Photo by Arlette Umwali
When she wakes up, she first makes up; before doing anything else even before praising her God or cursing her parents for giving her such an ugly and old-fashioned name, Marguerite. The oval mirror on the nightstand table is a regular companion because it’s the first thing that her mind thinks about; it is the first object that her dark-skinned hand touches.
Marguerite came to Kigali seven years ago; she flew from a rural life that was not challenging the highbrow she was meant to be. She ran away from a life that would have surely brought her to be a rural primary school teacher’s wife. That was not Marguerite. She needed to shine like the street lamps decorating the streets of Kigali. She wanted to be …. Her heart burnt when she thinks about all that she wanted to be. The list was so long. She was sure that she wanted to be someone no matter how. She dreamt to be like other girls. Those born in the city, whose skins were normally soft and whose graceful fingers could elegantly wear any nail polish.
She has given up looking at herself in the mirror; it always reflects her shapeless body, her scaly fingers. Those fingers that, back in her native village, have dug the soil before Kigali took her away.
‘I have to be beautiful’ whatever it took, she would defy that image in the mirror.
Men in Kigali love fair complexion; not all but most of them. She has always wondered why as she wanted to catch their eyes’ attention. Neither her fashionable clothes, the provocative make-up nor her expensive hair style gave her the feeling that she was admired enough whenever she passed in the streets of Kigali. Some people would look at her before their gaze shifted to others.
While some women like Marguerite bleach their skin as result of low-self esteem, the dominant explanation for skin brightening is the self-hate linked to black identity. For instance women in Togo practice this to appear important, to look attractive or as a means of job-hunting; these women don’t apply bleaching products as an act of denying the African culture.
According to the 2011 World Health Organization (WHO) report, 77%, 59% 35%, 27% and 27% of women in Nigeria, Togo, South Africa, Mali and Senegal, respectively use skin whitening products on a regular basis.
A research ‘ Buying Racial capital: Skin bleaching and cosmetic surgery in a Globalized World’ done by Mills College proved that urban, educated women in Nigeria, Jamaica, South Africa and other countries bleached their skins for global job competition in order to compete with other naturally light women.
On the other side, Christopher A.D. Charles in his paper, Skin bleaching, Self-Hate and Black Identity in Jamaica, said that Jamaican women bleach their skin because they suffer from self-hate as a result of lingering psychological scars of slavery. Black Jamaican women believe that white and brown people are better than them.
Marguerite’s soul shouts heart-rending cries; it’s a piercing scream that exhibits her thirst for recognition, a desire to quench.
A friend, Anita, good connoisseur of Kigali, once told her that if she wanted to be at the top of the league in the capital, she had to invest in her beauty. She added that it’s expensive to be beautiful. So Marguerite has poured her salary in the cosmetics and fashion although the seeping roof of her parents’ house needs urgent fixing. She has even adjusted her walk; spicing it up with more confidence and a swinging of her hips.
With all the progress that she made, when Anita saw her again, she let out a loud, wounding laughter and asked her:
“Where can you pass in this clean city with such a dark and black skin? Dear, you need to grow up, we are in Kigali!”
This is how Anita brought her to a friend of her friend. She was a cosmetic expert!
She was a tenant of a small cosmetics shop downtown on the quartier commercial street. She looked like an Indian woman with scary green eyes. Marguerite had never seen a black woman with such eyes before. She told them that her soft bright skin used to be dark as the charcoal. Marguerite wanted to be that light because the cosmetic woman was so white! She was “Classy”.
The most commonly used products are mercury, hydroquinone, corticosteroids, soil and other home made solutions.
She explained to Marguerite that she had two choices; the first that would cost her 15,000 Rwandan francs ($21.4) if she just wanted to clean her skin but if it was lightening it; she would spend only $50. She promised to mix a cocktail of chemical products where she would add a “serum” to make them more effective. She showed her a sample of the final result; it looked like a greenish decomposed mayonnaise or a hair relaxer.
The decision was made in Marguerite’s mind. Quickly…
She decided to transform Marguerite, the rural girl, into an urban woman “Maggy”. She chose to change her appearance to cope with the city standards. Using the $ 50 products, it took her less than a month to see the good effect. And she was always visiting Bellesa Africa, the facebook page for impeccable make-up for dark skins.
This issue of skin lightening has profound causes and early studies have shown that even in the first-half of the 20th century women in their early stage of life had a negative image of their skin color.
Back in 1947, the doll study that revolutionized the Self-Hate Thesis was carried out by the Clarks (an African American couple who were psychologists) on black and white school children who were given black and white dolls and asked to choose. The majority of black kids selected white dolls and these researchers assumed that it was because they rejected their black group.
As weeks passed her friends got used to call her Maggy, replacing the undesirable Marguerite. More people looked at her, which encouraged her to use more and more containers of the skin-lightening cream. This had replaced Carolight, the hydroquinone rich body lotion that she had used for the past few years.
Hydroquinone is one of the most effective inhibitors of the formation of melanin by living cells. Which means that hydroquinone destroys this substance that provides pigmentation to human beings’ skins and that protects them from the cancer-causing ultraviolet sun rays.
A study conducted by the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in UK showed that the adverse side-effects associated with the use of hydroquinone include allergic skin inflammation, skin irritation and malignant cancerous tumors.
Only four months later, Maggy had become who she was meant to be: Umukobwa w’i Kigali ukeye! – A true Kigali girl! She felt the desire in men’s looks and women’s regards were full of envy. She got a well paid job at the reception of a telecommunication company and she has even changed her church. She used to be catholic but it was not a youth church, it was for the elders, those who had plenty of time to lose reciting dozens of chaplet.
She joined a new church where only good-looking people came to attend the Sunday service. The majority of them parked luxurious cars outside and they never offered coins to God, they only gave Him notes. This was the world meant for her; the world where her entourage referred to her as a Muzungu– a White.
She felt that she had conquered Kigali, she was shining. Men fought to offer her presents and this flattered her. This was the emotion that she had always searched for: Having men begging her on their knees. She had touched the sky.
Despites this, she couldn’t explain the reason why, she walked with constant anxiety. She kept checking her image in the mirror every morning because she was afraid that side-effects of her cream, black spots or green veins, would appear one day or another. She heard that the worst consequences of hydroquinone included cancer.
Skin bleaching is a relatively cheaper to way to get a light skin in Africa while cosmetic surgery is more common in Western countries. In Africa, brightening started three to four decades ago when naturally black women who considered their blackness as a low status wanted to be socially accepted by the white. For several years, blackness was associated with ugliness. Winthrop D. Jordan in his book ‘ White over Black’ shows that White is connoted with purity, virginity, virtue, beauty, beneficence, God while black is seen as filthiness, sin, baseness, ugliness, evil and devil.
Again research suggests that social status is greater for black women with lighter complexion.
Now that Maggy has tasted the fruitful savor of being someone, she wanted to go back to her village for a three day period. She wanted her mother to be proud of the woman she became.
Once there, she passed by aunt Yvonne’s house; the middle-aged woman didn’t recognize Maggy. She thought that her niece was someone else, perhaps a demon because of her new skin color. She pushed away the expensive clothes Maggy bought for her. The aunt hugged her as if she was a monster that would swallow her if she got any closer.
Maggy consoled herself treating her aunt Yvonne to be a poor uncivilized peasant. The most painful part of her return was to see the desperation in her beloved mother’s eyes and disgust on her father’s face. Her siblings were just curious, wondering how the city could transform Marguerite in such a ‘surprising’ being.
They were not impressed as Maggy expected. Some sensed pity, others just didn’t understand her. She felt hurt, insulted and rejected.
If at least they could know how much she paid to get the confidence she was displaying now. How much effort she had spent on her skin to chase away the low-esteem and self-hate feelings that Kigali had engendered in her heart.
They didn’t allow her to take pictures with her nice smart touch-screen Samsung.
– You have denied us. You became another person; you are no longer my daughter. I can’t recognize you.
Those were the harsh words from Maggy’s father’s mouth. They were wrapped with a good dose of disdain.
Her mother too, was deeply troubled, prompting Maggy to calmly tell her, ‘Mum, don’t worry for me, I am alright. I have everything in my life. I even have a rich fiancé in Kigali.’
Tears dropped down her old cheeks. Maggy knew that it was not due to the smoke from the fire but the pain of seeing the new Marguerite. The bowed woman gave her Saint Marguerite’s life brochure. She reminded her of Saint’s humility. Maggy wanted to explain to her mother that she no longer believed in the catholic preaching.
Instead of three days, she slept in her parents’ house for a night. Back at Kigali, she was wondering what all of this meant to her. Why did she feel beautiful but not joyful? Why this new skin did lead her parents to cry?
The beauty industry in South Africa has made some progress to restore the place black beauty. Some stores, where black people are the majority of clients, are trying to use black or brown mannequins to expose clothes for sale. The power of colorism in the global society is not only affecting black women because the same WHO report clearly shows that a good number of women in China, Malaysia, Philippines, The Republic of Korea, India and more other country do also apply skin lighteners.
Among countries affected by this problem, Gambia, South Africa and recently Ivory Coast has banned the use of these products. But despite severe laws, these products are still sold in some markets.
More efforts are being made for instance a South African doll maker Molemo Kgomo is creating a brand of black dolls, called Ntomb’entle, for African young girls to play and identify with when they grow up.
But more efforts are needed especially from the media to bring people to truly believe that black is beauty. The saddest part of the story is that black people who live in this Barbie World don’t always see the beauty in their beauty. Most of them have unconsciously accepted that thin, light long-haired women are necessary the most attractive. There is still a long way to go to change this mentality.
In Kigali, Maggy heard a high school student screaming to her in a bad joke:
– Look at the Michael Jackson of Kigali.
That night she cried while looking at herself on the mirror. The mirror only showed her the beauty that she had purchased in the expensive creams, the mask that covered her natural complexion.
She cried for making her parents cry and ashamed of the Kigali product she became.
She cried because she understood that she got all the material life she dreamed of but lost her spirituality.
She lost the feeling that God loved her more than anything, she lost His presence. She hitched up paltry search of beauty instead of allowing the mirror to reflect the real beauty, the image that God clothed her in at her birth. She understood that by bleaching her skin, she bleached her dignity, her identity, her family.
When she wakes up, she no longer starts her day with make-up. When she wakes up, she first takes time to hear the birds singing near her window.