I was at a seminar downtown. There was an old man sitting beside me, breathing with some difficulty. And he smelt bad. His breathing became heavier, more phlegmy, and it was apparent that he had fallen asleep. The room was cold, and I regretted my summer dress and open sandals. After almost half an hour of serious discomfort I remembered that I had a scarf in my handbag. A pretty scarf that I bought in Zanzibar three summers ago. It still smells of the market, not of spices or anything romantic like that – just a foreign, off smell – resistant to taking on my odors and fully belonging to me.
Despite the labored breathing of my neighbor, the frigid air and the speaker’s compelling narrative, I slept intermittently throughout the lecture. It has been a while since I found a speaker so fascinating, but I have learned not to fight when my body wants to go under. Whenever I woke up I took notes on the back of a folder – the closest thing to a clean piece of paper in my handbag.
Although her delivery was unsentimental, the work was emotional and I could see the ethnographer’s hospital ward crowded with the sound of vomiting, hymns, prayers, tears and the smell of decay overwhelming the air freshener and disinfectant. The speaker described bodies amputated, corroded, eroded, consumed, rotted by cancers. She talked about photography and objectifying the tumor while reasserting the self separate from the disease. She had pictures, but without making it a tease, she promised that she wouldn’t show them to us. She ran us expertly through the familiar terrain of the colonizing gaze feasting on Africans, denying that black bodies feel pain or wish for privacy.
My notes: ‘sensationalizing photographs’; ‘photographs travel and confuse the discussion’; ‘photographs of African patients become pornographic’; pathologizing African bodies; erasing subjectivity of the individual. And some new vocabulary, terms and references: AGNOTOLOGY –politically, culturally, scientifically produced ignorance; YELLOW CAKE – Nigeria and Iraq uranium scandal; the camera as a PNEUMONIC DEVICE??; see Nick Flatwood on black female body; the hospital ward as a metaphor of bureacracies, of the world.
She cautioned us against seeing the objectified African as only a victim. She has seen patients argue, negotiate, demand, advocate. And whilst they are in a structurally subordinate position, they are not without political commentary or critique. I liked that statement a lot, it reminded me of an elderly couple, peasants, in Rwanda who refused to let me take their picture because I had no money to give them. They weren’t kidding either. And my father’s story of the muzungu in a bar telling the natives excitedly about his countrymen who had just landed on the moon. The natives congratulated the clever muzungu and as the news spread throughout the tavern, they bought him round after round of beer to celebrate his nation’s super feats. When at last the muzungu staggered out, there was a deathly silence in the bar. A mzee finally spoke with contempt and gravitas, and on behalf of all natives: ‘Men walking on the moon. Trust a muzungu to tell a lie. A muzungu can’t help himself, he can never stop telling Africans lies.’
I passed out again, but it was shallow, because suddenly, it was too quiet: My grandfather was holding his breath, leaned in close, he watched me sleep. Perhaps he thought I was homeless too, and had slunk in for a hot coffee and a sandwich, and some peace. I didn’t sleep again after that, but he did. I remained alert until the Q&A opened and closed and we broke for lunch.
I haven’t been this excited about a speaker in a long time. I’m looking for something, sexual but corrupt, an ahistorical truth in need of a public disrobing in the south, my south. It’s a story I want to write, but I shy away from it, or perhaps it plays hide and seek with me. Today, I felt like the speaker was giving me some important clues about the bodies I am looking for.
On the way home, I slept on the train and woke up to see a girl staring at me with hatred in her eyes. I didn’t challenge her gaze and consoled myself, ‘she’s thinking of her dad and how much she hates him. I just happen to be in her line of vision. I have nothing to do with her anger.’
I regret that I wasn’t that angry when I was a girl. But it’s coming. I’m getting angry now, I shake, I hyperventilate, I cry, I even raise my voice. And I wish I’d burnt it out of my system twenty years ago, because when you’re grown up, that type of anger is exhausting and it frightens people. Maybe it was last fall, I was sitting in my favorite bus, the 9, a few stops from school, when a lion cub stormed down the aisle, and screamed and screamed again with her head flung back, and then she roared ‘Biiiitch!’ Ferocious, she burst our heads and hearts right apart. The 9 crawled onwards down Kingsbridge. As I got off the bus, I bumped into the lioness, she held the door open for me and gestured for me to exit ahead of her. I hung back and declined her courtesy. ‘Aie Mamy!’ I exclaimed mock fearful, ‘I don’t want you to start shouting at me.’ We walked side by side, same height, and same measurements, two little girls, but twenty years of life between us, maybe more.
She looked at me sideways and said sorrowfully, ‘I’m very angry.’
‘I know you’re angry Mamy I heard you I was in the bus.’ She didn’t mind my laughing at her, but she was still too angry or too sad to smile.
She was so pretty. Another Dominican girl, her mouth, her body, her clothes and her make up – everything was too grown up for her. She had every reason to be angry. I told her to take things easy. We parted ways at the traffic light.