Monthly Archives: March, 2014

New Blog: The Fight Of My Life

Hi, I’m pleased to let you know that I’ve finally decided to launch a new blog to focus solely on depression and mental health. Although I’ve blogged about depression and mental health on this blog under “Overcoming depression” I’ve always felt I need to give it more space. Also, on the new blog, things will be a little less formal, with very short posts about whatever’s on my mind concerning mental health. Here’s my first post, http://wp.me/p4hkw3-8. Looking forward to your support on http://www.battleofmylife.wordpress.com.

Spread the word.

The Far-Away Gatekeepers of Beauty

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People of African descent the world over should be celebrating Lupita Nyong’o right now. The Mexican actress who was born to Kenyan parents became the first African to win the Academy Award for an Actress in A Supporting Role. An Oscar for an African actress, that’s huge. Look, Charlize Theron won an Oscar and she was born in Africa, but we know Hollywood is more accepting of people of Charlize’s hue than Lupita’s. I love Charlize and appreciate her for helping put our little country on the map.

I consider the Oscars to be the World Cup of acting. Getting that statuette on that evening says that in your category, at that point in time, there is no one better. To borrow from Tina Turner’s hit, “You’re Simply The Best”.

And logically, Lupita used her victory to inspire others. See, Lupita is a very dark-skinned African girl. A very pretty dark-skinned African girl. So she chose her acceptance speech to inspire other very dark skinned girls. To say to them, just because the world does not affirm you does not mean you are not beautiful. Just because each time you turn on your television set you only see ‘pale’ does not mean there is something wrong with dark. I know this because I once thought exactly what you are thinking.

Society never really comes out and says it, but their actions do: very dark is ugly and pale is beautiful. Don’t believe me? Look around you. Open one of your magazines and tell me how many models of Lupita’s skin hue are used in advertising, notice I say hue, not colour. There are plenty of black models in circulation out there but 99% of them measure up to the required shade of ‘pale’ and ‘beauty’ features(Western features).

Hollywood, with the help of Colonialism has managed to get their definition of beauty to be accepted as the standard worldwide. This definition of beauty has one major requirement, a pale skin. The definition includes other things but a pale skin is the starting point. This requirement has spawned a major industry in the pharmaceutical field, the skin-lightening industry. But as the gold standard of beauty it is so destructive because it says: You can be the best at what you do, like Lupita, but do you measure-up in other ways?

Can you adorn the cover of Vogue magazine? Are you beautiful enough(read are you light-skinned enough)?

‘The biggest weapon the oppressor has is the mind of the oppressed’, that’s paraphrasing Steve Biko in his book I Write What I Like. The saddest voices in the Dark vs Light skinned debate in the days following Lupita’s Oscar win for me, came from Africa itself.

A Cameroonian pop star who also doubles up as an ambassador for a company that sells skin-lightening creams in Africa felt so affronted by Lupita’s acceptance speech at the Oscars that she took to Twitter to attack her. Simply because Lupita Nyong’o had dared to admit that she once ‘felt she wasn’t beautiful enough because she didn’t see a lot of very dark-skinned people’ in the entertainment industry. Dencia, the Cameroon pop star has unfortunately bought into the Hollywood definition of beauty; mind, body and soul. The oppressor has her mind, to the extent that she is paid to convince fellow dark skinned Africans that dark cannot be beautiful.

Lupita says she prayed to God as a little girl to make her just a little bit lighter. This she now realizes was a mistake caused by her aspiring to the beauty standards of the ‘far-away Gatekeepers of beauty’, Hollywood and the West who have taught millions of people around the world that our Creator got it wrong when he made some of us dark and others lighter.

It is very difficult to keep the politics of race out of a discussion on beauty and skin colour, indeed, where I come from your race determined everything at some point, even which toilets you could or couldn’t use, but that’s a discussion for another day. Suffice to say that it’s very difficult to argue against the assertion that dark skinned people who use skin lightening creams or the current craze of using pills to bleach their own skins aspire to be white. They argue that it’s their choice who they want to look like.

Our world has become one where personal liberty is so prized that we are quite close to accepting self-harm as one of our freedoms, that we would even pay attention when a person seeks to defend her right to advertise skin-lighteners as her ‘personal choice’. I’m glad we have people like Lupita Nyong’o who have gone to the ‘far-away gatekeepers of beauty’ and defied them. And walked away with loads and loads of dignity for those that the Creator created beautifully dark, wherever they might be on this planet.

What I find really sad is this colorism debate has taken the focus away from Lupita’s wonderful portrayal of Patsey in the movie 12-Years-A-Slave. Patsey, the slave master’s sex slave as well as his best cotton-picker by far embodies so much of the modern woman’s struggles, that no matter how much a woman can do to eclipse men in her day-to-day work, she still has to fight against being seen as the not only man’s economic possession, but a sexual possession too. Her peers  recognized Lupita’s skills in her playing this complex role and rewarded her with an Oscar for her efforts. And then the gate-keepers of beauty had to kick into action. She’s too dark, they screamed. Compared to what? Compared to whom?

It only hit me as I sat down to write this piece that the people who could only take away Lupita’s dark skin colour as she made her acceptance speech on stage at the Oscars can’t possibly have watched the movie! No they cannot, you cannot walk away from watching her beautifully deep acting in that movie and turn around and say she’s too dark! Then don’t watch movies because the rest of us watch them for the acting.

As a movie, 12-Years-A-Slave reminded me of the levels to which human depravity could go, how badly we could treat each other, bad as slavery was, some people were so depraved that they would devise schemes to sell back into slavery those who had made it ‘out’ of the system. That a woman could be so ‘good’ a slave, the hardest worker in the field and the master’s sex slave(also perceived by fellow slaves to be the master’s favourite) and yet receive no mercy to the extent that asks a fellow slave to end her life. That’s the complex role that Lupita Nyong’o played. And all the slave masters and house niggers can say is “she’s too dark”.

I leave you with her words in another acceptance speech, the award was for Best Breakthrough Performance at the annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon – hosted by Essence magazine.
“My mother used to say to me, ‘You can’t eat beauty, it doesn’t feed you.’ And these words played and bothered me, I didn’t really understand them until finally I realised that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume. It was something that I just had to be. And what my mother meant by saying that you can’t eat beauty is that you can’t rely on beauty to sustain you.

“What actually sustains us, what is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul. It is what got Patsey in so much trouble with her master. But it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit even though the beauty of her body has faded away.

“And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation for your beauty, but also get to the deeper business of feeling beautiful inside. There is no shade in that beauty.”

Her address left the entire audience – which included Chaka Khan and Oprah Winfrey – entirely speechless.

Hollywood has no monopoly on the definition of beauty, and they shouldn’t.

What Are Friends For?

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I have made a decision not to write anything on the guilt or innocence of Oscar Pistorius, the Blade Runner. There is a court in session to determine exactly that. I’m still fascinated though by aspects of his trial. This is a different sort of fascination to the one I had in the OJ Simpson trial in the 90’s. Pause. Yes I am that old. I remember the whole thing, ok! The kind of fascination that I had with that trial was purely based on race. It was difficult not to take sides back then because of the way everything was pitched. Anyways, my fascination with Oscar Pistorius’ trial is more to do with friendship.

We’ve had two of his ‘friends’ testify against him. His boxer buddy Kevin Lerena and his IT tech buddy Darren Fresco. This got me thinking, would a true friend take the stand against you? Look, before you rush into a moral justification of why ‘the truth’ is always your guide, please hear me out.

I think I’ve mentioned it before on this blog that our definition of friendship has become so shallow that we have an option to ‘unfriend’ people we call friends. That’s not the kind of friendship I’m referring to. I’m referring to the kind of friendship where loyalty still has a meaning. Where a friend is someone you call on when the brown stuff hits the fan. A friend who feels your pain when you hurt. Would they take the stand and say things that make you look bad. In other words, would a friend betray you?

Just so we are clear that we are on the same page, I want Justice for Reeva Steenkamp and her family too, so don’t get holier-than-thou with me screaming ‘I would testify against him too’. His two friends’ testimony had nothing to do with the events surrounding her death, theirs was a role in giving us a picture of the kind of life Oscar led off the TV cameras. And a pretty picture it wasn’t.

I’m one of those few creatures who watch certain movies until I know the dialogue word for word but still enjoy each viewing of the movie. Ok, so I’m not like you, we’ve established that. Goodfellas is one such movie for me. For some reason I find the loyalty that the Mafia show towards each other a thing to behold.

Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, the protagonist in Goodfellas narrates the story and tells you that one of the unwritten rules of loyalty is ‘a friend never rats on his friends. If you get caught, you take the rap and do the time’, see the accompanying screen grab from the movie. Granted, Mafia movies should never be our guides towards good moral behavior, but you have to admire the value that they attach to loyalty.

When Henry Hill is released from prison for the first time after doing time but never ratting on his friends, they throw him a party that made even me proud that he never ratted on his friends. But then again this is only a movie.

But listening to Darren Fresco and Kevin Lerena dishing out the goods on their ‘friend’ Oscar Pistorius made me wonder about the level or even type of friendship that they  must have shared. Ok, we can shoot bullets into the empty sky through the sunroof of a car together but look mate, if push comes to a shove, I’m gonna rat on you? Where’s the loyalty? This is not Goodfellas but damn, you would expect your buddy to offer a little resistance to the authorities.

Lest I sound like I approve of the alcohol and adrenalin-fueled kind of lifestyle that the Blade Runner and his friends allegedly led, let me hasten to add that I have always dreaded the possibility of being on the road when some crazy driver is doing 260km/h and taking photos of his speedometer at the same time.I say lock up anybody crazy enough to do that on a public road. But still, if you stayed in the speeding car, and enjoyed the ride, shame on you for selling out your partner-in-crime.

Ok, so you guys never had a pact, no blood bond or something  of the sort but spilling the beans on your buddy at the first available opportunity? Come on!

The OJ Simpson trial had all the elements of a courtroom drama, but rightly or wrongly, his buddies stuck by him. There is a quote that I remember reading from an interview with one of OJ’s friends and he said something that has stayed with me for a very long time. When asked why he had stuck by OJ even though he may have committed the most gruesome of crimes, brutally slaughtering two people by hand his answer was “if he did it, he is definitely going through the toughest time of his life, and what are friends for?”.

I have tried locating the source of that quote but that was way back in 1995 or 96 when I still read such esteemed magazines as GQ and FHM and others I won’t mention by name. These are the kind of publications you always had to justify to others by saying things like “seriously, I read them for the articles, I swear”, whilst at the same time avoiding anyone noticing you reading them. This is by way of explaining why I perhaps failed to locate the source of that OJ quote. But I digress, this was never about my questionable reading matter back in my early twenties. I’m reformed now!

I know, morally, if OJ and The Blade Runner did what they are accused of, they deserve the harshest judgement society can mete out, but maybe, just maybe, cases like these come along so society can take a good hard look at itself. Not passing judgement on Fresca and Lerena, but does betraying your friend not make you someone on whom we should pass judgement?

It is testament to the kind of life that Oscar led prior to the tragedy that he would attract like-minded friends, those who enjoy life in the fast lane. But surely even among those moment-by-moment friends there is some code of honour. What do they say again, that even rats deserting a sinking ship show more loyalty to each than certain ‘friends’ do to each other. With friends’ like Oscar’s, who needs enemies?

I know people get really worked up about things like this, they are sensitive issues. The OJ and Blade Runner trials I mean. This piece is by no way a reflection of the amount of empathy I have for both families, Oscar’s and Reeva’s. It’s only an attempt at extracting some lessons from a very gruesome event.

Perhaps the most difficult lesson for all of us to learn on friendship is that if your ‘friends’ will let you break the law and say nothing, allow you to live recklessly and say nothing, take the rap for you when you discharge a gun in a packed restaurant and let it pass as though you just stepped on someone’s toes by mistake, and still say nothing, then they are not your friends at all.

Like Judas, they are only waiting for an opportune moment for their true colours to show.

One wonderful reaction that I felt was truly genuine that I experienced when the tragedy first unfolded last year was a female church leader on the Sunday following the shooting. She said : “you know what, I wish I could come face-to-face with Oscar, hold both hands, look into his eyes and ask him, what went wrong my boy? I would hug him tight and ask him, what went wrong in your upbringing to such an extent that you grew up to love guns and violence so much?”

That’s what one of his ‘friends’ should have done long before we found ourselves where we are. That’s what friends should be for, to be by your side ‘forever more’ as Dione Warwick and friends told us way back when.

Outside Looking In

When you are on the outside looking in, all you can do is ...look.(This photo is used under the Creative Commons license: Creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/posted by fdtate.

When you are on the outside looking in, all you can do is …look.(This photo is used under the Creative Commons license: Creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/posted by fdtate.

In the week that Oscar Pistorius has dominated all forms of media, one is tempted to go against the grain and write about life, you know, the other thing that’s happening outside the High Court in Pretoria. Just in case I come across as insensitive let me declare right now that I have given my views about Reeva Steenkamp’s tragic death, and those have not changed in the period leading up to “the biggest trial since OJ Simpson’s trial”. Those views are not dependent on whether the Blade Runner is found innocent or guilty at the end of his trial.

Right then, moving right along. Have you ever felt like there is a bigger struggle going on out there and for some reason you are only on the periphery, looking in, a little bemused at times but keeping a not-so-interested-but-interested eye on things? Ok, so it never happens to you? It happens to me all the time.

I think I’ve declared on this blog that I’m a Christian. Only I’m one of of those Christians who really get bothered when people want to justify their bigotry through their beliefs. So when Uganda played the ultra-Christian card and made homosexuality punishable by death I got that feeling that I was telling you about. The whole world was condemning their move but it felt as though I’m standing outside looking in, powerless to shout “No! Jesus never commissioned us to murder others!”.

If he had, then I would find it very hard to leave out the thieves and the murderers and the gossips and those that steal from the poor(Mugabe and Museveni included). In fact, we would have a hanging orgy. But then again, like I said, I feel like an outsider looking in, powerless to stop the insults aimed at the objects of this sexually-holier-than-thou crusade.

This feeling is not entirely different from the one I get when I’m told that big multinationals in the oil space are busy pestering the South African government for the rights to prospect for shale gas in the Karoo, which could just be the key to the solution of our unemployment problem. I feel powerless because it was multinationals that mined the gold out of our abundantly rich gold mines and left our young government with an acid mine drainage problem so big that it threatens all our water resources.

These multinationals have to be begged and threatened to resolve an environmental problem which is entirely of their own making. I know, I know, you think the oil companies are not the same with the mining companies. Well,pull the other one! A multinational is a multinational. They come in, extract the most profits they can whilst they can and leave when they can’t maximize profits anymore. Our beautiful Karoo is under threat. That helpless feeling in me multiplies when I think of the lengths to which these companies will go to gain their rights to plunder our resources and leave us feeling used. It’s a fracking problem if you ask me.

This was the same feeling I got when His Holiness The Dalai Lama was refused entry into South Africa a few years ago. One of the most wonderful lessons Mandela taught us was that we should never let anyone tell us who our friends must be. He famously refused to cancel a meeting with Gaddafi on his release from prison, and refused to shun Fidel Castro when the West demanded, famously quipping: ” when the West were labeling us terrorists, these are the only people who called us friends, the West cannot choose our friends for us”.

I was left feeling like an outsider looking in when our government let China dictate whether The Dalai Lama could be our friend or not. The West can’t choose our friends for us but the East can? The feeling was almost sickening because this was a principle we had fought hard for. “You can do business with us but our souls are not for sale”.

Now there are murmurs that basic Mandarin could be introduced into our primary school education system, what gives? Are we allowing the Chinese to be the New West in exchange for what, a few jobs? Imperialism is imperialism wherever it comes from.

This feeling, the one of a powerless outsider looking in also threatens to overcome me when the powers that be pass very suspicious legislation on our behalf in the name of protecting state information. The Protection of State Information Bill that seeks to deny even journalists the right to protection when they publish information in the public interest got very little resistance from Joe Public.

Internationally Wikileaks and Edward Snowden had set the stage for us to vigorously defend the right of citizens to open democracy, but locally some in our midst defended the right of the state to do things in secret in the name of protecting the State. It wasn’t so long ago that government set up hit squads, police torture farms and other clandestine operations under the guise of protecting state information. The zeal with which the newly formed ‘security cluster’ has gone about defending indefensible acts by Number 1 leaves no doubt in my mind that given a chance, ‘state information’ would be protected by any means necessary, jail and torture if they deemed it fit.

I’m left feeling like an outsider looking in when thousands of people across the globe are waging struggles against environmentally harmful practices and all we can do is host the odd conference on global warming but carry on with life as usual. And then we wonder why Africa’s voice is still largely ignored. Fighting for our right to be heard on the international stage means fighting to stay prominent on all issues affecting our world.

That despondency feeling grows a little worse when I hear a head of state heap insults on a western leader in the name of Pan Africanism. Remember when Tony Blair was told to keep his Britain and “I’ll keep my Zimbabwe”? A lot of “Pan Africanists” applauded his statements. With Pan Africanism having morphed to mean anything that’s anti-West even demagogues who plunder their countries and cling onto power are now regarded as Pan African heroes.

I too detested Blair, the “creator” of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But for a head of sovereign state to engage in public insults makes me feel despondent about the kind of leadership he exercises over his own country. The very same Pan African leader waits for France and the rest of the West to take action over strife in an African country, the Central African Republic.

A lot of things happen in the world when one is busy trying not to notice, one only needs to choose what to get worked up by.

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