The New Direction Is For Young Men

My issue with the previous political party, the APC,  often dubbed as ‘youth-friendly’ because of its political appointments, was the manner in which it only enhanced the political careers of young men. The SLPP's New Direction movement signals a very similar process. Like its predecessor, its recent political appointments very much center on the growth of young men. The rise of 'young men' in government is been conflated for a 'youth-friendly' rise in leadership. The truth however is, this government, like the previous government, is youth-friendly for young men. 

This isn’t just a political party issue, it is social and cultural, speaking to the very fabric of our society. A society very loyal to the centering, enhancing and progression of, middle-aged and young, men. This prioritization is what I like to refer to as  patriarchy unchecked. 

You cannot tell me that in a country where women make up a littler over 50% of the population, meaning  there are statistically more women and girls in country and in the diaspora, that our government is  unable to attract, position and nurture women in political leadership positions. I don’t buy the arguments that a) women don’t come forward b) there aren’t enough educated women c) women aren’t gunning for these positions d) women don’t want this. I don’t buy into the arguments because it is Sierra Leonean women and girls who are the bedrock of our country.  There does exist a plethora of Sierra Leonean women who are highly educated, highly skilled, highly innovative and highly progressive. Yet, we are continually failed. We still face significant barriers to political participation, economic opportunities and in country, we are still disproportionately under-educated with youth female illiteracy rate growing at 1.82%, meaning over 60% +, of our adolescent girls cannot read or write. However, in my six-years of working at community level in Sierra Leone and visiting every district in our country; I've spent time in over 100 hospitals, schools and chiefdom's, I know it is the women who uphold these communities. It is women and girls who bury their dying husbands, brothers and fathers, who find ways to survive when they are abandoned, who keep their families and communities moving - nurtured and alive. It is women, hundreds of women, who worked with a female politician to introduce the safe-abortion bill, a very mild bill by the way. Yet it was pushed forward into fraught politicized territory because we understood that thousands of women and girls in our country die from preventable causes. Yet, we knew that it is stigma and deeply held patriarchal laws and policies that hinder the saving of our lives. It was patriarchy and matriarchy that resulted in the failure of the bill, starting with the president at the time. He could have stood up for the women of Sierra Leone.

I digress. All of this is to say, although I am very happy for all the young men on their political appointments and may they go forth and rule etc confidently. The operative word being confidently. In our country, we allow our men to aspire, to build networks, to play nice with each other, to lead, to dream, to know they are worthy and most importantly the culture PROTECTS their well being. They are worshiped by their mothers, girlfriends, wives and everyone else, with minimal effort. Inflated egos without recognizing just how so very privileged they are to live and thrive in a landscape that nurtures and protects their well being, only because they are born male. That is patriarchy unchecked. 

These are not the same type of access afforded to young women. We are never given the chance to start on equal footing, and the playing field doesn’t want to level out either.  Even when we aspire to achieve moving the needle of progression, the landscape is harsh and does not protect us. It intentionally hurts us (physically, politically, emotionally). Let's keep that in mind when we make excuses for why more YOUNG WOMEN and women in general, aren’t occupying leadership positions across all sectors, especially in the political sphere. Sometimes it is because we aren’t being appointed or given the opportunity, most times however, it is because we know we won’t be protected either - our lives are at great risk. 

I write this today in solidarity with my Sierra Leonean sisters who I know are hurting too. My hope for us is, 

We begin to organize ourselves,

work collectively and collaboratively

to uplift each other into leadership positions across government and private sector.

That we create and sustain inclusive local, regional and global networks amongst ourselves, and only include men when it is necessary and advantageous to the sisterhood – and yes, we can still love up on male-allies that push for equity and equality. Earnestly. 

We need each other to WIN. The status quo must change. 

No one need tell our stories but ourselves. 

No one need create policies that impact our social economic and political empowerment but ourselves

No need to endure man-splaining on the principles and ‘well-meaning intentions’ on gender-equity, equality or gender-parity and representation across all industries. 

I am not home but I’ve been watching. I am for the most part disheartened at the lack of young-female leadership across every industry and sector, outside of women acting as cheerleaders to men who are taking up these positions. And maybe, depending on the day and time, keeping the doors open for us. 

We need each other to BOSS UP on levels beyond imagination. I only wish this goodness for us. The status quo much change. If not for us, but for the generations to come. 

In Love & Solidarity

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Love - In all its FULLNESS

How many of us are, secretly or explicitly, addicted to freely proliferated self help quotes that urge us to “self love” because we are “worthy”? I mean, I certainly am despite being cognizant that feel good quotes are often short-term fuel for actualizing the love and the worthiness that should be inherent and thriving. Here is the crazy thing though; I do love myself, most days. I do know at some level that I am worthy of love, of goodness and of all the success in the world. I am generally confident; I have the ‘I will prove you wrong’ type of confidence that works to keep the world that tells me I am not worthy wrong. That type of confidence often comes with a high-level worth ethic, boldness and persistence, important qualities to possess. Yet, that type of confidence feels reactionary, a slight imbalance between buoyancy and innate sense of self-love.  I relegate this tilt to being big-bodied which often elicits self induced head bobs and snapping of fingers when with white friends and/or acquaintances – I get it, the classic internalization of the American mammy caricature. I am African. This conflates histories.  I often meet people, regardless of where I find myself, who matter-of-factly refer to my body as ‘fat’, ‘obese’ or ‘big’. Or, for those who take a moment to examine my physique, a big girl with ‘a shape’ somewhere amidst my mass. To the latter commentators I mumble a quick thank you, and to the‘you are fat’ callers, I become feisty and again start to bob my head, blinking my eyes at shutter light-speed with explanations that my ‘fat’ is none of their business. Internally I leave that conversation a little bruised, a little sore, wishing I did not carry this much weight; habitually believing that if I just lost some pounds, I would be so much more worthy, so much more innately happy and comfortable. More importantly, if I just loose weight, I often think, the issue of my weight will cease to act as a conversation starter, filler, or wrap up.

I have always been the big girl. I remember in middle school having a crush on the class hottie. During a math class one day, I sat next to him and his friend who both said I’d be much prettier if I lost weight. I agreed with them and went on a soliloquy about my weight. Heart sunken, my thirteen year old self registered that cute boys like him do not go for girls like me. I was hurt, but confident and so I went on with my life, not loosing weight, but rather joining theatre, running for class president, then school president and being on every social organizing committee. I did what confident people do, kick-ass in all that I did, while licking my bruises every so often. Right before I graduated from high school, one of my pretty and slim girlfriends asked me how on earth I felt comfortable wearing sleeveless shirts despite being ‘big’. I confidently told her that I did not worry about such things. Her comment threw me over the edge and after graduation I lost fifty-pounds.

I put it back on; every single pound of it especially since moving back to Sierra Leone where being fat is the holy grail of conversation starters. One’s weight, it seems, will often be spoken about, spoken off, and becomes the barometer at which one’s presence is acknowledged. This surprised me because it completely dispelled the myth that generally, Africans appreciate bigger women. I have been told that I should go to Nigeria or Mauritania instead, the men are more appreciating of big-bodied women in those countries. The statement rings problematic, that my weight is directly linked to the male gaze and acceptance. Yet, in relation to the male gaze I also learned that being a bigger woman does often-illicit conceptions of wealth, aggressiveness and or overt sexuality. Like the time a now prominent female leader in Sierra Leone shared with me that her husband thought that ‘bigger’ women, like myself, are very sexual. This was after my twenty-five year old self read an erotic poem at a Valentine’s Day event.  The message was clear; my bigness is political, threatening, weak, misunderstood. I also once dated a man, who him self was anything but fit or muscular, who would watch me eat, disgust plastered all over his face. His voice smooth and clear would gently ask, ‘why do you eat so much’? On the continent, Africa, where I thought I’d be more accepted, the thin, light-skinned, silky hair trope is hard-wired into the general psyche. In short, notions around beauty, body acceptability, and perfection are standardized globally.

I continue to read the self-help quotes ‘I am love, I am worthy’, often re-posting on my social media accounts with daily chants ‘I am love, I am worthy’. This is until I am sat next to a petit, dainty and soft-spoken young woman at a women’s workshop who gasps, to say, she’d never met someone like me who was so ‘huge’ in body and personality. I immediately become uncomfortable and begin to over-talk about my weight to blank stares from other equally small to medium sized African women. Nowhere seems safe, even in women’s spaces.  

I am looking at my body; zigzag-lightening shapes act as overlay across my brown. My breasts heavy as they lay lazily at the top of my belly, I spread my arms; gravity pulls small pouches of excess fat, and I wiggle my arms just so see the pouches shake a little.

I have no make up on and I think of Alicia Keys’ ‘No Make Up movement’ (hashtag) and wish my face had a more pronounced dimple and more freckles or something. The ‘love’ yourself movement gets it wrong every time. Alica Keys with her pretty button nose and freckled face got it sort of wrong this time. My presumption that 'Africans' would appreciate me more than people from other cultures failed me. Women in my social circles, my conscious friends charging the streets for liberation and feminist ideals also drink warm water with lemon first thing in the morning as a weight control mechanism subtly acclaiming thinness – they have a right to. Plus-size fashion bloggers with round belly's, double chins strut in designer shoes and made to fit plush dresses shatter fat stereotypes, acclaiming that sexiness is for ‘bigger-women’ too. They only tell half a truth.

I arch my head up, turn my body around and see my buttocks, half round and half square – a shape of its own perfectly unscarred, smooth, calabash brown. I wonder what it is going to take for us to focus less on the body talk and more on the strength and perseverance of our spirits, or ethereal souls. Are you going to show me where he hit you that night, or how you broke when you learned that he cheated on you, or how you felt when you experienced cultural displacement? Are we going to discuss colorism, sexism and that time your boss, or that influential man pushed your back against the wall against your will? I mean the real shit.

My thighs touch one another and I smile, repeating ‘I am love, I am worthy’, striving to feel this way about my body as authentically as possible.

It is important to me that as I evolve spiritually and mentally that I stretch the depth of my confidence to encapsulate my physical body and my soul. To gather  and affirm all the times I hurt only to grow. All the times I fell into a ditch, or down a flight of stairs, or got bitten by mosquitoes that my body and spirit still healed. That every time life threw me a hurdle and I felt empty, I clawed my way back up with my bare hands and through divine grace. That even with this BIGNESS, physically, I have achieved every goal my spirit wanted or needed for nourishment.

If fatness is easy to roll off the tongue, so should insecurities, so should vulnerabilities, so should self-love - love. 

I pull my hands to my face, palms thick, fingers heavy and I watch blood run through my veins. Starring into the mirror I see ‘ love’, I see ‘worth’ I know off ‘strength’, even when all the world warrants that i focus on my unworthiness because I am difficult to ignore – physically of course.

TELL THE STORY WHOLE

Touch everywhere it hurts. Every lightened mark, every electric soar, every beat that beckons attention, every tear that relinquishes itself into calabash, just touch where it hurts.

Yours:

I can see some of the scars. It is in the absence of body. I can smell where wounds lay – blood rises to meet my nostrils. I can touch where injustice trembles, it is in the sound of your notes that air carries across localities. I have being there. I am 1 in the 3 they talk about; I am that statistic, the product of sexual violence that every woman is at risk of enduring at least once in this dunia. I am that survivor.

 

I am that woman: that Muslim that black body with respite written on skin. I am that shape, this curve that bone, this blood those words muffled in human symphony.

 

Ask me where it hurts and I will show you the places and spaces in brown sky, my body.

 

Silenced in Egypt

Raped in the Congo

Missing in Canada

Pillaged in America

Scattered,

ashes left for us to grasp

as it slips through fingers.

 

Us.

 

For our men

For our women

girls

boys

Young.

 

Us.

 

Their stories are stains we cannot erase

Woven in sand we stand upon.

 

Us.

It is left to us to decide what:

to stop

to accept

to carry.

Constellations to name

to honor

to love.

 

Ask me where it hurts

Carry story whole.