The Black African Body

editorial by Varyanne Sika

Ilustration by Naddya Oluoch.

“There are thinkings of the systematicity of the body, there are value codings of the body. The body as such cannot be thought.” – Gayatri Spivak

Our bodies are central to our existence. They signify our presence or absence in/from material and ideological spaces, and are integral to our corporeal experiences. Our lived experiences throughout life are as varied as life itself, unconfined to or within a singular context. We eat, dance, use our bodies for labour, for art, for pleasure, for reproduction, to communicate and to embody our different material histories. Our bodies bleed, hurt, age, menstruate, break, limit us, propel us in varying ways, and deprive us of or afford us different liberties.

Women’s bodies specifically are often discussed in feminist and other discourses particularly in relation to sexuality and reproduction. Discussions on the body focusing on sexuality and reproductive health illustrate that those are the points of contention and have greater vulnerability in body matters. This focus illustrates the areas in which power and agency struggles are mostly manifested and visible. Feminist Africa’s “Sexual Cultures” issue in 2005, recognized that African sexuality is addressed by proxy in the literature available on the global market. In this recognition, Feminist Africa took on the opportunity to “deepen and further inform the ongoing debates and struggles around various aspects of sexuality [in Africa].”  Buwa!’s issue, “Sex and Health” shared African stories and experiences in sex and health to challenge Africans to “loosen the lid that has been kept tightly shut for decades to prevent sex and sexuality form being openly discussed…” Pop’Africana made a call a few years ago for contributions to their “Sex & the Female Body” seeking to “create a new anthropology of exploration and understanding of the African female body with a focus on erotica, beauty and traditions.” These issues all constitute an important foundation for thinking about the systematicities and value codings of the black African body.

In the past few years, there has been more effort to include discussion and exploration of black African bodies outside the context of sex, sexuality and health. For instance, platforms such as ‘Inkanyiso’ which centers African LGBTI persons in visual media, and Hola Africa which is a ‘Pan-Africanist queer womanist collective that deals with African female sexuality…’ have created space for LGBTI in discussing the black African body. Africanah gives an overview of body politics in African women’s art, there is more discussion of black African bodies in film, (more) literature and poetry, sports, and labour.  In Buala’s second call for their images and geographies issue, they intended to “reinforce the need to design bodies as sites of essential and full performance and not as mere surfaces of discursive enrolment.” These different discussions and many others unmentioned are the kinds to which we are interested in contributing.

In this second issue, the Wide Margin is interested in following the line of thought as in ‘Feminist Theory and the Body’ (edited by Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick);

“the body matters.”

This issue covers in a few essays, sexuality, abortion, identity, language, transformation, and the varied experiences with our bodies.

Felicity Okoth invites us to discuss abortion and dares those who hide behind religion and law to recognize the desperation of women and girls who resort to dangerous means of terminating pregnancies, and openly discuss the subject. Assumptions are made about the binary often drawn in abortion debates, “pro-choice” and “pro-life”, such as one being religious and the other atheistic, and subsequently that one is moral and the other amoral, but these assumptions are limiting and false and do not contribute to the discussion, false binaries rarely do. Women of all races are affected pregnancies they choose not to keep, but women of colour are the most affected. Economic factors are impossible to ignore when discussing abortion, similarly and very important is the matter of power and autonomy in the hierarchy of bodies, but we are reminded that the goal in the abortion debate should be to seek liberation for women.

African eroticism is contemplated by Tiffany Kagure Mugo referencing Nzegwu Nkiru’s essay ‘Osunality, or African Sensuality: Going Beyond Eroticism’, published by Jenda in 2010. Tiffany’s discussion offers a look at sexuality and culture while challenging the norm which seems to dictate that it is contrary to African culture and traditions to enjoy sex or to be sensual. A proposition is made, that sex in Africa [on the matter of traditions] “should be about invoking traditions so as to surface their sex positive foundations”.

The essay by Anthea Taderera on sexual harassment in Zimbabwe was prompted by several incidences, particularly the widely discussed and reported ‘mini-skirt march’ in Harare, Zimbabwe. Sexual harassment is commonplace and often dismissed with victim blaming without considering the glaring lack of safety for women navigating masculinised spaces. Morality rears its incessant head again on this subject and respectability and compliance with the norm is peddled as a solution to the perceived immorality, but this is also a political strategy to reduce the populace of women who rock the boat as it were.

Anne Moraa shares her experience on coming into and accepting her body while providing accounts of the black body moving and being in the world, performing, creating art, resisting and fighting oppression, self-doubt, and self-consciousness. A sense of detachment from the body in the early years growing up is later followed by bravery, boldness and a more profound self-awareness and confidence. One gets the sense that everything that can be thrown at the black female body often is, and more than survival, thriving remains a possibility.

Another experience of living in one’s body is shared by Dorothy Kigen on colourism living in Kenya and being biracial. Grappling with prejudices based on one’s skin while simultaneously aware of the implications of being in possession of skin with high cachet in Kenya is by no means a pleasant experience as illustrated in the discussion. Colourism and Eurocentric beauty ideals motivate skin bleaching and perpetuate division among women as it pits them against each other, an issue that does not to apply to men.

Ola Osaze writes about language longing for Yoruba and Edo, his native tongue but for which he lacks the words. A modern day polyglot speaks a mix of register and language as they navigate the different parts of the society they live, all the while recognizing that,

‘speaking English fluently is a cultural capital’,

that enables economic survival in a predominantly English speaking society. A body moves through society through various ways but cannot avoid communication. Ola shares an experience of movement in the society and across borders through exploring not only his language but his evolving relation to his own language.

When we look different from what people expect, curiosity often leads to questions on one’s origins and presumably their identity. Fungai Machirori says she is from the future which ‘defies rules and conventions on who I should be and accepts who I am.’ Hope that such a future is within reach is a shared one particularly by those people who would like to go about living with a complexity and intersection of identities without constantly being questioned wherever they turn.

In this issue we have a review of A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass by Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed. Zahrah thinks about the black African body in literature and leaned towards Igoni’s book by the surrealist nature of transformation of bodies. Depending on one’s race in Nigeria, as in many other countries on the continent and beyond, opportunities are presented or challenges met. Zahrah discusses the two types of transformations that occur in the book; racial and gender transformations. Our attention is brought to Frantz Fanon’s declaration in Black Skins, White Masks (1967), that,

 ‘For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white.’

Murewa Olubela writes a poem in which a body is observed, appreciated and accepted, an apt way to end this collection of thoughts on the body.

Is it possible to take a close look at identity and write creatively about bodies and identities beyond the commonplace categories? There is much more to be said and thought about regarding the body, this issue of the Wide Margin offers a continuation of other discussions before it and hopes to further more contemplation on the black African body.