Body and I

by Anne Moraa

Ilustration by Naddya Oluoch.

“Funga miguu, Moi anapita” (Nairobi, Kenya. 1999 -2014)

The first time I remember being told to “close your legs,” I was an eight year old in Standard 3. A male teacher said, “Funga miguu, Moi anapita” (close your legs, the president is passing by). He said it loudly to twittering laughter. He said this after he dropped a piece of chalk and bent down to peer between my legs. He said this as he looked between my legs.

Even then it felt wrong. I can say this now, I can speak on the absurd sexism that a girl’s open legs are an invitation, while a boy’s are not. Now, I can question why a grown man actively sought to stare at a young girl’s panties.

But then, I was eight years old.

An eight-year-old girl has few choices. An eight-year-old Kenyan girl in a school which enforces corporal punishment has even fewer. An eight-year-old girl with a teacher staring between her legs, a teacher with a penchant for smacking girls on their tidy whities, a teacher who is known to like little girls, who held her from behind and lifted her up the stairs on her way to class, has none.

I closed my legs.

There is more to an education than facts; a good education teaches you to be a lady. A list of lessons:

  1. Move carefully.
  2. Body is not yours: This is the most important thing. Live in Body, like a driver drives a car. Step out of it when bad things happen. Pay the toll.
  3. Let go of crying when sad, laughing when happy, screaming when angry, dancing in supermarkets, feeling grass between your toes, hugging strangers, rejecting lovers, moving clumsily and stumbling.
  4. Always, always, Body’s back must be straight.
  5. Body cannot show too much skin, or you will be raped.
  6. Body cannot show too little skin, or you will be unloved.
  7. Body must be attentive to every threat. Body must tune everyone out. These are contradictory. Figure it out.
  8. Your hair, girl, your hair…
  9. Speak but only when spoken to.
  10. Be silent.
  11. Be strong. Be very strong.
  12. Be humble.
  13. Be brave.
  14. Be beautiful.
  15. Be quick.
  16. Be fuckable but stay unfucked.
  17. Sashay.
  18. Cook.
  19. Smile.

I was not a good student. There are many lessons I have forgotten, and others I never learned. I still can’t make good chapati (Rule 17) and I cannot sashay (Rule 16). I missed the lessons on makeup and flirting. It’s not that I didn’t try. I did. I studied hard. A male classmate, who later came out as a gay, tried to teach me to sashay when I was nine and spent his break-time laughing at me. My chapatis came out square and I ate them alone while reading. When you read you are silent; I was great at Rule 9.

I tried to follow Rule 2 but I was a bad driver in an old-school car with a manual transmission. I’d shout at Body in the mirror, this awkward chubby thing that didn’t understand the word grace. I’d will it to move but Body and I didn’t speak the same language. Body and I worked well only when listening to others. My body wasn’t smart; I was. My mind was well-read, a student, quick wit but my body was clumsy, picked last for games, a mystery.

Body and I grew older.

My body tripped then fell in front a crowd at school and I cursed it for being so clumsy. Rule 4, Body! Rule 4!

Aged sixteen, I went to rave with a far too low cut a shirt emblazoned “Gorgeous” in diamanté across burgeoning breasts. I wanted to be loved, so Body had to be adorned. Body’s ass was grabbed but I was too busy dancing. I danced with my friends and pretended the hands, plural, branded only Body.

Aged seventeen, I went to university in the UK and used my Zimbabwean friend’s fake ID because all black girls look alike. And I heard “your hair girl, your hair” so I couldn’t bear to allow my hair, as it grew out of my head, to show. Instead, unable to afford regular braiding and unable to manage a weave, I let braids hang well past their sell-by-date, each braid literally hanging on the two inches of hair I couldn’t stand. I’d later trim the braids into a desperate bob.

I wore heels.

I only kissed boys in foreign cities and countries, when drunk. Sober, I couldn’t stand the new mix of desire and distaste I saw in the eyes of white British men.

Do you have a place where you live so deeply in your own skin, like you did when you danced on grass before you turned eight? At seventeen, I found one. Between six tequila shots and a handsome Spanish man, between the pen and fingertips, between the rhythm and the step, somewhere in the cracks between Rules are places you can live. Body and I were one, only sometimes, and only at night, and only when I danced.

Aged twenty, I came back home. I knew I wanted to write and went for it mindlessly. Maybe Body led then, a brief moment in my life when I stopped trying to live by the Rules and just did. And I did. Body and I worked well with written words between us. Hand would move and type seamlessly, almost before I knew what I was thinking. We’d stand together, Body and I, on a stage and speak loudly, and I would hear the husk in my voice and I would feel the sway in my hip. It was special. It wasn’t every moment, but I’d give my life for those moments because then it wasn’t Body and me; I simply was.

A year passed. I’m not sure which failed first, Body or me. Me perhaps, due to the pressure, the failure, the inability, the lack of immediate success and love; or Body, rounded, clumsy as usual. The same body, unchanged. (Why wasn’t it better?)

Another year passed. It was Body that betrayed me. I didn’t, no, couldn’t leave the bed. I would scream, “Get up, get up, brush your teeth, do something, anything!” But it had been a long time since Body and I spoke to each other without words between us, and words weren’t coming. Hand tremored, like a blinking cursor. I was screaming and yelling and praying and crying, but that was me. Body didn’t move. Body didn’t sound. Body didn’t hear. I gave up. Body led for months — Eat. Drink. Shit. Sleep. Eat. Drink. Shit. Sleep.

It was terrifying for me to be so weak that Body had to take over, to feel failure coursing in my mind and lethargy following, again, and again, and again. I think therefore I am, I told myself. I breathe, therefore I am, Body responded. Body was in control. I got up one day, eventually, but this period was a reckoning, an understanding that my body can fail to listen, that the same voice that told it to close its legs wasn’t strong enough to tell it to walk.

Saartjie Baartman (Not her real name) (Edinburgh, Scotland, July-August 2014)

To confront your own body:
“Are you okay being nude?”
“How nude?”
“Well, topless. You’ll have this skirt thing round your waist, and red paint all over.”
“Is it hypoallergenic?”
“The paint. I have sensitive skin.”

I replayed this conversation between myself and Brett Bailey, the artist behind Exhibit B, over and over again. I was to be a performer, a model, my breasts bare save for the paint. I’m still uncertain about why the nudity didn’t bother me much. Perhaps because it was the first time I was going to use Body for something that I believed in, instead of being limited to navigating the world as deemed appropriate; or it was the first time I would use Body, not try and inhabit it or ignore it or trick it, but use it, like a tool or weapon; or because it was the first time I understood Body could be transgressive art; or because I wouldn’t have to follow the bloody Rules; or because I didn’t have to be sexy or tall or flawless; or because I’d play a character and that I didn’t have to be “me”.

Still, I would be a black girl, performing as a pygmy in an installation designed by a white man.

Exhibit B centers on the dehumanisation and exploitation of the black body from colonialism to the ­­present took and the tableau of the “human zoo”. Even that phrase, “human zoo”, is enough to spark some valid questions. Critiques of the exhibit argued that it, at best, did not subvert but only reinforced the white gaze, and at worst, it was racist, particularly as it was run and designed by a white South African artist.

To an extent, I agree. Bailey cannot experience what it is to live in a Black body; empathise perhaps, but not experience. There were thousands of visitors, some of whom, well, are the reason Body is bound by Rules: White, British – Scottish mostly – and with the same desire/disgust in their male gaze they would look over my body. Some visitors were hopeless. Some, frankly, I hated. The ones who can’t see a woman behind her tits. The occasional sociopath who looked at me with blank curiosity, like one glances at a sink, with nothing behind their eyes.

And they weren’t even the worst. No, worst were the “save your soul” breed, the hypocrite humanitarians who cast themselves as God; the type who come to Africa to save the children and relate so deeply to your struggle, the same way they relate to dogs at the Society for the Protection and Care of Animals. They saw this pain and cried for us, not with us, and left feeling good about themselves. To them I was an animal trapped in a zoo.

Yet, to me, my performance wasn’t about them.

I did, and still do, believe the art was delicately handled and did challenge perceptions, as did many of the performers and critics. My favourite exhibition was that of a man bound with duct tape to airplane seats, representing the asylum seekers harmed by British authorities.

Still, why did I do it? I love to perform but there were spoken word shows and plays. Why choose to stand perfectly still for hours with nothing but cracking red paint between Body and world? It wasn’t even about the people who did understand, those whose perceptions were changed, those who were moved. Those who cried, and those who didn’t know, and those who couldn’t know. The obnoxious Scottish couple who, I believe, made the one black person in their village feel terribly awkward as they rambled on about what they learned at the Exhibit when they’d invite him over for tea. I imagine they felt all warm inside, welcoming him into the community emphatically while loudly chastising anyone who dared say anything about it. Simple, small but honest change. They might have made the exhibit worth it yes, but it wasn’t about them. It wasn’t about the audience. It was about the relationship between Body and me.

We would stand perfectly still, together, not moving for hours, thinking of how not to move, of how to be someone else, of being in Body. I played an Ogiek woman. I didn’t know her before I played her so I imagined a character:

She is strong, awake, no memory of the life she lived before. She is standing, trapped in an enclosure. A dead and badly stuffed monkey is nearby. It smells. People stare at her, endlessly, surprised she isn’t a statue. She isn’t afraid. She decides she must be there to judge them, to stand still, be an impartial observer. Let them look at my body, she says, let them stare at it at my dangling breasts and hint of a smile, let them, and I will see who they are. I see you.

As I applied my red paint, I saw her. As my skin became the shade of hers, I became her. I was more confident walking as her. On the sand, with the animal noises and scenery that she found farcical, I was strong, because she was. When I would step down from the stage and notice my paint had cracked and my robe was covered in her skin, I would get scared again. When doing my warm-up routine, as myself, in the company of men, I would grab the robe carefully and press my arms against my breasts in case they jumped too freely. When we went out for dinner and drinks, and one of the boys would flirt I’d be by turns embarrassed, repulsed, and surprised. Did they want me or did they want the red painted woman who stood in her body? Did they use that as a yardstick? Were they like the men who stared at the statue with curiosity and lust before they saw the woman?

Did they see me? I still don’t have an answer.

Three days after I first performed, I asked to play Sarah Baartman. Her exhibit was…challenging. She would stand in the middle of the room on a rotating platform, surrounded by glass, a ballerina in a cage. Painted in all black, still, she was sculptural. She needed nothing but lights and eyes on her. I wanted to be that powerful. I painted myself black. I went, I stood, I tried.

A man stared at my breasts. My legs shook. Another tried to peek up my skirt. Someone brought a chair. I think a man winked at me, and I knew they couldn’t touch me but I swear a hand grabbed my thighs and saliva drooled onto my hip.

Body’s legs were trembling. Shaking again and again and again. My mind pleaded. I was crying inside. I could not. Body could not. We could not so I could not. Furious, I returned to the changing room. I did not understand. I nearly cried. I could not play Saartjie because my job was to play a human being. I spent the night researching her.

Saartjie Baartman was not her real name. No one knows her name before she was taken from her home. She was named Saartjie or Sarah Baartman. “Saartjie Baartman” was not human. “Saartjie” was a body, black skin, big hips, and big arse. “Saartjie” was a body as proof that blacks were more simian than human. “Saartjie” was a displayed curiosity, and for a little bit extra, they could poke her with a finger or a stick. My job was to humanize the dehumanised. My body refused to play a mannequin. My body needed a person.

I had to imagine her body when it was her own, before it was theirs to poke and prod and kill and dissect and display. I asked again. I stood again. Yvonne Owuor writes in Dust that “to name something is to bring it to life.” I imagined her name. I won’t tell it to you or say it out loud because it wasn’t true and I will not add another untruth. I will tell you her name wasn’t Sarah. It was the name she had before Saartjie or Sarah. It was her name when she was surrounded by girls her age with hips as wide as hers, and she could move in her skin without eyes boring into her. It was her name, in her body, in my body. It was me, as her, fully embodied in my body. Unified, I — we — stood tall.

“Black from the waist down” (Gwangju, South Korea, September 2015)

At this point in my life, more than a year after the first Exhibit, Body and I have been getting along. I listen to her more often. Yes, we argue, but like best friends do on who’s the best member of a boy-band.

Now, there are new rules.

Rule 34: Go somewhere now, where you don’t speak the language. Imagine everything they say is a blessing.

Rule 20:  Imagine being yourself.

A group of twenty or so black people being utterly themselves can become both terribly and hilariously cliché: The bus driver who learned to arrive twenty minutes after the official pickup time because we were never on time; the big hair; the laughter ringing across streets and roads; the late nights.

I was there to do the Exhibit one more time, this time playing a Pygmy. A dead lion was now part of the Exhibit in a claustrophobic hallway. Half the troupe was French so we communicated poorly but moved together well.

My Korean friend told me that Koreans can be racists, but I don’t speak Korean. The black body doesn’t have as much weight here, negative or positive, much like the Asian body in Africa (at least until the recent more increased involvement of China on the African Continent). I was not expected to be late or stupid, baboonish or promiscuous. The clichés I represented didn’t seem to be clichés here. We were never on time not because black folk are never on time, but because we were never on time.

Rule 5: You are who you are, cliché or not.

Nothing was expected of me as far as I could tell. There are new relationships forming between East Asia and East Africa, but their histories and textbooks are written in different script. We both speak a dialect of English. South Korea was colonized by the Japanese, so we share a grappling with colonial history, and genetic memories of trauma. Our bodies look different but they move with a similar sense of reclamation and sadness. There was gravitas and humour.

There is an intensity of body here, an intensity of self-care: The hotel’s bathroom had more products than I could count, including some kind of foam that I still don’t understand. I was told that the skin here is flawless, and the fashion impeccable. I walked in shorts and stood in the sun, pockmarks and all. I watched a girl stand twenty feet from a crossing on the road, squeezing her body into the shadow of a lamppost. Others held umbrellas in the beautiful late summer sun. It was to hide their skin from the sun; pale is beautiful.  This was familiar. They were uncomfortable in their skin. I could relate. I smiled. These bodies of ours move in their own societies, with their own intricacies but we are all shielding ourselves from the sun. We are similar.

The Korean language, with its gorgeous script, lends itself to politeness: there are several different ways to address someone, each indicating their societal status and the level of respect accorded. Women, of course, must employ strategies (rules) to be even more polite. Only native-born Koreans fully grasp the intricacies. I remember Tambudzai in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel, Nervous Conditions, debating the intricacies of washing hands: whose hands should be washed first, whose hands are more worthy?

The week flew by. Perhaps because there was less introspection and more being. Eating kimchi and dried squid. Seeing the ocean lap at the mountains. Falling asleep alone, happy. And hours and hours of standing still.  It was new, but quick, that week. The whole week was a Scottish hour. I asked, when I got back home, why it had been so quick. In fact, the entire year had passed swiftly. I spent a lot of time with Body. I wasn’t fully myself, but I was getting to know myself. I still am. I was understanding Body’s language; that when it needs to sleep, I should sleep; that when it wants to dance, I should dance. The rules, designed to protect me, were Body’s gag. It was choking, Body was saying.

I could never stand straight, but I can flare my nostrils see? No. I can’t catch a ball, but this voice projects across concert halls. No, I don’t remember what the rules are in what order but I am still ticklish so I can laugh just because of a feather. I am frisky and loud and regular. I feel warm in the sun.

I felt the difference more when we danced outside a restaurant having eaten fried chicken (being the cliché) and being filmed by Korean restaurant goers (the propensity to filming being their cliché). Because I did not understand Korean, their words couldn’t hurt me. When I heard “Black from the waist down”, an English lyric in a South Korean club anthem, I cringed. The rumours of the mandigo have come here too. Only one step away from the lazy and the stupid, the promiscuous and baboonish.

But remember Rule 34: Imagine everything they say is a blessing. Close your eyes. For the moment, just for the moment it doesn’t matter what they think.

I danced.

I danced because my body loved the beat and my ears could shut out noise. At least until it got too loud. At least until the song ended.

“Take my dress and give me your trousers” – Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru  (Nairobi, Kenya, Now.)

In Wambui Mwangi’s trenchant essay on the body, “Silence is a Woman”, a phrase in particular rang out to me as I wrote this piece: “Without a body, Wanjiku is only a name.”

Without a body, I am just a name.

There are still moments when I hear that teacher’s voice and feel his eyes lick my thighs. Funga miguu, Moi anapita”. At the age of twenty-five, I still instinctively close my legs. The attempt to detach myself from Body when I was eight years old didn’t protect me as much it left me floating, unanchored. I had to separate Body from self to make sense of what happened, but it has become gravely important to find ways to live within myself, to inhabit this body, not to simply be me, to be whole and not divided. But how do you reconnect? How does this strange body, this vehicle you’ve been driving, become you again? Body and I aren’t one yet, not really, but, like any failed relationship, it begins with a conversation.

It’s a painful thing, relearning the language of the body. I should have it innately, but I forgot it or lost it, or had it stolen. I want to live in my body like a dancer or a boxer does in theirs, aware of where their strength lies.

To find Mwangi’s words, to find women in harmony with their bodies, women stripping naked as a political act, women refusing to have their bodies owned by others, women painting and sculpting and performing, creating art through or of the female body, redefining it, weaving; women writing out their desires, women shouting #MyDressMyChoice knowing it’s not about the dress, but the body and mind, the I, that lives in it, even women taking selfies so you see their bodies as they see themselves.

Women can be in their bodies. I, maybe, can be in mine.

It is helping to realise that the Rules were never mine, not Body’s, not really.

Read the rules out again, even the good ones, the new ones. The rules won’t stop your rape or assault or harassment. They won’t raise your salary or make you feel beautiful. They won’t stop the casual comments and grave dangers. They won’t stop your need to eat, shit, sleep, fuck. I can’t help but overthink the Rules, analyse, write, rewrite, reframe, reconstruct and, and, and…all these tasks…The rules are a chokehold.

“Take my dress and give me your trousers,” says Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru.

I love that quote because it demands stripping and redressing. It’s about being in full possession of your body, understanding its femininity and instead of rejecting it, owning it. It is impossible to say you are not your body if you are a woman, or black. Your body is you.

It is about discarding the rules.

These days we talk, Body and I, and we talk often. “Be,” she says. My Body, yes, my body is telling me to simply be.

Body — the pockmarks from acne, the cramps that rage through me, the lonely unruly hair that grows on the nipple, the pendulous breasts, the wide nose, and wish-they-were-wider hips; the near imperceptible scar on my right wrist when I fell off my bike when I was eight years old, and ran home crying, and was hugged and felt loved, and stood up and rode again and again and again; the brain it houses that thinks it’s in control but has learned to eat when hungry, to sleep when tired, to laugh when happy, to cry when sad, to be alone, to be with others, to be within — this body that isn’t anyone else’s but is mine.

I recently discovered something new about Body; it has begun naming itself.

I won’t tell you those names, because they aren’t yours to know. I will tell you that Body began its naming, to my joy, with its most feminine parts. Body named itself with the aid of my friends. Body was not named by you. Body will not turn when you call its name for only I can call it. Body will rename itself as it ages and shapes itself, and I will try to listen. We will curl up together with a good book, like we always did.