Food brings people together on many different levels. It is nourishment of the soul and the body; it is truly love
– Giada De Laurentiis
At AJANI Handmade, we aim to not only run a successful business but to create platforms for dialogue and access to spaces of interaction to empower, uplift, support and engage young African women. AJANI Handmade collaborated with AM Cafe to jointly organize an event on the 13th of September 2014- “Our Saturday Social”. As a collaborative initiative, we aim to facilitate a series of informal dialogues that will empower, create access and provide safe and inclusive spaces for women while connecting them with other women, startup owners and established social entrepreneurs.
Maggie Muthama is the founder of AM Café, a social enterprise that sells baked goods and is founded on principles of inclusivity in socio-economic spaces (Read more about them here). Maggie and I initially bonded over our experiences with hair and by realising just how much our self image played critical roles in our own lives, we decided to jointly host a participatory dialogue event that brought together 8 women over conversation and some good food. We settled on a theme for discussion; “Women & Self Image, where this stems from and how it directly affects our interactions in social and economic circumstances to initiate the series.
We kicked off the session by asking each participant to define what self image constituted for them in terms of how they viewed their attractiveness, intelligence and capabilities.
THE ROOT OF THE MATTER
One lady described her experiences growing up, and how, sharing a childhood with other children with skin tones in various tones of brown, she realized that the children with the lightest skin tones got all, if not all, of the attention and commentary on their beauty by the adults. While she was never called ugly, the lack of recognition of her beauty led her to correlate her skin tone to the lack of acknowledgement of her beauty. The experience was the same growing up when she realized that the idea that fairer skin was viewed to be more attractive when the same thing happened in her social interactions with boys and later on with men. Her idea of beauty and ultimately the root of the problem was shaped not by what was said to the other girls but essentially by what was not said to her.
Similar experiences were shared with other participants who described their experiences with bad eating habits to fit into this size quota that was considered beautiful in the cultural context that she was in at the time .For another participant, these came in the form of patronizing comments that were usually intended to be endearing but only ended up belittling her, well because she was “too little.”
For all three ladies, it was at some point in their adulthood that they realized that something that they could not change could not be the basis of what others placed their value and worth on when they knew they had much more to offer as individuals. After all, all the things that others believed were beautiful were all things they were not. When they discovered that beauty was relative, they realised that the meanings of beauty were open to be whatever they chose for it to be. It was through these realisations that they all took ownership of what beauty meant to them and began to see their confidence manifested itself in various contexts in their lives.
As a group of African women, we agreed that we collectively felt left out of social representations of beauty through the messages, images and ideas that were put out there by the media, our families, our histories and our society as a whole. Our localised experience of beauty with the media in Kenya was moulded around a template that was not representative of our own. This shared and collective exclusion led us to look for our identities and acknowledgment in the roles that we could play. We did not see too many physical representations of ourselves out there but what we did see often were very limited representations of what we could be ( a mother, a wife), and everything else we hoped to do would be matched up by the success that we illustrated in these roles. A woman’s success and value in society was defined by the socially drawn out roles that she played rather than who she was. The idea that your performance as a successful wife and mother was what translated to the highest form of success you could achieve as an individual was taken to be truth. That your achievements outside this, i.e career could be further validated by fitting into these boxes, or that it could somehow be devalued by your lack thereof was a reality many lived. Because of this, marriage and motherhood was something that we all worked towards and believed we were built for, and because of this, we raised, and to some extent, still continue to raise girls and women to aspire to “fit” into these boxes that were created for us to exist in. Without taking away from critical roles that mothers and wives play in society, we must also make space for women whose choices exist outside these spaces in turn making spaces for limitless other valuable contributions women can make to society.
One of our participants described her experiences of growing up as the perfect girl; perfect in her behaviour, her educational achievements, her career, perfect in that she was the one that did exactly what was expected of her, by others. In her adulthood, after doing something that she believed surprised those around her, she realized that perfection was a ridiculous expectation that no one could possibly achieve. In realizing that her constant effort to achieve perfection and please others in the things that she did, she was neglecting to do things that would fulfill her and grow her, she started living for the things that gave her self-fulfilment. After all, the life she was living was hers, not everyone elses, it only then made sense that she lived for, and according to her terms.
COMPROMISING THE SELF
Taking from the example above, we started discussing how the habits we form out of expectation can at times keep us in a state of self-compromise. In the example above, the lady was psychologically compromising who she was and what she wanted in order to “perform” her role successfully. But what about the habits that seem more shallow, mundane? Growing up, my idea of hair care revolved around relaxing or braiding my hair. That was it. That was what you did to look presentable and beautiful. The idea that I had the option of letting my hair grow out of my head, as it does naturally, without resorting to some sort of treatment or process to manipulate it to a completely different texture and style was absolutely absurd.
About 5 years ago, while living alone away from the luxuries of regular hair treatments, I had a horrible experience with a relaxer that left me with a palm sized wound on my scalp. I was accustomed to getting minor burns from time to time the regular relaxer, but this was the worst experience yet. My hair fell out in clumps, I shampooed the relaxer a record ten times while watching my hair slide down my body in clumps, eventually clogging the drain. It was what nightmares were made of. While recounting the experience to a friend of mine, she simply asked me “But why did you do that Sharon?” And I looked at her like she was completely out of her mind, after all, she was a fellow black African, she knew the processes it took to look half decent, our hair was meant to be “fixed”, I mean, she too straightened her hair, although she used heat. So I responded “Well, that’s just what you do, either straighten or braid it, those are the options”. She then asked, “Who said that those were the only options? What would happen if you just let it be?” I was left speechless. I had no answer. My hair had been something that was constantly manipulated for as long as I remember, so that it looked “presentable” “pretty”, because for some reason, in its natural state was – not? That thought stopped me dead in my tracks. I had formed these habits without a second thought, willingly endured “minor” scalp burns or painful braiding that gradually thinned out my hairline to live up to an ideal that was completely unnatural to how I was. At this point I had a long think about the fact had been exposing myself to physical harm (that in this instance turned severe) out of ignorance. I was so accustomed to compromising my true physical self, subconsciously apologising for the texture of my hair through habits like these. I wondered about what other habits I unquestioningly carried on with that may have been chipping away at me, psychologically or otherwise. Needless to say, that was my last relaxer.
QUESTIONING OUR REALITIES AND SELF- REFLECTING
Alice, one of the participants pointed out just how important the question “WHY” in leading me to a journey of personal self reflection. That, in questioning why we do the things that we do in a manner of habit and routine, we will be lead to a discovery of previously unquestioned realities that are at times harmful to us in one way or another. By constantly asking “why”, we are led to understand “how” we can change or adapt new thoughts, practices and habits.
In a state of constant journey, it was also pointed out that the journey does not only constitute of discovering and learning new lessons, but unlearning old, damaging ones. This can at times prove to be a much more difficult hurdle to cross as many of these damaging ideas, ideals and notions have subconsciously, deeply been embedded in us by repetition, routine and time.
It was brought up that at times, the avenues that are used by women to journey to positive self-discovery at times seem to work against rather than for us. An example of this was a lady who described her experience of being at a crossroads within her spiritual journey. Using spirituality (which is often tied in with religion) to guide herself, she found that the support given to men within that spiritual (or rather religious) institution differed to that given to women, that the guidance she received tended to focus on gendering her spiritual role. This posed a problem for her as she thought by spiritual guidance, her spiritual identity would not be based wholly on the identities that she takes in the physical and social world. In her experience, she stated that the “promises of better” that women, or rather she seemed to be alluded to revolved around relationships; “Your marriage will be restored, pray for a good man to start a family with” while the men’s blessings sounded a little something like “Your business will be blessed” But what about her business? she wanted hers to blessed too! Doesn’t it deserve some sort of acknowledgement? Why didn’t they make equal reference to the men needing restoration on their marriages and good wives too? In her space of spiritual discourse, she felt as if her value was characterized by how she fit into a gendered role. It was at this point she realised that she had to redefine what route her spiritual journey was going to take
It was at this point in the conversation that we came to an understanding that a positive self-image was a continuous journey rather than a destination, it was discussed that self understanding came with the realisation that the meanings of self had to be determined not by situation or circumstance but by what it was that defined us at the core of ourselves.
FEAR AS A DRIVING FORCE
Chepkemboi, co-director of an online social marketplace, Uberduka shared her experience in entrepreneurship, she explained how, at the beginning, fear was something that she constantly had to deal with, Time after time, she encountered intimidating situations and people, but realised that time and time again, for her to move forward, she had to face her fears but just doing it. Over time, as she grew and progressed fear turned into adrenaline, and she couldn’t get enough of it. At certain points in our journey, we have to let fear be the reminder that it is that step that will take us higher, fear becomes a good thing, friend, not foe.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Alice left us with a tidbit that we all agreed would be a great starting point moving forward. Taking out a few minutes out of each day to reflect on your position as an individual in the realities around you. Using such times of reflection to question our realities, ask the “whys” to get to the “hows”of bettering ourselves for ourselves and determinedly for those around us. Njoki, an outreach and partnerships coordinator concluded the session by adding that by opening spaces of honestly to share these reflections outside ourselves, we can begin healing and journeying collectively as a society. It is only by addressing these questions that we can start discovering the questions that remain unasked.
It was a great afternoon filled with refreshing conversation that we believe all our guests benefited from. We aim to host number of conversations around this and other topics, documenting them and eventually sharing them with others who can join the discussion, participate and benefit from the same. We recognize that the more conversations like these are had and shared, the more access to information is available to a wider range of people. Stay tuned.
For more information about some of the women and entrepreneurs featured at the event, see the links below:
SARAH MATINDI- coordinator at MEGEN (Men for Gender Equality Now), a network of men and women activists who engage in community education work, advocacy and campaigning in order to challenge unequal gendered power relations.
CHEPKEMBOI MANG’IRA- creative director at Uberduka, an online social marketplace for business owners and buyers alike
NJOKI NGUMI- outreach and partnerships coordinator at The NEST, a Kenyan multidisciplinary art space.
GRACE MUMBI- Trainee baker and AM Cafe member.
MUKAMI RUORO- creative director at Kihuruta, a brand of handcrafted afro-contemporary jewelry pieces and African inspired home decor items
ALICE MUTHAMA- founder and director at Kopa tree, an accessible money lending organisation that offers single digit interest payback rates.
MAGGIE MUTHAMA- founder and director of AM Cafe, a baking business aimed at women between the ages of 18 and 29 to help them engage with social economics