ps 51:15)
I'm not crying anymore and that frightens me in many ways. I am angry. Angry because there's a silence that I'm deeply uncomfortable with- one that's characterized my loss all this while- one I want to go away, because this silence breeds more questions in my mind that I'm tired of asking. The silence has led to my silence. I haven't written. I haven't prayed. That's unlike me, and that's toxic. I'm angry because like everyone, I want to be heard, I want my pain acknowledged, I want to make peace, and I was given none of this. I am angry because I made mistakes in the past and hurt people and it's only now, that I was hurt, that I understand the extent of that. It is riding me with guilt, with a retroactive self-condemnation. I want to go back and repent, but it feels like too little much too late.
Isn't human nature wicked? The fact that we must experience something, or draw some connection between that thing and ourselves, to truly empathize? To truly be compassionate? To truly repent?
But anyway, it looks like there's going to be good coming out of this. So if you need it, that means you'll heal. You will. The healing might come in small, discreet doses that come with side-effects of their own or it might come out of nowhere and take you by surprise- all at once when you rid yourself of everything that reminds you of everything and finally begin to loosen your grip and trust God to make beauty out of it. Maybe it will sneak in, or flood in in torrents that leave you drenched.
Whatever the case, the healing will come.
Prayers that would be Hannah-like in their abandon have been jammed at my throat for months now. I have wanted to sob them, the which are wordless grunts and anguished growls, loudly in churches I have grown indifferent to. I have wanted to stomp these prayers in the tightly packed dirt of sidewalks. I have pondered in the darkness of my college dorm room on all the ways that I might pray them out and ease the swelling in my throat. I have pursed my lips, afraid that praying these prayers will mean surrender and require loosening my grip on everything I treasure.
I am believer in everything that's peculiar. I am a believer in God, and in love, and in wombless motherhood. And if rejection is a towering cathedral with weekly services, I am a faithful member of this church. I have been baptized in its murky waters and have lived long days with its bitter benediction as my companion.
I pray that you will heal. I pray that you'll listen to all those songs again without that sickly ache in your heart. I long for your joy, for a laughter that claps out of you untainted by sorrow. I pray that you will see your worth. That you will no longer be bereft, that you will dance over your own existence. That you will remember who you are, and how worthy you are of adoration and of a love that will stay. A love which, torn between the push and pull of life, will still decide to remain, steady and firm like the ground beneath your feet. That you will realize that your being loved is not a distraction. That if heavenly glory was forsaken for your sake, your being loved is not a crippling inconvenience.
Each of us is worthy. Of a Holy sacrifice, of an anchoring love that does not sprout wings and take flight. We are worthy of a love that will invite us in in the midst of life and its frenzy and ask us to sit amidst the madness of it. One that won't treat us like a roadblock, like a detour. One that'll make us part of its daily ritual. One that'll see our beauty and our strength and stand with us in our imperfection. One that prunes and heals and builds and believes in everything we're made to be. One that does not require us to change, but expands with us in the direction of our growth.
No one can condemn us, not even the lack of love. No one can accuse us, not even the departure of a love. Nothing can separate us from this truth, for we are wholly loved with a holy love.