A warm medase paa to BKLPhotography for allowing us to feature these stunning and luminous images.
Growing up as a 90’s kid in Los Angeles, California was awfully confusing for a young girl who carried some extra weight and a Latin accent. Back then, television screens were flooded with images of Cindy Crawford and Kate Moss, which in turn set a true standard of “perfection”. Bodies’ slayed with thin waists, visible rib cages, and no “behind” were a testament to real beauty. I, at the time, couldn’t dare to compare myself to the images I saw on TV. I, instead, preferred to compare myself to a sack of potatoes. I was a chunky little thing, who loved tortillas, and pan dulce. Although my Mami did a fantastic job at showering me with love and appraisal, she also constantly monitored my eating habits, and tried, with little success, to get me involved with sports. Some time after my sophomore year in high school, I grew a few inches, and the weight around my belly distributed to the southern corners of my body. By the time I reached the age of 15, I walked the hallways of my high school carrying a womanly shape. Despite the even distribution of mass around my hips, I never felt I fit definition of beautiful. Cute? Maybe. Nalgona? Definitely.
At 22 years old, I touched down in Ghana. West Africa. The land of bright, brick red Earth, colorful fabrics, and hip-life tunes as well as afrobeats. The city of Accra is bustling. As I rode the tro-tro (a commonly used method of public transportation) women and men crossed the motorway, balancing baskets atop their heads selling fresh fruit, water sachets, plantain chips, Fan Ice yogurt and other miscellaneous items like electronics and bathroom tissue. Often times, the women work from sun up to sun down. Walking up and down along the motorways winding in and out of the car lanes amidst traffic; the real world is their runway, and they kill it every single time. They don’t drop their children off at day care before they leave for work. Instead, toddlers are strapped, perched just above their lower backs, using a yard of color fabric and carefully tied knots. As soon as their children are old enough to read, they too, join their parents on the motorway. Meanwhile, beats from the local radio station play from random car stereos and I can hear lyrics, sung in pidgin (an informal manner of communicating that incorporates Twi and broken English, heard across Ghana and used predominately among men to express solidarity, comradery and youthful rebellion) like “Ur waist, ur waist/ All I want is ur waist” and “Shake up your bum bum/ The way you whine whine e dey make me go down low”. As I try to maintain a calm exterior, on the inside, my heart would randomly flutter; this too is beauty, and I can finally relate.
On a Sunday afternoon, I was with a group of program students from the California system and we’d organized a trip to the local beach, Krokrobite. I suited up with a two-piece bikini under my dress and I was ready to hit the sand. Upon arrival, I quickly realized I was “under-dressed” for the occasion. Most of the locals lounged around the beach and beachside mini bars in shorts and tank tops and any women seen wading in the water were fully clothed in leggings and t-shirts. Hesitant, I removed my dress and quickly wrapped myself in a beach cover-up. That’s when I heard someone behind me yell, “Eii, I like your waist line!” Blushing, I turned to find myself faced with three local men. I was soon at ease, as these men politely introduced themselves and we began a friendly conversation.
We somehow made our way onto the topic of waist beads. African beads have a long history as these powder glass beads have been seen all across the continent of Africa and are used as ornamental and symbolic adornment, at times representing signs of wealth, aristocracy and of femininity. Enlarged waistlines, hips, arms and calves are regarded as common characteristics of traditional Ghanaian beauty. Ghanaian beads (because of their inability to stretch unless they are untied or loosened) are worn around the waistlines, hips, arms or calves of young girls so these areas can develop well as they grow and their bodies are shaping. I’d heard about waist beads during my time in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from a friend who’d previously been to Ghana. I, myself, started wearing strings of beads around my waist since my first trip to Rio de Janeiro, although in Brazil they are not symbolic. The beads that I wore were more of a fashion statement and also represented my time in Brazil. Before my departure to Ghana, I was warned by a friend not to flaunt my waist beads so thoughtlessly since a public display of waist beads was seen as the equivalent of exposing your breast.
As soon as I arrived on the beach, I was hesitant about taking off my dress for that reason. My intention was not to offend anyone with my body. When I inquired about this to my new acquaintances, I asked how come some of the shops surrounding the beaches all sold women’s bathing suits and bikinis but none of the local women actually wore them. I asked, how, in spite of the consistently humid year-round heat, women stayed so covered-up. The answer was quite enlightening, “You see, us Africans, we come from kings and queens. So, we must dress as such. That means treating our bodies as temples and only sharing ourselves with our partners”. These men went on to tell me that Africans are a very royal people. And to demonstrate it, they adorn their bodies with these colorful and uniquely made cloths and beads, which requires many hours of tedious craftsmanship. Ghanaians are just as concerned with their health and well being as they are with their outward personal care and appearance. It is common for Ghanaians to greet each other with variations of “Ete sen?”, spoken in Twi (just one of the most commonly spoken local dialects in Ghana) which translates into some form of, Is your body well? Or, How are you? In English, a Ghanaian might ask you, how is your health? Or how did you sleep? as a greeting or introduction to a conversation.
During my time studying at the University of Ghana at Legon campus, I sat in classrooms, side by side with some of the descendants of these queens and kings. I have heard the words that so eloquently roll off their tongues when they raise their hands to give a response or pose a question. I have had the privilege of being taught by some of the finest educators in Ghana, one of them being Gertrude Aba Mansah Eyifa-Dzidzienyo, lecturer of archaeology, with an emphasis on gender studies, museum and heritage studies. Madam G.A.M. Eyifa-Dzidzienyo is the first woman archaeologist fully trained and currently lecturing in Ghana. She conducted her doctoral research among the Talensi in the Upper East Region of Ghana and at eight months pregnant she was still on the field collecting data. She proudly submitted her PhD thesis for examination and looks forward to graduating in July of 2017. This will make her the first woman to receive a PhD in the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies at the University of Ghana. She has given hope to women in pursuing Archaeology and has enhanced the gender image of the Department of Archaeology by being the only woman working with male colleagues until the recent appointment of another woman, which she herself mentored and encouraged after her undergraduate studies. After paving the way, more women have also received their MPhil degree while others are currently enrolled. Madam G.A.M. Eyifa-Dzidzienyo is thriving proof that the Ghanaian woman is an educator and a leader, the elbow grease that gets the hamster wheels spinning. She serves as a reminder that women are nurturers, among many other things, giving light to future scholars, entrepreneurs, and philosophers.
I’ve heard the saying, ‘Feeling like I got the weight of the world on my shoulders’. After my time in West Africa I’ve come to the belief that Ghanaian women, West African women, African women, black women, women of the African diaspora, all carry the weight of the world on their hips. The curves of their bodies withstanding the weight of the millions of men, women, children that were ripped from their mothers and brutally shipped to the four corners of the world. Their royal lineage awfully tainted by the brutal experience our world has bestowed upon millions of black women. Mama Africa carries the ever lasting affects of the colonial rule that still to this day disrupts and intercedes in the unification of the African continent. The creases and wrinkles caused by the years of carrying this weight are traces of the white man’s border lines. The groove on her lower back providing refuge and comfort to her brothers and sisters, husbands, sons and daughters, uncles and fathers.
Reflecting upon it now, when I examine Ghana more closely, I see that the Earth is that bright, brick red color because Mama Africa bleeds for those who were lost and those that continue to struggle today. I listen to the lyrics of hip life, and I realize that they are a celebration of the African woman, her waistline, and her ability to smile and cry through her pain; she carries her crown high amidst of the constant geo-political warfare against Africa. In Ghana, when the women walk, they stand tall. They are proud to be Ghanaian; they are proud to be African; they are proud to be Ghanaian women; they are proud to be African women. I, then, examine my own body. And although I could never draw a comparison between my life experiences and those of African women, I’ve come to love and embrace the body and the curves I was given. It is this one body that has helped me through 25 years of life, across the land of three different continents. It is this one body that has helped me get through school, which wakes me up every morning for work. From watching her, I too, have learned to be proud of who I am, the life I have been given and the body that I was born with.
A song to get you in a good mood – Africa by Yemi Alade ft. Sauti Sol