At five years old, I learnt that sitting on an ‘uncle’s’ lap was not a sign of regard and affection, it was for his gratification.
Childlike innocence coupled with naivety and absolute trust was backed by a far away sense of dread and shame, whose root I could never quite point to. See, just like other young girls in Africa, and no doubt around the world, I was taught that anything involving parts below my waist were ‘bad manners’. Any conversations that even slightly angled towards a sexual nature were ‘bad manners’ (tabia mbaya in Swahili). I was taught to sit with my legs together, because that is how good girls sit. Sitting otherwise is bad manners as well. So, when uncle held me too tight, when i felt that shameful, dreadful hardness on my tiny frame, I told no one. Lest they said I have bad manners.
At twelve years old, I learnt to walk with my back bent.
I learnt to wear slightly over-sized sweaters and always stare at the ground or straight ahead every time I was sent to the shop. I learnt that a stare can burn, that as I saw budding breasts, others saw blossomed sexuality. I learnt that if I arched my back to just the right angle, I could hide those embarrassing mounds of flesh that caused the boys to stare and shout obscenities. They called them compliments, but their words taught me shame, and I learnt what it meant to be self-conscious. I learnt to ignore them. I learnt not to respond. Lest they said I encouraged them, or angered them. Lest they said I had bad manners.
At eighteen years old, I had sex.
Consensual sex. Under the covers. With the lights off. Too embarrassed to let my teenage boyfriend see my body. I had been told I was too fat, and that he would not like the ‘tires’ of fat that has formed and thickened my waist. I had never done ‘bad manners’ before. I thought I looked ugly down there. I could not understand why anyone would want to be anywhere near it. See, my entire life, I had been taught to be ashamed of it. To keep my legs together. To think of it only in relation to bad manners…or its biological functionality. Now this boy was asking me to embrace it? Rushing me with his teenage excitement completely oblivious to the shame I felt? I was told I should moan. Lest I hurt his ego or make him feel like he is not a real man. Even through the pain, I moaned. I sang his praises. I called him a lion. In the dark. Under the covers. In a small shy voice. Lest they heard me. Lest he thought I was too wild. Lest he said I had bad manners.
At twenty two, I learnt of pain…
…and shame, and worthlessness, put together, stirred up, shaken and pouring over. See, I got raped. I couldn’t call it that. I mean, I did go out with him. I did have a drink..i lie…a few drinks. I did let him feel me up, I liked his hands on me. He made me feel like a natural woman. Isn’t that what Aretha Franklin meant in that song? He told me I was beautiful. He made me feel like the two mounds of flesh on my chest were more than just…well…mounds of flesh. He made me want to show them off. So my sweaters got tighter, then they were vests. Then they were strapless tops. He made me feel beautiful. And as he forced himself on me, and I felt unsure, and afraid, he made me feel like I had wanted it. I had led him on. So I deserved it. I learnt that if I smiled when he complimented me, if I giggled, if I let him touch me, whatever happened next was my fault. Because the fact that he was a man meant I took advantage of his weakness. I learnt the terms ‘rape kit’ and the shame of being on a doctor’s table as he examined me, took samples from me like I was a specimen for evidence. Knowing very well I wouldn’t report, and never think of going to court. I learnt that rape was my fault. That my protests did not count because it was his word against mine. And his word would always weigh more. So I cowered and retreated back to my shell. I remained quiet as the judgement poured on me. I stayed silent. Because they said I had bad manners.
At thirty three, I learnt how to bow to pressure.
The pressure of being a wife. I learnt that sometimes, women have to settle. I got married to a banker. He was fifteen years older than me. I learnt that as the woman, I bore the burden of carrying the children and the blame and shame if we could not. Despite the fact that biology taught us that more often than not, the man was to blame for infertility. I learnt that I was to blame for his erectile dysfunction, and that society would always judge my success based on my fertility (in this case his, not mine, but who would dare suggest such a thing) or lack thereof. I learnt that if he insulted me, or punched me, it was because he was frustrated. That a good woman stays, apologizes, accepts his (rare) apology and smiles. I learnt to pretend. The power of smiles, and laughs that buried pain and despair. I learnt the power of make-up. The right shade of concealer depending on how black the eye was. So I stayed, and smiled, and went to church. Like a good woman. Lest they said I had bad manners.
I am forty four now. I am learning to unlearn years of lessons.
I have learnt how to pack all my vital belongings in one suitcase. I have learnt what essentials are. They fit into a single suitcase. I have learnt how to stand up for myself. I learnt how to punch back, how to say no, how to slam a door behind me and not look back. I am learning that I am beautiful, inside and out. I am learning what Aretha Franklin meant in Natural Woman. What that means to me. I am learning how to love and let myself be loved. That I am defined by my choices, and I have the freedom to choose what those are. I am learning authenticity, spirituality, black nativity, learning about myself. I am loving it. I am learning that I only need to like myself, then the rest of the world will follow. I am learning that judgement is inevitable. I am learning to be me.
So, let them say I have bad manners. Their definition of bad manners does not define me anymore.