Tida sells groceries at the little market by the road that leads to the market; onions, tomato paste, palm oil, an endless variety of seasoning cubes and powders, bootleg cooking-oil and the rest of that stuff. Her usual customers are women who had gone home from the market and realized they had forgotten an item, grouchy teenagers who wish they didn’t have to go grocery shopping and, well, generally, lazy people who don’t want to walk the extra 300 meters to the market.
Tida… was a beautiful woman. I’m not saying she isn’t beautiful now. It’s just, you have to search a little bit more to find it these days. Her beauty, that is. It’s probably very visible on the inside.
Poor Tida. You’ve probably walked past her year after year. Sitting there sorting through something on her lap, or bossing her daughter around. Right, you haven’t. Well, I have. I’ve said salam alaikum many times as I walked past. I’ve stopped a few times too, for an item or two. I’ve watched the transition with horror and wondered if it would be rude to have a word with her about it. But I didn’t quite have the courage.
In the days when she was… yunno, in the days when her beauty was much more obvious, I had found myself stealing frequent glances at her face as she measured rice for me, or put a group of onions in my bag. I wonder if she ever noticed me looking. She didn’t, most likely. Sadly not. Maybe if she did, she would one day have asked me why I kept looking at her and I would have told her that she was quite beautiful and I appreciate beauty. And that no, I wasn’t in love with her, I just took great pleasure in looking at pleasant-looking beings and things.
Tida is Peul and light-skinned like a lot of Fula people. Caramel is a good word to describe her tone. Her original tone, that is – before what happened, happened. She may be in her early 40s.
One Saturday I walked past and wondered, nothing deep, I just wondered. Tida just looked a little lighter than I remembered. She looked that way for a few more Saturdays. She looked okay, still her pretty self. 8 or 9 Saturdays later, there was a green blood vessel throbbing on her temple. It was very visible, just throbbing away. There was also one under her eye, where that very soft skin is. Her skin was glassy and very close to breaking point. Maybe she didn’t realize this, maybe she was too far gone to turn around or maybe, it actually looked good in the mirror. After that came the reddish hue. Tida was rocheku, as if someone had dapped red blush under her eyes, on her cheekbones and the crescent of her forehead. It was sad, that rocheku phase, for one could tell what would happen next. Tida turned red and green. But red and green was no state for a human to exist in, so nature attempted to return Tida to her natural state, as it is wont to do. Nature did what nature could, and Tida was left with wrinkled patches of dark green skin distributed across her face, gathered on her knuckles and the bridges of her feet.
I walked past and said salam alaikum as before, but I stole glances for a different reason now. I believe it was at this point that Tida stopped using skin bleaching cream. The green became black, and she began her journey of healing. There’s no saying whether her skin will go back to how it was. It is unlikely, because it has been two years but the blackened patches with the green undertones are still visible on her face, her eyes are hollow and the skin around them is a shiny pinkish tone.
There is a story behind Tida’s journey of hesal, lakka and homm, there had to be. I took the pains to find out what the story was and I will narrate it to you as best as it was narrated to me, with glorious detail, of course.
Tida came to Kombo from Basse many years ago, when she was a teenager, soft-skinned, bright-eyed and plumpy. She had been married off to a distant cousin, who had a firewood business in Serekunda which wasn’t doing badly. It is said —by one Ara, a voluminous neighbor— that when Tida first arrived, she was so “ripe” and so “pure” that if one were to squeeze her forefinger, milk would surely flow from it. Perverted and creepy, if you ask me.
She had her first child a year into the marriage, she was barely a woman, she was a child nursing a child. She tended to the needs of both husband and child. For many years she cooked, cleaned, washed and submitted to his whims without question. When he was unavailable to sell his ware, she sat and watched over it, selling nothing, until he came back. Having had no education, he didn’t trust her to handle his money. In her free time, she embroidered little red, yellow and green flowers onto pieces of cotton cloth like her mother taught her. She wore those herself, until one day when a woman walked past and asked how much she was selling one for. She sold it for a small sum to the woman, who wanted it as a baby wrapper.
During a session of idle chatter, she told Ara, the voluminous neighbor, about how a silly stranger had given her money in exchange for her piece of cloth. Ara, who has been around and knows the ways of the world, grabbed her by the hand, took her to a secluded place, and told her in a hushed voice that she should, under no circumstances, tell her husband about the sale. “Make more and sell them,” she had said. “Keep the money for yourself, there is nothing more gratifying than financial independence”. “amm sa sokhla, lamba sa porse, fach sa sohla, dara dahukor”.
When Ara asked her, weeks later, whether she had sold anything, she had saved up 600 dalasis. They went to the market together and bought a sack of onions. Unsure how her husband would react to her selling onions beside his ware, and fearful of the questions he might ask or the accusations he might levy, she asked Ara to lay them by her ware at the small market where she sold bitter tomatoes, peppers and dried fish – the little market by the road that leads to the market.
Tida had her second child soon after this, a boy this time. Her skin had lost its lustre and was shades darker because of the amount of time she spent in the sun. She was still very beautiful, but her youth seeped away with every year that passed. Her fingers were calloused, the nails gnawed to their limit. She still served her husband, tended to her children, embroidered in the evenings and sold her onions on Ara’s table.
One day, the man who ran a grocery stall by Ara’s table told her that he was closing his business and going back to Senegal – as soon as he sold off his ware. Ara, bless her selfless soul, thought of Tida. She told Tida that evening, and the next morning they went to the bank together to withdraw her savings. They talked to the Senegalese man and he was willing to sell the rest of his merchandise to them at a give-away price. The stall, he said, they had to pay rent for and pointed them to the lessor.
The two women agreed that Tida’s husband must be told. That evening, after she had laid his dinner and he had eaten, she told him everything. How she had sold her embroidery and saved money. Her eyes sparkled when she spoke of this. And a part of her hoped that he would praise her, that he would be proud. When she was done talking, he told her that she was an ungrateful witch who wanted people to think that he does not take care of her. He called her deceptive and backstabbing. That she had no sutura. He called her a bad woman and accused her of wanting to neglect her duties as a wife and mother. He called her an envious woman who keeps her eyes on what other women have and said she will never be content. But he didn’t hit her. He came close, so close the droplets from his mouth hit her face, but he didn’t hit her. They went to bed in silence and rose into silence. That morning she went and confirmed the merchandise deal. She sat in the dark kiosk and cried into her wrapper for many minutes. When she dried her eyes and opened the kiosk, light flooded in and she knew that there was no going back.
Her husband became vile and abusive. He was slightly affectionate sometimes when he needed money but Tida always pretended to have less than she did. She still executed her “wifely duties” as best as she could and she did a good job of it. But he was never satisfied. He claimed that Tida now believed she was the man of the house, and threatened to marry a second wife. Tida could not imagine a life devoid of her husband, or more accurately, life without her marriage. It was all she had ever known. But she had discovered that there could be more to life and she wasn’t letting go. She was dismissive of his threats, until she got home one evening and there she was, young, fresh and voluptuous.
She wasn’t as young as Tida was when she came down from Basse, but she couldn’t be any more than 18. She wore a frock, striped blue and white, shimmering with newness. Stripes were dyed onto the fingers of her hands and her nails. The soles of her feet and her toes were dyed too. She was radiant, with big bright eyes and a sheepish smile. And her skin, it was soft, a blend of peach and custard, clear and smooth. Tida’s heart sank and her stomach turned to water. She caused a scene – justifiably so.
But she got over her shock soon enough and settled into life as a co-wife – well, she tried. It was very very difficult. Her husband displayed blatant favoritism. He bought items for the new wife regularly and rubbed it in her face, sometimes from money Tida had lent him. He stopped giving her fish money, or gave her ridiculous amounts. One time she asked for fish money, he gave her a 5 dalasi note and coins. He started skipping her turns or cutting them short. He jeered at her and constantly implied that she was old, wrinkled and ugly. She wasn’t, she was very beautiful. On the nights he spent in the second wife’s room, which was separated from Tida’s by a wall, he made sure they made as much noise as possible. In summary, the man was evil and petty and he made it his life’s mission to make Tida pay for daring to be financially independent.
Tida wasn’t ugly, or a black witch as he said. Her heart wasn’t black as coal, as he said. But if you told the most beautiful person in the world that they were ugly enough times, they would see nothing but ugly when they look in the mirror.
Tida was broken, she believed she was ugly. She compared herself to the new wife and thought of ways to be more like her, ways to get her husband’s attention and approval like she did. She tried many things, and visited many a laobé stall. She bought incense, beads and “insertables”. The bottles of lightening cream which she had never paid much attention to became more and more visible – looming, nudging, cajoling, luring. She finally succumbed. The man she bought the items from, he told her that if she wanted fast results, she should mix the contents of the bottle with those of the tube and the oil. That she was to rub it unto her body right before she slept and cover her entire body during the night. This worked. Soon enough, her skin was light and supple. She was “beautiful” again, she could lift her chin up high and stand where the new wife stood. She did. And in her head, her husband was treating her better because of it. He wasn’t, it was all in her head. It was during this time that he took the room they had dedicated to the children and gave it to the new wife, for her excess belongings. Tida was forced to share her room with “her” children.
This new sense of worthiness was short lived, because her skin got red and green and all the stuff described earlier. She realized too late that that wasn’t the way. Too late, but she realized it. She stopped trying. She stopped caring what her husband, or anyone for that matter, thought of the way she looked. It was what she had to do to survive. She redirected her energy into her little business and took joy in the moments she spent with her fellow vendors, talking about nothing and everything. There she sat, day after day, laughing, gossiping, sharing superstitious tales, sorting through items on her lap and answering “kum salaam” ever so often.
Tida is one of many. Uplift a Tida next time you meet one, she is but a victim of her society’s history.
You can find more of the Author’s work on her blog, Of Womanness and Wild Dreams.