Here’s Why I Stopped Telling the Story of the Impoverished African Woman
February 18, 2013 § 2 Comments
I was 10 minutes to late for my part time job when I asked U, a half Nigerian manager of something I wasn’t sure about in the entertainment industry, if my hair looked greasy.
He cocked his head and said, “don’t your people like that look?”
I stopped. He didn’t notice my “go die” face, so I spoke my incredulity to be clear – “MY people?”
He nodded. “Don’t get shitty Charlotte.”
He’d called me ”Charlotte” when I picked up the night before. Like he forgot who he was talking to. I’d ignored it.
I’d been Charlotte for 14 hours after that.
“Don’t act like race doesn’t exist here,” he said. “Your people. White. Black. My people. Your people. It’s ok, I still like you even though you’re white.
U was last up in a round of tour de round the world dating I started with a Ugandan tour guide and continued into with a Pakistani journalist and a half Japanese executive who liked to call me by my middle name. We talked about cultural issues and intercultural issues and women’s issues. We talked about white, blue collared men. And, we talked about my story as a white woman twenty something who wanted to set up a story in East Africa.
We took to a proverbial boxing ring over dinner and facets of my business – the Pakistani writer let me know flirtaciously, subtly – not subtly enough – to quit my bitching, since I was a white, California girl who never experienced the things he’d seen women endure in Dubai. The exec turned my business model on its head, over champagne. U laughed at my choice to take a salary in year one.
“Damn girl, just admit it was a mistake.”
Over and over and over again we came back to skin – silently, out loud, over drinks, after reading Jezebel articles and in the middle of the night – back to the reminder that I’m white when you strip me down, and I’ve only got things to talk about because 1. I’m a pro choice feminist in a country brimming with adamant male pro lifers 2. I’d been kicked out of a bar for kissing a girl and 3. I worked in an area of East Africa highly populated by sexist men. I’m not a Ugandan designer, and so my story is a half breed – stuck somewhere between roots in the Yuba river, trunk shows at my favorite East Village wine bar and a Ugandan village where I learned the art of shaving my legs in a bucket shower, and peed in a bucket when they bar the hut door closed at night.
We had things to talk about because the melting pot has been my salvation – the breaking out of a tightly closed background, and the speaking out of every part of what I want to do with my life. Just like all of them.
We had things to talk about because I have learned, over and over, that this story became way more fucking nuanced when I left a nonprofit position where Ugandan women thanked me for “loving them and being there,” and moved into a business where I threw in my risk and unknown together with a group of women I respect the shit out of, and we started the story of our shared experience of Uganda.
Social media week is taking over New York City, and I’m playing my part. But what I really want to know about is Social Media Week Lagos. That’s where my head’s at – the location that’s got me buzzing. In New York, we’re talking about social solutions to the things happening in places like Nigeria, but I’m glued to gchat because it’s happening right in front of us, without us – in spite of us, and alongside us, in partnership with us, if we let it. I’m listening to these African designers telling the story of their sourcing issues, the artisans they’re working with, the quality issues and control issues and cultural nuances. I’m tweeting, and I’m taking furious notes, and then I’m circling and putting Loza Maléombho phrases in caps when she says she wishes that nonprofits would stop selling African goods for fundraisers that aren’t supporting sustainable growth.
That’s where I started, you know – selling African goods for fundraisers I’m still not sure were supporting sustainable growth.
I remember the first time I doubted my direction.
My mouth was stuffed full of a chille rellano that Lehigh new media professor Jeremy Littau had offered to buy me for lunch, and I was checking my watch to make sure I made it back for an afternoon chapel meeting at the evangelical university I was attending.
Jeremy didn’t say a lot. He said enough.
“You don’t know it yet, but you’ve got it,” he said. I had too much chille rellano in my mouth to do anything but raise my eyebrow. I gulped down a beer we both knew I wasn’t supposed to be having, at my conservative evangelical school. We both knew I didn’t care anymore.
I’d recently returned from Uganda and I was pissed. I was pissed at how my university was sending students to Uganda for “life changing experiences” on the ground without any kind of plan for sustainable growth for the folks that were turning them into do-good fanatics. I was pissed about AIDS. I was pissed about ideology – the kind that shared sad stories, and the kind that sent a person like me to collect them. “How has ____ helped you?” that’s Christian-eze for turning wretches into hallelujah singers, with a nonprofit thrown in where Jesus used to fit.
“You know how to get your people to feel bad for us and write a check.” That was the line I couldn’t shake. And, I had written about being bothered, about being caught in an in between place selling sympathy on the marketplace and expecting to sleep well at night.
I was scared that I was wrong. I was scared I was supposed to clean it up – to write in clean, white lines about poverty, and about solutions to poverty. That was it. That’s what they were telling me.
But, that’s not what Jeremy was saying. He was telling me to write out the doubt and the feeling in the dark where I was fighting hard between a traditional aid model, and the ideas about my experience in Uganda. And it was Jeremy who told me to pursue the kind of raw, fucked up feeling kind of writing I was getting barely any hits on in the blogosphere. I was struggling with the way the evangelical church was dealing with Africa. I was struggling with my own experience writing on AIDS. I was struggling with how to pull it all together. And, he told me to write that. That that, in itself, was a story.
What did it feel like? What was the struggle? He told me it was the next wave of new journalism – the beginning of something that was just starting, but would have everything to do with social enterprise. Feeling your way in the dark could feel like one big fuck up, but it sure as hell was a better story than the white horsed white savior complex. Everybody outside the evangelical church was about to get real tired of that, and Jeremy told me to keep hitting hard at something else until it started to make sense.
“It’s making sense from here,” he said. “You just can’t feel it from where you’re sitting yet. Keep doing it until it comes together. It will be rough. That’s ok.”
It took me three years to realize he was talking about building a brand out of my experience of social enterprise in Uganda, before I’d even started a social enterprise. Something about having your hand in something and writing about it being offensive in the past, but did we think that psychedelics were the only experiential drug? Write the experience, Jeremy told me. Life is the drug. Experience is the drug. Not knowing, and doing it anyways – that’s the Gen Y drug, in New York City. Write about the experience of being wrong, about the experience of what you did after that, and after that – and what you learned along the way. And, then write about how you turned a profit. That’s what we’re doing now.
Hunter Thompson had Playboy, cocaine and a Cadillac and I was about to use a business model and a severe bout of disaster induced depression and a blog I wasn’t sure anyone but Jeremy was going to read. But I started anyways.
Sitting with Jeremy, I remembered the first time I’d dialed out to a contact in Kenya – pressing two on the special international line we had on a headset at UPI on an empty desk three rows down from mine. A year later, I remembered the first time I wrote about a man I’d sat with under a banana tree. And, two years after that, I remembered writing about discovering that the way I’d told his story had been a load of shit – I hadn’t captured the real story at all. I’d reduced his story – hadn’t set it on its axis. Human stories are like diamonds. Facets. Angles. All kinds of places for light to come through, unless you box them in.
Poverty, on its own, always boxes a story in.
I had to step out of the box – to start over completely with listening. And there was Adiat Disu and Lisa Folawiyo and Loza Maleombho ready to talk about how to do it – doing it – if I would just sit and pay attention.
That’s when people started paying attention to my story – when I broke all the rules I’d learned about selling the story of a poor African women so people would buy a product – when I admitted that I didn’t like much of anything I’d done so far, and how I walked out of it, often one defensive and misguided step at a time.
I admitted that I didn’t have neat categories or tidy faith for my experience, and that I was pissed off.
Jeremy had told me they would listen when I was authentic. And, they did. That’s when people started caring about my work.
It started when I gave up on the security of telling the story of the impoverished African woman for the purchase of their goods, and started telling writing about how she and I had come up with a design that a stylist in Los Angeles was able to market as an accessories line fitting into a high end Italian shoe boutique’s aesthetic. That was a story. That was a story she and I were living out together, and it was my job to tell it. It became my job to tell it. But, not just that. It became my job to write it with all the mistakes in there – all the life stories in there, all the imperfect moments that she and I lived out together while we got there. And, the feeling that we deserved to be where we were, more than anyone had ever deserved it before.
People wanted to know that side of the story – not the part where she and I rode in, beaming, and handed a new life to her children.
They wanted to know about the time I fucked up a whole line of new jewelry, wasted 5k, and figured out a way to start over. And that woman with the five children she was feeding on two bucks a day? She still believed in me. She still worked with me. She was the hero, then. And, that was a story.
I guess I had just thought life was supposed to be much tidier than that.
But that’s not what U said, when I talked about my life – when I bitched that I was on a tighter budget than I wanted to be, and cried because I’d only gotten one new account that morning, and fuck all this trying when it all goes so slow and I’m so bad at it sometimes.
“I’m crazy,” I told him on a bar stool in my ripped up faux leather pants. “It feels like a mess sometimes.”
“Course its messy,” he said.
He stuck his finger in the hole in my knee.
Then he told me he respected me.
I thought of Jeremy, sitting there – and the way he’d told me people would read the authenticity, and they would find strength in it, even when I didn’t.
Part of giving up on the story of the impoverished African woman had been buying into the truth that my story could stand on its own – that people would want to partner with a girl fighting for partnership in a place she had traveled fallen in love with at nineteen.
I didn’t have to tug on their heartstrings with AIDS and school sponsorships to get them to buy in. I could be real. I didn’t have to fix it. I could just play my part.
And, I could do it because I wanted to.
An old friend of Hunter’s took me to Pepolino for my birthday, and explained that the next wave of writing and building together is all in the doing – something Hunter showed us with Cocaine, and we’d have to live out in enterprise.
“Thompson didn’t say shit, he did shit. He didn’t talk about being smart. He acted it out. All actions. Not a lot of talk.”
He pulled out his napkin and wrote in the air with his hand. “He’d have turned this napkin into a check to prove he fucking could. But he wouldn’t have told you how much he knew about the legalities of the American financial system.”
I thought about Hunter writing on the napkin when I began to refuse to do interviews on the aids medication our artisans were buying, and I started focusing on African fashion weeks across the continent, the colors that inspire my team.
I stopped tweeting about poverty, and started tweeting about the way Abel Tesfaye sings sex like a smooth, smooth dance, and Warsan Shire writes about men in a way that makes me want to turn on the bath, and tell my body sorry, over and over again, for the things I’d made it do that it hadn’t wanted just yet. Because that’s Africa, for me. That’s Africa in and around and inside me.
I don’t report so much on the women that I work with anymore – not the gruesome parts of the stories – the sickness and the death and the Luwero war stories belong to them. Instead, I write about the way we celebrate the things their cultural customs and rhythms and colors have taught me. I write about the way a white California girl, stuck in a “my people, your people” world, has learned about my body and my heart and my head from a place that no one in my family has traveled to before.
I’ve learned that writing about a woman’s battle with AIDS isn’t my job anymore. It has facets, and it has its angles – but not the way I was telling it. Not when I took it from her. Not when she wasn’t the one speaking it out.
I’ve learned I can write about how the old woman who assists my manager and I battled to find commonality the week I needed orders rushed, and she called for a week of mourning for her son. I can write about the way I fell for my Ugandan guide like a lovesick teenager, hot and worried on a sticky night in a clinic. He was sick and seizing on the floor. And, we learned, in a series of battles with village leaders, that he wasn’t coming to the US for an education without a fight.
I’ve learned that I could never have read about the simultaneous using of a white girl’s pockets and anger at her entrance into a personal relationship in a book. I’ve learned that I would never have been told the first was the fault of american missionaries if I hadn’t seen it myself. But I did. I lived it out the night I broke out in hives and my bank account went negative and the internet wouldn’t connect.
I’ve learned I can write about the lights in the marketplace, and the little girl that laughed with me telling the story of a lion and a monkey in the dark the night that a boy climbed to steal electricity and the lights went out after he was shocked to death. I can write about what I’ve seen and experienced – the triumph, the story telling, the chasing of chickens in the morning and the smell of coffee strong and brewing before meetings with artisans at the local school.
I can write about all the things I didn’t know the day I gave out clothing, instead of being willing to disappoint a group of women by not bringing gifts to prove that a white girl was there because she believed they were worth doing business with, instead of handing out clothes to.
And, I could and I can write about what I learned about myself, all those days, and the days following – the reminder that race exists, and I find it in my heart and my bed and my job and my life – that my roots run deep in my mother’s place in Northern California, and her mother’s before her.
I can write about growing up near the American river confluence where we jumped off rocks screaming every summer of my childhood, and my cousin’s ashes were scattered when he died the Spring my family’s hearts turned cold on a rainy night in Roseville. And, I can write about the way Kakooge and Wobulenzi taught me to believe in myself, to take off from the place I started from, to begin a life in New York City and kicked me out the door and into homes and lives and beds of people that came from places nothing like me.
I’ve learned that my story has angles like a diamond. They have given me a life to run around in, like a person set free from the girl who lived like, “the jerk at the intersection who doesn’t know East from West.“
I’ve learned I have a hell of a lot to choose from, telling my story building a business in Africa – so much so that sometimes I’m not sure where to begin.
But I know one thing for sure.
I will never again tell the story of the impoverished African woman.
I gave it back to the Ugandan women I work with – for them to tell, looking back at where they’ve come from, their childhoods – the places their mothers came from, and their mothers before them…the years that their families struggled because their hearts turned cold.
Maybe some of them will even have others in their own life to remind them that it was their imperfection – their courage to be authentic in the face of loss and discouragement – that was most worthy of respect, after all.