Does beauty protect us from mental illness?
This question was asked at a mental health conference I once attended. A speaker spoke about beauty, the lack of beauty and its effect on mental health. It reminded me of the story below, and the lessons I learned about beauty.
The vegetable vendor, mama mboga was not always an angry homicidal woman. She had just gone through a few difficult months, which happens to all of us at some time. Firstly, she had been fighting with her friend Benji, who owed her money. He didn’t seem to have an intention to repay. He was a hustler with a hustle-kiosk by the bridge between Baraza and Kayole. In the cooler hours of the day, he grilled maize, yams, arrow-roots and other grillables which he sold to passers-by. During the hot hours, he was a plumber, a gardener, a painter, an electrician, whatever the Baraza residents needed, Benji could fix it or broker for a fixer.
A hard worker, something mama mboga respected. Therefore, they had a neighbourly friendship going, but Benji drank too much and ate too little which led to chronic money shortage and neglected hygiene. Something mama mboga did not have any respect for.
Everyone who knew him and found it necessary to have any kind of verbal exchange with Benji did it from the opposite side of the road. His breath was known to kill the rats under the bridge to the left of his maize-roasting-grill. He sold his roasted edibles to those who did not know him, and children who were too short, so Benji’s killer-breath wafted over them mixed with the smoke from his jua-kali grill.
Mama mboga had liked him all the same. If like can turn into love, lifelong friendship or acrimony, this was one of those that were turning acrimonious.
Livia & Valentina
During the same period, sometime in 1995, Livia and Valentina arrived in Baraza, having escaped the war in Rwanda. To get to Kenya, they had traveled through Uganda and Tanzania. A three-day journey had taken months. The two beautiful sisters had with them their young sons, one each, and they rented the house by the bridge, opposite Benji’s hustle kiosk.
They used the front of the house as a salon. With a talent for braiding hair and skin care, they kept the salon immaculately clean. They were efficient too, braiding a full head of small twists in three-four hours. Unlike other salons around in Baraza, they never double-booked customers as other salons did. The aggravated customers left the old salons and booked their times at the LV salon. The ladies had good speakers installed in the salon ensuring quality sound in entertainment and they had beautiful international magazines strewn around.
At this salon, gossip in broken Swahili sounded like compliments in French. I appreciate good gossip in good Swahili more than I let on, but gossip at LV salon was and still is unbeatable. It was never about specific people, it was about situations in which several people were involved in – nameless unidentified people. It was like listening to soap operas on radio or folklore.
Though mama mboga and Benji used to be good friends, by time LV salon opened, Benji and mama mboga were no longer on speaking terms. Except the occasional insults directed in each other’s direction. With the arrival of LV ladies, mama mboga lost her previous role as the unchallenged COO of Gossip Center AB. Animosity could be felt through the vegetables on mama mboga’s kiosk. To worsen the situation, the LV ladies started to catch the attentions of all the men, including Benji.
Women seem to be in constant preparation for the eventuality of war or famine, in which they will need the men to fight for them or hunt for them. Even those women who don’t care a whiff about men, do not like it when new women move into their territory and start attracting the men, in case men’s loyalties change leading to abandonment.
The LV-ladies cleaned the salon between 07:00 -07:30 every morning, the very same time when men were passing, or driving by on their way to work. For the ladies, they were preparing for LV opening hours at 08:00 or 08:30, just after they had prepared their sons for school. For the honourable wives and women of Baraza, the LV ladies were intentionally seducing their husbands by cleaning.
With kangas wrapped around their nice round hips, loose unflattering t-shirts or old Kitenge blouses and headscarves or stockings on their heads.
Still the men would standby or drive slower, distracted by the cleaning rituals and the swinging hips under the kangas. The maize roasting Benji, by the roadside opposite the LV salon, gave up his beauty sleep every morning to arrive five-ten minutes before or after Livia or Valentina started the cleaning routines. Although he wouldn’t open his maize grill until around 9:30am, he was ruled the simple matter of lust. To sit on the other side of the road and watch a half hour of Livia or Valentina bend over cleaning the floors or wiping the windows with the whole-body shaking was a daily dose of lust-relief. It did not matter that Benji did not have a chance with any of the two women. Not even with two hells frozen over and purgatory closed.
Livia and Valentina had, with impressive results, taken the over-hyped and unpredictable risk of future damaged skin or cancer by bleaching themselves. I shall never forget the daily hassle they went through to protect their bleached bodies in constant scorching sun. When they were forced to be out in the midday sun, they used sunscreen creams with as high protection as muzungus, and then walked around like caricatures of themselves, with small pretty umbrellas. People either loved them, made fun of them, or hated them.
“They look like the Japanese geishas you see on karate movies, don’t they? He he he he.”
They cared less and I loved them for it. By the time Benji discovered them, the bleaching was well done which made him resentful.
“A woman who can bleach that well is high-maintenance. Who wants to spend money on that? Who wants a bleached woman in his bed anyways? Imagine if the skin peels off?”
Mama mboga’s loving husband
After a few months of LV salon as a neighbour, mama mboga was even worse tempered with Benji and Herculi than usual. She demanded her money when Benji was drunk, a time she would normally avoid him. This escalated into an exchange of curses and disparaging accusations.
In another country, it could have ended up in a court of law – as slander. Mama mboga had even toyed with the idea and discussed it with Magara, the lawyer in house number 60. Magara had studied law in India and presently worked in an up and coming law firm in the city. Mama mboga was distraught especially because Benji had used the words witch, and night runner to insult her. Magara explained that it would cost her more than it was worth considering that she would probably need to bribe several people to get witnesses and this, even before the case got to court.
To his defense, Benji explained that he was hammered, pissed and pissing his pants, and did not remember whatever he had said. He assured mama mboga and her cronies that he did not mean anything of it in his sober day-times. The devil had visited him on that evil evening and said all those evil things. It must have been full-moon madness, he concluded.
“As you know mama mboga, I have some screws loose on a good day; and even more screws missing than usual on full-moon nights.”
That did not pacify mama mboga, but she let it slide by retorting ominously, like a true night-running-witch, that Benji better find other places to be during full-moon or he may find himself disappeared, never to be found again.
Mama mboga reminded me of shushu in many ways. Like shushu, mama mboga believed that men do and say what they mean when they are drunk, and lie through their teeth when sober.
”Cowards, the whole bunch!” She would hiss in anger if a woman complained about a drunk husband who had done evil while drunk.
”Why don’t they dare do it while sober?” She wondered.
Although LV salon had stolen some of mama mboga’s women during the day, the kiosk remained a meeting place for housewives and housemaids in the early evenings. The hours between 17:00 and 18:30, when the salon was closed and dinner accompaniments had to be acquired. All news, advice, recommendations, concoctions and experiences were shared among the women at this hour.
Of course the men avoided the kiosk, until the women were done. The last months of 1995 and beginning of 1996, mama mboga was altered. Even her usual friendly abrasiveness had turned unfriendly and her flying stones aimed at Herculi, the dog, had venom in them. Herculi started to avoid the kiosk all together, rarely showing his face by the kiosk except late at night or early in the mornings when it was closed.
It turned out, the LV ladies had been retailing the products they were using on their skin, and had been marketing them by word of mouth. Mama mboga was racked with confusion. She was considering bleaching herself but was not totally decided how to go about it secretly so no one noticed her becoming yellower or browner by the day. She was a fine woman, mama mboga was, but no one except maybe her husband would call her beautiful. She was on friendly terms with the LV ladies, giving them whatever of the vegetables from her kiosk was overdue and would otherwise go bad if not sold. In exchange, they made her hair for much less than the asking price.
Be that as it may, she was not as young as the LV ladies, having a daughter in late teens. She had to be at least thirty-five, that is if she got her daughter at sixteen. She didn’t know how to handle the LV ladies’ easy beauty. Her greatest charm was her easy vexation with life wrapped in humour and a warm laugh.
The third thing that tipped mama mboga’s balance during these months was when her husband, who never used to show any excitement around women, started dropping by the kiosk in the early evenings.
‘Just to chat with his wife’, which he never did before LV salon opened its doors. She was suspicious from the very first day he stayed longer than his standard 20 minutes. She observed for a few days without comment but on the fifth day he stayed for an hour, mama mboga promised that someone would die or disappear if she felt humiliated by any eyes looking in the wrong direction, or a smile at the wrong moment.
”I am not especially funny, and I know when I have said something that one can smile about.” She declared as a warning and her husband understood.
He still stopped by, careful to not cause anyone’s death or disappearance. He did not know for sure what his wife was capable of. She seemed to live exactly as she wanted. Her children went to school, she bought the food she wanted when she wanted. She paid the women’s chama every week and all this in total disregard of his existence.
He worried that if he disappeared, she would not notice except if the school fees and house bills were not paid. He had to admit that she made sure that he had eaten, showered and called to check that he had arrived safely when he was traveling without her. She did not always inform him of her plans and did not demand explanations for his actions either. She had once, in a moment of comradeship, said to him that the only thing she had ever needed was a home and children.
She had all that now.
He did not know what he would do if she was not in his life and he was afraid she knew exactly what she would do if he left her. So, he discretely watched the LV-ladies. Discreet enough to not embarrass his wife, and long enough to be able to say to other men that he too understood manhood’s fascination with the ladies.
The LV ladies were referred to by their first names which falsely implied that they were unmarried and childless. They had been married and lost their husbands in the Rwandan war.
Neighbours were suspicious of them.
“Where do you come from?” The reply “Rwanda” meant nothing for a regular Kenyan except flashing TV pictures of bloody limbs being dislodged from the bodies or the burning churches hidden behind smoke. Most kept their distance for the preservation of their marriages and declaration of man-ownership, which was often displayed by most women when confronted by the LV ladies. Here were two beautiful young women, man-less, a child each and independent with their own house.
Husbands could start disappearing.
The silent consensus was, “Better keep away from them!” Which was enforced with backstabbing lies, cayenne-pepper-looks, confirming-bonding-knowing-looks among the chosen few who behaved as expected. Small hidden head shakes and when the worst came to the worst, diverted looks. No respected woman’s eyes met the eyes of the ostracized. The agreement was as simple as it was old.
“Don’t become friends with those single beautiful people, unless you are stupid, in that case, you deserve what’s coming your way. Let them fix your hair, and only because no one else does it better. ”
Some women asked the LV ladies to watch their children for a couple of hours or so when they ran errands. But, the same evening or the next morning when they passed by on their way to church, or to the Makuti bar with their husbands, the same women stared straight ahead without even a hello to the LV ladies.
Beauty was a liability that was used against Livia and Valentina. Once, Livia told my mom how she had walked in on the shopkeeper’s wife and the pharmacy owner’s wife as they debated whether the LV ladies ever had husbands. Or if they were loose-morale-women who had gotten pregnant by other womens’ husbands. The husbands must have opened the salon for them.
She was crying as she told mom this.
“They don’t even ask what we have seen. They just assume, and gossip and sneer and spread lies.”
The shop keeper’s wife had haughtily said that she had asked her husband to keep away from the LV ladies.
” Who knows, maybe they are Congolese who sleep with monkeys and bring AIDS with them?” Livia whispered tearfully.
“Like giving the men permission to insult and disrespect us. Wanawake hatusaidiani. Women, we cannot help each other. She said in so good Swahili I was smiling at her for a whole minute afterwards.
Meanwhile a couple of women around Kanzu court, had suddenly become a little lighter in their complexions. Mama Shagi blamed it on lack of sunshine, as she had recently spent too many hours indoors, since her sick mother came to visit. Curiously, the complexion did not go back to the usual darker shades of fore-years, when her mother had left and mama Shagi was out daily, albeit constantly on the lookout for a good shade.
One evening as we waited for our kales and spinach to be sliced by mama mboga’s sharp knife, she informed us quite ceremoniously that after months of deliberation, she had decided not to bleach herself. Apparently, she was furious at herself for being tempted by such vanity.
Will I pay my daughter’s school fees or buy breaching creams? She asked us all. At that wrong moment, Herculi walked by the kiosk, minding his own business, as though the devil wanted him dead.
“That stupid dog again!? He is relentless! Did you know he stole my samosa the other day? I turned around for a minute…” Mama mboga started hurling rotten avocados at him.
Lessons on Beauty
At the LV salon, I learnt to watch ordinary good enough women turn themselves into instant unreachable, high maintenance sirens.
Beauties of all sorts. For dates, for weddings, for nights out with their husbands or sugar daddies.
I also heard and watched women and men observe beauty, react to beauty, assassinate beauty and often, speak condescendingly about beauty. The African saying: a man who marries a beautiful woman has similar problems as the one who plants his crops by the cowshed was constantly evoked and revised during childhood. In different words and versions.
It was repeated into teenage.
Men advised each other and women laughed encouragingly.
On friendship, a married woman with a beautiful female friend is like a poultry farmer letting the Lycaon into chicken pen. A beautiful woman is the enemy of men’s financial advancement, was often used by both women and men. Especially, when a man on his way to financial ruin happened to have a beautiful wife.
On AIDs, all you needed to do, was stay away from beauty. If you want to avoid AIDs, avoid the beautiful women. They entreated as they elbowed each other on the way in or out of beautiful women.
By the time I was sixteen and ready to live alone, I realized that I hoped I was not beautiful.
I reacted with distaste and even horror when anyone said I was beautiful, pretty or attractive.
After all, I had done nothing to deserve beauty and I longed for it to stay away so all I had was myself. My humanity, wife-material, potential-mother, potential-friend, AIDs-resistant. Plus all other good things that could come from lack of beauty.
I could then dedicate my thoughts and dreams to the attentions I was receiving from a boy, Karani, who had moved into our court and seemed to like Herculi, the homeless dog, as much as I did.
Recommended Reading: Are you interested in learning more about feminism, women’s rights and the journeys women make towards their destinies? Here is a list of blogs to take you from knowing nothing, to awareness.