On Nigeria's skin war

By Professor Okello Oculi
February 23-29, 2000
Abuja Mirror

President Olusegun Obasanjo moved that social productivity called "bleaching" from the informal sector to the formal sector of the Nigerian economy by putting it into his supplementary budget as a taxable item. He justified this inclusion rather negatively, seeing it as a means of curbing its propensity for causing ill-health. This it presumably does, through those unstated toxic side-effects which its imported raw materials, such as body lotions and creams, have on anatomical organs of users, including the skin, kidneys, brain membrane, etc.

"Bleaching" or the removal of blackness from the skin to make it "yellow", was moved from the silent sector to the noisy and rejectionist sector of cultural nationalism by Fela Anikulapo Kuti in the 1970s with his song about "yellow fever". On the shores of the Indian Ocean, the celebrated Ugandan writer Okot P'Bitek also attacked skin bleaching by urbanized East African Women saying it makes them look like guinea fowls. His book SONG OF LAWINO, sold like hot spiced akara (Mandazi). Both Fela and Okot, however, failed to eradicate yellow fever presumably because they did not invent the correct vaccine against it. And like all effective vaccines it will require intensive research into the NDA structure of the parasite to know how to attack it strategically.

There is a hint of possible success in President Obasanjo's strategy. It is the usual hope of economists that if you peg the price high enough consumers may well shift their beatification strategies to buying more clothes instead of sticking to skin tonics and creams. But economists also know that the demand for certain products may be so addictive that customers still afford to buy them by either cutting down on, or abandoning, their consumption profile elsewhere. Or worse still, like alcohol, they will resort to cheaper, illegal and more dangerous routes to achieving the "feeling good" condition, including sniffing petrol or brewing their own ogogoro or "kill-me-quick ". Which still leaves the problem of researching the root of the "yellow fever" or bleaching epidemic in Nigeria unsolved.

Professor Sander L. Gilman of the University of Chicago, has described himself as a person who is "happy to be a fat, bald professor." He is not running away from his physical looks. But his Jewish mother did run from her natural looks by getting her nose reshaped not to look Jewish i.e. long and huge. She was a French citizen and this is where Gilman's interest in surgery for beautification or for making a political statement started.

During the French Revolution in which the angry oppressed masses demanded equality and fraternity, the same revolutionaries told Jews living in France that if they wanted to be accepted as equal and fraternal citizens of France i.e. as equal human beings, they would simply "have to become French". In short, to cut down the sizes of their Jewish noses. Biology and politics had met on the revolutionary arena and the result was inconclusive; or rather the French revolution had lost. Professor Gilman has reported that "aesthetic surgery" or cutting off fat from stomachs; cutting Chinese and Japanese eyelids to make them look round; removing wrinkles from faces; making fallen breasts rise to salute the world, etc, are increasingly in demand in contemporary America. In 1984 a total of 477,700 such beauty surgeries were done. By 1995 the figure had virtually doubled with 825,000 "aesthetic surgeries" performed.

Further examination of the cultural pressures on the Jew to reshape his/her nose might give us a clue to the current Nigerian skin bleaching condition. The Jew, Karl Marx argued, was hated in Europe because ordinary people saw money leaving their own hands but growing bigger and bigger in the hands of the Jew. Others spend money, the Jew receive it, accumulates it and, using it to buy more goods which other people will spend more money on, accumulates it the more. The secret of ever-growing wealth and productivity which capitalism introduced through the Jew, became the root of other people's hatred for the Jew. Karl Marx, himself a Jew, was very interested in this problem because he saw his own father running away from his being a Jew. Marx's father became a Christian in order to escape being prevented from practicing law in Germany. Jews were not allowed to practice law or work as civil servants.

Karl Marx may have been right, but he didn't add something else the long legacy of the defeat of Jews in wars over Palestine. Military defeat combined with exodus into exile in other lands haunts a people by inciting instincts for bullying, pity and contempt from others; while encouraging in the victims strategies of defensive submissiveness, while being forever vigilant in exploiting opportunities for success, covert power and survival. In the history of colonial conquests all across Africa, the most sensitive Africans who refused to accept defeat became mentally ill and insane.

Others, particularly women, whose sense of their fathers and future husbands as protectors and providers of food and security for their siblings collapsed, also lost their sense of "good women" and "good future wives and mothers", thus moving into urban areas as prostitutes. The definition of oneself as part of collective morality and collective happiness thus collapses from some people, and is replaced by looking for personal and individual desires. In class societies where aristocrats can with impunity rape the daughters and wives of slaves, outcasts and common people, the problem of defiled women (or prostitutes"), and humiliated lovers and husbands remains a permanent sore. And these are insults which cannot be washed off the body. A young woman who had been raped by her own father told an American television audience how she ran into a shower to wash the defilement off, and would not stop taking that bath. Finally, she ran away from home and became a prostitute because she now regarded herself as a "dustbin" into which anybody can throw their rubbish. How much such damage to the Osus, the talakawa, Erus, the "area boys" of Nigeria carry in them?

It is important to study the geography of humiliations all across Nigeria. Professor Monday Mangvwat reports that on the Jos Plateau British colonial officials insisted that those Africans with prestigious jobs of being clerks in offices of mining companies would only be Ghanaians, Sierra-Leoneans, and Gambians. Later on they also accepted Southern Nigerians. The Hausa were to sell cooked food to the mine workers, while the Igbos and Yorubas would be foremen in the mines.

The local Birom and Tiv people were given the lowest jobs of carrying tinless earth. In this way rankings of inter-ethnic contempt emerged with the natives of the soil, the Birom and Tiv being the worst beneficiaries. Professor Mangvwat does not discuss the long term psychological effects of these decades of humiliation on the Birom, combined with official policy of destroying their long traditionof smelting in the region.

In another example, the Emir of Zaria was required to provide those of his subjects whose job it was to carry on their heads and shoulders British District Officers, Residents and their families as they took leisure walks and sniffed the evening breeze around the old Zaria City and the new town. These humiliations must have left their marks both individually and collectively. A European scholar remarked on the psychological stress which Tiv people experienced when British Colonial officials under pressure from Christian missionaries banned Tiv religious practices which called on ancestors to help the people in their day to day lives. A last example comes from the Nigerian civil war. A police officer who was in the intelligence unit at the time of Nigeria's independence, asserts that Igbos were so united, morally upright and disciplined that you could never find an Igbo girl practising prostitution in any Nigerian town.

During the civil war, however,acts by federal troops such as raping girls and women in front of their family members were severely dehumanizing and shocking to moral values. Their consequences on social and collective morality, as well as, on individual concepts of responsibility and happiness have not been fully studied and understood. Could skin bleachers be part of these series of shock syndrome?

So we can now ask the question as to which of these is responsible for the phenomenon of skin bleaching, or aesthetic silent skin surgery in the epidemic dimensions it has assumed in Nigeria's urban areas. It is not that taming nature by interfering with the skin is alien in most Nigerian cultures. In certain cultures, for example, children's skins were cut in order to make the child ugly so that evil spirits would not come and take away the child through death. In other cases the skin is cut so that herbal medicines can be put in the blood to shield the person against juju and evil eyes of wizards. While attending a market in Kwimu village north of Kontagora town in Niger State, I was recently enchanted by the variety of cosmetics and tattoos on the faces of women and young girls as well as on boys in their teens. The Fulani and Kambari seemed to excel in this art of skin beautification. But this type of intervention in nature is not one of rejection of what nature has given but one of augmentation and further celebration of the given from nature. The problem of skin bleaching is similar to that of the Jew pruning his/her nose by running away from what nature has given.

Has the Jew perhaps been a great achiever in commerce, in book and newspaper publishing, in classical European music, in the sciences and humanities precisely because she/he wanted so much to be higher than his/her stereotyped nose and money-making? Could we expect that those who bleach may yet be Nigeria's greatest achievers? Yet, when a Japanese person alters the slit in his/her eyes it does not lead to skin cancer, kidney and possible brain poisoning as a result of bleaching chemicals entering the bloodstream through the skin. All of which are likely to terminate rather than promote high achievements earlier in life than later. All of which still leaves open the issue of finding an effective vaccine for aesthetic skin wars raging for visibility in Nigeria.

Professor Okello Oculi wrote in from Garki, Abuja.

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