Work hard. Play Harder
The prints. That long Coat on Him would look perfect on Me! Those mules she is wearing! And that blazer.
And hints of tribal.
What’s not to love?
I don’t know yet but I want to find out.
When I was writing the previous post, the word ‘queer’ jumped out at me. I realised I was queer. I had never conformed to gender roles. At least not without melodramatic consequences. The ways in which I didn’t conform were more than being a tom boy or a ladette. I have always seen myself as Boy embodied as a female even if I do not want to transition into a Man. (The Man Look Is So Boring!)
Simone de Beauvoir said “You are not born are woman, you are made one.”
How did I become a Woman? What makes me a woman? How did I react to attempts to make me a Woman? How did it happen? Was it successful? Was I a woman or just pretending to be one? Or trying to be one? I joined the gang that tried to expand what woman and feminism meant. We pushed against hyper feminine stereotypes. Some days seemed like a constant battle. Since I was 5 all I needed to hear was ‘a girl/woman can’t…’ and I rose to the challenge to prove a woman could. Exhausting and depressing stuff.
I never competed with women. I did not feel that they were my competition. I believed I was and should be competing with The Boys (and Men if they could be found) They felt like my natural rivals. So I competed with them. Hung out with The Boys. Drank smoked and partied like The Boys. Competed with them socially, professionally and intellectually. I had next to no female friends and had no idea how to relate with girls and women. Our interests seemed so different. But I had breasts and a vagina. I was sexually liberated and enjoyed consensual sex a lot. But there was always some jack popping up trying to steal it from me, usually at work.
We didn’t have a framework for talking about sexual harassment in the workplace in Nigeria in the 90s. It seemed like the price a single woman paid for joining The Boys Club. I quit and I set up my own company instead. And got a boyfriend. It was easier to hang out with The Boys if I was in a relationship with one of them and worked for none of them. But sooner or later The Boy I was hiding behind and The Boys I did business with would demand I behave more like a woman. I did try to be more feminine. It always had the most interesting consequences but it did not help. Performing woman did not make me feel privileged and powerful. It made me feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed. Especially the sexual tension and attention. And I didn’t know how to handle it. I did not want to learn either. Many a sister tried to teach me. I listened, unconvinced. And struggled, in my personal and professional life.
I took a job in the humanitarian sector after 10 years on my own. They paid well and I reasoned I would be safe from sexism. I wasn’t and I encountered racism too. Racism light but racism none the less. Before that racism was something I could read about and ignore. After all I was a light skinned bi-racial female living in Africa, I had all the privilege. Or so I was always told. I wasn’t allowed to complain when Black people touched my hair, called me names or treated me like a freak show. I had to accept it. It was the price of my privilege. But I grew resentful that my ‘gendered racial’ experience was being dismissed. I was treated like a White Woman and expected to behave like a Black Woman. I did not feel Black or White. Or like a Woman. Race, like gender does not exist on a binary.
I attended a conference recently. A cohort of 45 feminists from 15 African countries got together. We talked about the mental and emotional impact of being a women’s human rights defender (WHRD) in Africa. And what we could do to support each others well being. The diversity of African women in the room took my breath away. Women of different ages, nationality, color, tongue, gender, sexual orientation, religion and ethnicity. And they were all African. It was more Pan-African than the AU, which is a congress of old Black Men.
On the day of departure I sat in the hotel lobby with some sisters. One of them mentioned she was asexual. I asked her what that meant. She said it meant not feeling under pressure to be sexual or to have sex. I paraphrase. A penny dropped. The airwaves hum with messages telling us we have to have sex and we have to have good sex. And if we didn’t something was wrong with us. Says who? I was kinda taken a back for a minute. That’s when the idea that I was queer started to germinate.
During the conference we avoided talking too much about sex, like good African women. It is so hard for African women to have honest, non-judgmental conversations about sex. Sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) in the humanitarian sector was not mentioned. Not in the context of WHRDs work in Africa. The silence around sexual orientation came up. LGBTQI participants asked for an honest conversation. One participant said divisive views about LGBTQI were splintering the movement in Nigeria. The honest conversation did not happen at this convening.
During introductions a few cis participants shared strong religious values. It was a relief when one of the gay participants spoke about her Christian faith, it struck a nice balance. I’ve come to expect religious disagreements over sexuality at these gatherings. Her presence reassured me the two were not exclusive. But the unspoken question on everyone’s mind was what were the religious sisters’ views on LGBTQI? Asking them directly and publicly seemed out of the question. A participant suggested everyone sign clause 15 of the African Feminist Charter.
The conference also didn’t discuss conditions of employment in the humanitarian sector. Or ask whether employers and donors were exploiting local labour laws. Or why life work balance was not a high priority. (Donors and funders expect results and reports. Not excuses.) Expatriate staff could afford vacations and mental health care. Not so much so national staff. OxfamGB even has a psychologist on staff at head office. How do local humanitarian staff cope? Most of us were so eager to keep our jobs we worked 100 hours a week. Like a participant said – physical and mental well being depend on financial well being.
We also also didn’t discuss why so many of Africa’s biggest civil society funders and donors are run by men. More women work the frontlines and middle management. Many have backgrounds in human rights work. They earn less and have less power. And they are vulnerable to predatory sexual behaviour. Winnie Byanyima at Oxfam? We’re watching to see if she’s window dressing or building a woman friendly organisation. After all Sirleaf Johnson was President for 8 years with out progress for women’s rights.
A sister from Uganda couldn’t attend the conference. She wrote a letter to the participants instead. In her letter she described her struggles with her health. Her letter implored us to take the task of creating a platform for our wellbeing seriously. Almost everyone knew her personally. She had been on the frontlines of the women’s rights struggle for decades. Her letter meant so much to everyone we started calling it ‘Hope’s Letter’. I remembered my own struggles after the Oxfam incident. I started to reflect on how it changed me. It’s taken me a long time to recover and feel safe again.
Then Oxfam 2.0 happened. It’s amazing how 7 years can be torn away just like that. It felt like someone ripped plaster off a festering wound. As Penny, Marc and Winnie justified my unfair dismissal I cracked. The injustice, the disillusionment, the disbelief, the sense of betrayal came rushing back. Plus I had an adult son back home needing support and intervention. And I couldn’t help thinking – how the abrupt loss of job, income and home had affected my ability to take care of my family. Africans understand these things. The conference did talk about the broken families our work often left behind. I’m still recovering.
What happened at Oxfam happened to me because I have breasts and a vagina. Because I wouldn’t let some incompetent sleaze ball rape me. And I did wonder why. After all I could have had sex with him and none of this would not have happened. Right? I’m not a prude about sex. At all. At all. Or I could have said nothing. But I have very strong opinions. About choice, consent AND sexual relationships in the workplace. The circumstances may not be the same for me and Hope but the consequences are similar. And it happened in the context of our work. Because we are women.
I also attended a conference on accountability for atrocities in Nigeria recently. There was a list of ‘atrocities’ going all the way back to 1967. None of the atrocities listed included sex crimes against women. It wasn’t even a category. We agreed to review that omission. How will we enforce accountability for sexual crimes and SEA? The extrajudicial murder of 100s and 1000s demands accountability. So does the SEA of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and millions of women. Most of them women of colour. Exploited and abused because of their gender and their race.
In July 2018 the International Development Committee released a report on SEA in the humanitarian sector. The report was critical of charities response to SEA of workers and beneficiaries. They implicated all the large charities. They did not exclude one. The IDC did admit that it only sought the opinion of expatriate staff and none of the beneficiaries . They also admitted national staff were disproportionately affected. I didn’t read one word about accountability. Every last one of these charities is currently working in north east Nigeria. Without oversight and without accountability.
I’m a social entrepreneur. Not a humanitarian. I believe in systemic change not alleviation of symptoms. I believe in giving a hand up, not a hand out. Ashoka was a better fit for me than Oxfam. And I like their development model better. Invest in the best and brightest social entrepreneurs. We will do the rest. You don’t have to tell us what to do. We live with the communities.
A social entrepreneur is like an entrepreneur with a conscience. Or enlightened self interest. Or both. We produce goods and services that meet human needs and uplift The Many. We create value. And we still give back generously. We understand community. We understand Ubuntu.
So what does being queer mean to me? And why is it now important?
According to one online dictionary queer –
denotes or relates to a sexual or gender identity that does not correspond to established ideas of sexuality and gender, especially heterosexual norms.
It does not mean that I am a lesbian. Or gay. Or transgender. Or bi-sexual. Or Pan-sexual. It doesn’t make me heteronormative or homo-normative. I don’t know that I am binary or non-binary. I don’t consider myself ‘fluid.’ I don’t know what it means for me yet. I’m just queer. And right now its empowering me to step away from hyper sexualised gender narratives.
Sex, like religion, is something you do in private. Right?
I’ve always preferred the Androgynous Dandy Look.
My personal fashion icons include Oscar Wilde, Prince and Andre Talley Leon. Flamboyant. Ostentatious. Fluid. Genderless. Or gender fluid.
Sometimes I wish I was more daring in dressing my boys when they were young. But why would I be? The price of being a girly looking boy is high. Prince and Andre can make that choice as adults. What mother would foist it on her child?
My BFF and I once discussed gender appropriate clothing for children. We agreed it was best to dress girls like girls and boys like boys. We considered ourselves gender ‘confused’ and see the trouble it had brought us.
I’m really digging Orange Culture right now.
Fashion Scout UK said about them
ORANGE CULTURE IS A MENSWEAR BRAND WHICH HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS A “MOVEMENT”, MORE THAN A CLOTHING LINE, FOR A CREATIVE CLASS OF MEN WHO ARE “SELF-AWARE, EXPRESSIVE, EXPLORATIVE, ART-LOVING NOMADS”. COMBINING CLASSIC AND CONTEMPORARY WESTERN SILHOUETTES, LIKE COLLARED BUTTON-UPS AND LAPEL-LESS BLAZERS, WITH AFRICAN SENSIBILITIES, OKE-LAWAL CREATES PIECES FOR MODERN MEN WHO LIKE A LITTLE FLAIR, AND OF COURSE: COLOR.
That sounds like me.
I like the look.
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Sleep covers a multitude of sins. Take my word for it. Have you ever recovered from an illness and someone says “Ah, you look so well”? Sleep and rest are linked to all sorts of good outcomes. I used to sleep three four hours a night. If I slept a long time I slept 6 hours. And no matter what time I went to bed I couldn’t sleep beyond 9am. My conscience would have me out of bed and running around like a headless chicken after an all night binge that ended at 7am.
“Work hard and play harder.” I famously said once. “Not on two hours of sleep” the Universe replied and hit me with thyrotoxicosis.
Now I get my uninterrupted 8 hours of sleep every night. If I go to bed late, I wake up late. If I have a sleep deficit I make up for it real quick. Next night where ever possible. And I sleep late on Sundays. Every Sunday. Just lounge around in bed reading, napping and ringing the bell for service. If god could rest one day out of seven then so can I god damn it. Its my definition of ‘Keeping The Sabbath.’ No other rules apply.
In Nigeria I can bloody well do that too because everything runs on ‘African Time’ anyway. Even the Mexicans know about it. When we plan events and we want the event to start by 6pm we never put that on the invitation. We put noon on the invitation hoping the guests will start to arrive by 6pm. And start at midnight anyway. Go figure. Anyway its part of our planning process, African Time is. I know all you Nigerians in abroad find it infuriating. Kpele.
Depending on the power dynamics I can arbitrarily reschedule a 9am appointment or even not inform you that its been rescheduled at all if I need a couple hours of extra sleep. You’re probably late anyway. My sleep is more important than your good will.
It wasn’t easy putting my needs first, at first. My ‘oyibo’ conscience would scream at me and burden me to get to the meeting and I would convince myself that 3 hours of sleep was okay because I felt just fine. Margeret Tatcher famously slept 4 hours a night. She had Alziemers or dementia or something when she died. So did my late mother in law who also had sleep problems.
I don’t play with my sleep o.
My bedroom is the nicest room in the house, airy, comfy and soothing. Music, yes. television, no. No television in bed. Only a couple of books on the night stand. My boudoir. I try to fall asleep and wake up feeling happy to be alive.
I also know how to sleep rough. Catching as many or as few hours as possible in the most uncomfortable conditions. Because sometimes even where you sleep is determined by power dynamics and you sleep and wake up with uncertainty. And maybe work hard to escape and create a personal sense of security. Or status. Or dignity. Refusing to give in to those forces. Or giving in.
Don’t compromise where you sleep o and – as my friend used to say – who you sleep with it. And why.
Last month I wrote about some of the stuff I’ve done over the years in the name of ‘beauty’ and promised to fill you in after I think about it some more.
For many many years I tried to prove that I was just as hardy as the Natives. Because the natives always told me I was soft because I was half white. They said we are not strong like them. So I used to run around under the sun at noon and otherwise look very hardy during the hottest time of the day and all day till the sun went down. We got up and went to bed with the sun.
They were right. I was wrong. I am not as hardy as the natives. All that running around in the sun just over heated me and made me sick. So nowadays I follow oyibo advice – I stay out of the sun. My friends tease me because I use these uber cute and kitschy sun umbrellas and hats if I’m even 2 minutes in the sun.
I avoid being outside between 10am and 5pm. If I could get away with it I would only come out between 7pm and 7am but they might call me a vampire. The natives are very superstitious. They go to bed early. There will be no one to do business with at that time of the night anyway. The ones that stay awake may not make good business partners.
Nigeria proves the stereotype that only bad things happen at night.
I used to eat a lot of garlic. I still eat garlic but not so much. My ayurveda diagnosis does not recommend it. I eat just enough to prove I am not a vampire and to keep real vampires at bay. Beware the ones that go “Hmm. You eat garlic.” Like its an accusation of witch craft.
The most common age related damage I seen on Nigerian women is sun damage. Even in the ones that are not so yellow. We live almost at the equator, with only gods knows what type of environmental ozone and atmospheric damage making us super vulnerable to the worst of the sun’s radiation.
SPF just doesn’t cut it for me. It also made me sweat too profusely so I dont use it. I just don’t go out during the hottest part of the day. Oyibo is deceiving you to buy sunscreen. The smart oyibo’s are the ones in Spain and Greece. The ones that close all business and take siesta during the hottest part of the day. Americans like to suffer. Always busy. You understand why Nigerians of the Igbo extraction like them so well? By the way you can read a short history of the tan here.
I don’t want or need a tan. Nor do I need to worship the sun. I’m pretty sure it will rise tomorrow, that I’ll have roughly the same number of hours of sunshine and that I will get some living in Abuja. Imagine what it must be like where they have 24 hours of night or 24 hours of day for a season?
The changing lengths of the days in London, Moscow and St. Pete’s freaked me out good enough. After four months of cold short days cooped up indoors I almost rushed out to worship the sun too.
Around here we tend to worship the rain storms, thunder, lightning, the earth that yields food, water, rivers, oceans, creeks and springs. My skin loves the rainy season when the air is heavy with moisture. In Nigeria we have real rain storms. The rain in England is civilised. You can walk for hours and not get wet. In Naija you are soaked within seconds by just one gust.
Avoid the heat too. In the absence of air-conditioning in the village I found that generous applications of nzu, a chalk like mud from the river beds, when left to dry on the skin, would cool the body and leave the skin wonderfully moisturised. I would lounge on a mat under the mango tree in white chalk and a wrapper reading or listening to music on the radio. Of course the natives thought I was crazy. What do they know. Suffer head people. Running around in the sun. Perspiring. Smelling funky.
Avoid the sun joor. Apu na anwu.
I just turned 51. I’ve been told often enough that I do not look my age and asked just as often how do I do it. I shrug it off, blame it on gene’s or one way or the other avoid the topic. I feel uncomfortable talking about it. A lot of women are. Even Chimamanda used to be.
The other day I was talking to a young woman about how I protected my skin from dryness during the UK winter. I described abhyanga, ayurvedic oil massage for her. I always used an oil massage before a shower during the winter never soap. And when I soaked (once a week maybe less) I dumped a bottle of Johnson’s baby oil in the tub with the bubble bath.
“So after using that sisal brush on your skin you took time and used oil to give yourself a massage? Hmm. You dey pamper yourself.”
I guess you could say so. (I’ve used a sisal brush to dry brush the skin before bathing in the every morning for more than ten years. Read about it in Vogue back in the day.)
“I’m just trying to keep my skin supple. I’ll always been obsessive about my skin even as a child. What was an unhealthy obsession then is just what I need now. ”
I’ve also used Boots ‘Glycerin and Rosewater Tonic’ to clean my face everyday for over 20 years. Never soap and water. It suddenly occurs to me. I’ve had a very sophisticated beauty regimen all my life. I do pamper myself and take care of myself. No small thanks to My Evil Step Mother who tried to make a lady out of me. And curb my vanity. Was she successful?
In the tropical heat I always use a loofah and a gentle soap or shower gel. Currently using PH balanced Sebamed. And last last I will use Dove or Pears. Gone are the skin punishing days in the village when Dad bought me Tetmosol or Dettol soap. And Vaseline. And I would run around at high noon like one of my dark skinned brethren. My Father tried to make a revolutionary ought of me. And curb my vanity. Was he successful?
I’ve also used a body scrub at least two three times a week for well over 20 years. St.Ives Apricot Scrub used to be a favourite. It was always available in the market sha. At reasonable price too. Then I when I started to travel plenty I got into Soap & Glory. Now I am in love with Lizzy Ab’s All Natural Sugar Body Scrub. All natural ingredients. Leaves the skin feeling baby soft and smooth. It even taste’s good. I really take time when I’m scrubbing. I put all the attention into it I once put into bathing my new born babies.
I don’t let my skin feel tight. If it feels tight I know I need a moisturiser. I use coconut oil daily right after a bath or shower and Jergen’s Ultra Healing lotion during the dry months. I apply as often as necessary in between to relieve the tightness. And drink more water. Till I am peeing every hour or two. Dry skin has to be attacked from the inside too. I eat right and take my vitamins.
I take care of my skin because I figure clothes are disposable but I got to live in my own skin for my whole life. So I might as well keep it healthy and looking great. I mean if you can do it for those Blue Suede Shoes you can do it for your skin right? It just another piece of leather. Just that its still ‘alive.’ Can you relate? No?
Don’t worry about it.
I treat my feet well too. Notice how the feet do so much work? Show them some appreciation. Give them a massage with the nicest smelling richest cream or lotion you can afford. Pamper your feet. Wash and pamper them when you come home from the market square. Appreciate the work they do. The intricate engineering that keeps you upright all day long.
Say ‘Thank you.’
A proper pedicure once in a while would do. Not the road side kind. I swear I judge a person by the state of their feet.
And how they smell.
I get complimented a lot that I smell good. Thank you. I appreciate the effort that goes into smelling good. I make a lot of effort to smell good. My revulsion at unpleasant smells is primal. I think its evil to assail your fellow human beings with funky body smells. Or any other kind of unpleasant smells. Like cheap perfume. Cheap perfume smells cheap. I do not use it. I’d rather withdraw from polite society.
Let’s see. What else do I do to stay healthy and strong? Let me think about it and get back to you.