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More than one face to show the world

Northern Nigerian young women show off their fashion. PHOTO: Enuma Okoro

I don’t wear a lot of makeup. Mostly because it takes too much time but also because I rarely like how I look in it. I always feel a little bit like a clown or an imposter, and not the real me. But on a few occasions, I have let some kind and patient makeup artists have a go at me. They are exceptional at their work. But still convinced that I look like I’ve just been attacked by an escaped deranged 4-year-old convict with a dangerous bag of magic markers, I hold my head up high and walk out the door. And always it’s the same reaction: “Oh you look so beautiful.” “Who did your makeup?” “I almost didn’t recognise you!” (Thanks for that one). Wearing or not wearing makeup is not a life-changing decision and the truth is I probably look fine with or without. And different situations will call for different faces. But what always strikes me in these casual experiences is how we never quite see ourselves the way others do. It almost seems that we see less of ourselves, forgetting that we are multidimensional and that one perspective can never encompass the whole. Often it takes catching our own reflection through someone else’s eyes to see a fuller picture.

Lately, I’ve been thinking how this could true for larger segments of society, communities and even for nations. I think on some level it remains one of the traumatic effects of colonised countries. Trained for decades and centuries to see only one dimension of ourselves, to imagine that without the interference or assistance of western nations, we have little intrinsic good to offer and export back into the world. We allow the world to see only one version of our face by permitting and even perpetuating only certain stories and narratives about who we are and where we come from.

In June, during Ramadan, I curated a fashion editorial and accompanying an article for a US-based publication with a large female audience. The piece titled, When Fashion takes a sacred seat: celebrating Eid-al-Fitr in Northern Nigeria, was about Eid clothing and Northern Nigerian female designers. So much of what I read in the news about women and girls from this part of the country is focused on the ills and traumas of experience. Don’t mistake me, these are vital and important issues to highlight and address, that of uneducated girls, female suicide bombers, kidnapped schoolgirls, under-aged child brides. But I sometimes worry that when we only focus on the plights of women from a certain part of the world we end up helping to “other” them on a global stage, inadvertently helping to keep them as one-dimensional or merely as issues to be addressed, rather than multidimensional human beings. I wish I saw more news stories that captured some of the other realities and parts of life of women in this part of the world, stories that offered a global audience another face of the Northern Nigerian female population, narratives that granted women from here a certain normalcy of just being women.

So, I took out a slice of normal life and richly magnified it for a global audience. I wrote about women in this part of the country preparing to celebrate and delight in Eid-al-Fitri. The essay and photos were published online and the response has been a beautiful reminder to me that the world also hungers to see other sides of our faces in this country. Not only because of the richness and beauty of what the many cultures and traditions in Nigeria have to offer, but also because the world actually needs it. I watched as women from around the world reposted the article and photos celebrating the fact they were given an inside look into an unfamiliar cultural territory, learning about beautiful traditions and ways of life in a part of Africa that did not involve poverty or pleas for help. So many women seemed to relish seeing beautiful African women portrayed in such a regal and glamorous light, and even felt a connection to an Africa they had never known.

Some of the comments were: “Thanks so much for the information. It’s things like this that makes me feel a part of our Motherland #travelingHomeOneday.” “Thank you for this. We African American Muslims have been celebrating since Sunday and it’s always awesome to know we still have that connection to the motherland.” “Some of the most beautiful women in the world come from Nigeria.” “These photos and this article about Northern Nigerian women are giving me life!”

We are often warned about “the danger of a single story,” and yet the habit of perpetuating one sometimes seems iron clad in the countries and communities that need to expose their varied narratives the most. I am still learning to embrace the many beautiful faces of what it means to be a Nigerian and an African. And I’m walking out the door with my head held high about it, knowing it’s a gorgeous look.

In this article:
CultureEnuma OkoroRamadan


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