As we engaged in unnecessary platitudes, it hit me; were it not for her distinguished raspy and deep voice, Fartuun would have been unrecognizable to me. Despite her calling me a nickname only privy to my childhood friends, she looked like a stranger. Her dark coffee skin was now artificially fair. She peeled her highly lush, myelinated skin for a lighter, inflamed and flaky one. Rashes pelted her face and the discoloration around her eyes and lips made the sore sight worse. My inane and darting stares made Fartuun notice that I was examining her new skin tone and I noticed she had realized what I was doing.
Should I ask her? It’s obvious, isn’t it? Do I just ignore it and delve straight into catching up on the hand we were dealt with after completing primary school? Has it been 13 years already? Should I suggest we enter a café? There is no way her new skin could handle the afternoon sun as it was wearing its heaviest garment. These, and other thoughts rushed through my mind.
“It was nice bumping into you today,” Fartuun said meekly, snapping me out of my daze.
“Would you like to grab a cup of iced coffee?” I offered, making a mental note to stop staring at her face. I noticed she was quite uncomfortable with how I reacted to her new appearance.
Unfortunately for me, silence inserted itself in the conversation. It didn’t help that we were at the dead center of River Road, the rhapsody of noise, putrid smell, a sea of humanity and matatus.
“Maybe next time,” Fartuun muttered shyly, darting her eyes around but never looking at me. “I have an appointment with my business partner.”
She gave me a quick side hug and waved goodbye.
We were never going to meet up because I did not have any way of contacting her. A heavy sadness surged over me. She was just another tiny crop in the ferocious harvest of colourism and racism in the Somali community.
“Somalis are Arabs.”
“No, they are not. They are Africans.”
“They don’t have African features.”
“What does that even mean? Africa has a multiplicity of skin tones, features and hair textures.”
I have had different variations of this conversation with my Somali family and friends. Some family members, without fail, remind me that the founder of our sub-clan was an Arab man, conveniently forgetting to mention that this Arab man, Fiqi Omar, married a Harari woman.
Friends and family who come from a different clan also seem to have a similar story where the founder of their sub-clan is always an Arab, some even claim genealogical attachment to the Quraish, the tribe of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). Going against the current at best is melancholic and at its worst it totters on the brink of violence. Somalis who value their nasabness (their pure blood) get angry that I am trampling on their genealogy while those who have promiscuously mixed clan culture with religion see me as sacrilegious.
I am fully aware the concept of what it means to be an African is not straightforward.
Academics have had a hard and long battle with this subject matter. What is Africa and what does it mean to be African? In his paper, ‘The Inventions of African Identities and Languages: The Discursive and Developmental Implications’, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza writes: “The idea of ‘Africa’ is a complex one with multiple genealogies and meanings, so that extrapolations of ‘African’ culture, identity, or nationality, in the singular or plural, any explorations of what makes ‘Africa’ ‘African’ are quite slippery as these notions tend to swing unsteadily between the poles of essentialism and contingency.”
For some, an African country is one within the cartographic borders of the continent, while for others, it is individuals who possess African ancestry regardless of whether they live on the continent or not. Also, there are those of the opinion that for one to be African, they must possess stereotypical African features and for this reason, in 2017, we witnessed the collective outrage on the internet when Mo Salah, an Egyptian, won the African Footballer of the Year. For some, he was not African enough. While African identity is complex, this is not the reason why some Somalis refuse to claim it, for to them it is a badge of dishonor, a taint on their purity.
So where does this sentiment in the Somali community come from?
Was it slavery?
During the 19th century, a swathe of southeastern Africans were captured, enslaved and forced to work as plantation labourers in the coastal cities of Somalia. Although they contributed to the agricultural economy of the country, they had neither legal nor political rights. And it so happened that despite the abolition of slavery in Somalia, the Somali bantus continued to face marginalization and social stigma due to their ancestry.
Or does this stem from colonization?
The racial classification governance model adopted during British and Italian colonial rule did not grant political, civil and legal rights to Somali Bantus. During British colonial rule, skin tones determined how the colonized were treated. The colonial officials viewed the indigenous Somalis as noble savages, more civilized and intelligent than the Somali Bantus who they viewed as uncivilized and dependent on the indigenous Somali.
During British rule, the riverine areas occupied by the Somali Bantu were intentionally underdeveloped. Policies imposed on them stunted their economic growth. In colonial British Jubaland, Somali Bantus were forced to work as labourers and porters and the little salary they earned would be reduced by the hut tax they had to pay. While the Italian colonial government forced the Somali Bantus to work on the lands the colonial government had appropriated.
Colonial edifices presented themselves in the post-independent government.
The Italian Trusteeship Administration in Somalia snubbed Somali Bantus during colonial rule and only aligned themselves with the Somali Youth League, which resulted in further ostracization. The members of the Somali Youth League took up security and civil service positions which consequently resulted in the lack of representation of Somali Bantus in the political arena post-independence. When the state collapsed in 1991, the colonial edifice presented itself once again, the lack of political and security influence leaving this marginalized community vulnerable to the militia who ravaged and pillaged their riverine villages. This political, social, and economic ostracization did not stop in the refugee camps, neither did it stop in contemporary Somalia nor in the general Somali population around the world.
Like the English language, the word black (madow) has a negative connotation.
In fact, a popular pet name in the Somali language is Cadey, which roughly translates to ‘Whitey’. The racial slurs woven in our everyday language reflects how racism and colourism is etched in our psyche. The word adon, which translates to slave, is interchangeably used with African. A young Kenyan man who befriended a few Somali girls and consequently began understanding the language learnt that his close friends were calling him a slave, and instead of cutting ties with them he politely asked them to refer to him as jareer (hard hair). Even some of the Kenyan Somalis who are referred to as Sijuuis because of their lack of command for the Somali language refer to Africans as adon or adome.
Further, popular racial stereotypes and insults veiled as jokes are still rife in the Somali community. Africans are also depicted as thieves and distrustful, with the phrase, “Dadkaan laiskumahaleyn karo,” always being thrown around.
I sit here wondering who taught Fartuun to hate the colour of her skin.
Was she fed up with the racially-laced statements disguised as jokes or was she emulating her friends and relatives who had rebranded their skin and she didn’t want to be left behind? I don’t know why but I pondered on what product she had used.
Oh! How easy it is to access skin lightening products in Nairobi, despite being banned in 2009 by Kenya Bureau of Standards. She might have gotten it from the women in River Road, but she could easily get Medevin and Movate Lemon Dermal Lightening Cream over the counter in pharmacies or even from her local kiosk.
Did her habyars introduce her to qas qas, its unique selling point being it is a mixture of several bleaching products so one gets the maximum result? Or did she order a bleaching set from Jiji and get it delivered to her home? Whatever product she landed on, I wonder how often she uses it. Has it replaced her go-to Revlon honey moisturizer? Does she slather it all over her body or only the body parts a hijabi presents to the world?
(Disclaimer- I have used a fictitious name to disguise the identity of ‘Fartuun’).