Dakar as a light-skinned woman

– Maya Wegerif

When you want to know if a woman is light-skinned or bleached, look at her knuckles, her ankles, her knees. There is something about the leathery skin around joints that refuses to be bereaved of colour. You can also look at her chest, if she is wearing a low-cut boubou, or her arms, if it’s sleeveless. You will see slashes cascading down her inner-arms or towards her breasts. Bleached skin is so thin, burnt and damaged that what would normally be a stretch mark tears into a sagging gorge held together by skin of melting plastic. The skin on this kind of woman’s upper body could tear completely off if she brushed up against a rough surface. Just as well the joints refuse to bleach. Women in Dakar would be falling apart.

Patoranking and olamide made a “freestyle” remix of the song “Loyal” by Chris Brown and his friends. While we are on the topic, why are such songs called freestyles when they are clearly pre-meditated? The song begins:

“Beautiful Sunday sea-side chilling
Looking for a half-caste girl who’s willing”

The story goes that he sees a beautiful “half-caste” girl from the back and he’s into her until she turns around and he realizes that she is not naturally light skinned, she is bleached. The rest of the song goes on about the fact that black girls shouldn’t bleach. “Why you de bleach op your skin o?” he ask-sings, passionately.

Well um let’s see, Patoranking, maybe because you only want light skinned women!! You and many other black men. How in the very same song can he say he’s only interested in someone of a light complexion and then also wonder why a dark-skinned woman would bleach her skin? If she was dark-skinned he would not have noticed her in the first place. At least now there’s a song about her.

Senegal is well-known for its tall, black-skinned population. As a métisse, I stand out like a light skinned girl in a sea of black faces. Yes, a sea. Because almost everyone in Senegal is black-skinned. So if our eyes are trained to look first at colour, then you will not stand out if you are dark like everyone else. And that’s all we want really; to be seen. And then maybe loved for what is seen in us. Our worst fear then is to be invisible.

I think that is why women bleach their skin here; they do not want to be invisible. And I can understand why. I have seen men, my male friends included, look at an entire beach of people and say there is only one pretty person there. And she is invariably the métisse one. When I go to the bank the male teller lets me skip the line. Plus I can get away with smoking on the street and wearing shorts without reprimand because I look foreign enough.

I do get stopped though on my way to Goree Island to pay the tourist fee, even though any number of the black-skinned people in front of me could also be foreigners. But men tell me I am beautiful. So do women, even if I’m not. When I walk down the street I am followed with “miss!” and “rafet na” and “kai” and that kissing sound that you always know is directed at you.

In me, taxi-drivers only see a high-paying customer. Even if I am walking in the opposite direction, and clearly not looking around for a taxi, even if I am jogging, trying to get exercise, taxis will slow down, honk, come to a stop or even pull over waiting for me to come to their windows. When I walk past them, they look at me with scornful eyes. As if I have tricked them into thinking I wanted them to stop. As if my light skin had clearly signaled that I wanted them to pull over and now I have wasted their time.

Unless I am with white people, I am the target of hawkers in the market grabbing my arm and the Talibe boys who follow me down the street hissing “cent, cent.” Everybody wants to teach me wollof. My acquaintances in the hood will accompany me across the road to “make sure I am safe” as if where I’m from there aren’t any roads. At least once a week a stranger takes it upon himself to explain how the local bus system works. I am constantly bombarded and approached by men who often become crass and very loose with their mouths as I walk away.

It is hard to befriend women too because they either look at me with contempt or they treat me like a doll, pulling my hand through the club and speaking on my behalf.

Everyone thinks they know what I want and that I don’t know what I’m doing. I am stared at, I am hassled and I am pointed out. I can never not attract attention. As a result, if a guy says I am beautiful I assume what he means is that I’m light-skinned. I fantasize about being black, because if I was then maybe I would actually be seen. If I was upset or crazy or dumb, people would see that instead of only seeing me as a métisse girl and projecting everything they know about des métisses on me. I am looked at, I am not seen. It is a different kind of invisible.

Maya Wegerif is a South African poet and campaign assistant. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a degree in African studies. She currently works at Niyel in Dakar Senegal. @mayathepoet


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