to be African, to be Woman, to be Creative, to be Fashionable, to be Intelligible, to be Beautiful.....to be IMARA

imara by Mshana

imara by Mshana is the canvas and the pages on which I curate and display the life I wish to create for myself and others. I explore there my passion for fashion, present my literally inspired visual arts, write my visual arts inspired written works, share my linguistics, travel diaries, show my finding comfort in food, and heck, whatever else I feel like... Welcome and enjoy!

On hair and spirituality


my Reflections at 23


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If you had been following my birthday month countdown (which you should have. Jokes, do whatever you want πŸ˜‚ ) you would have noticed that a lot of it was reflection notes. I wanted to sum it all up with one more reflection on two things that I have been thinking about critically recently. When I initially drafted this post, it was titled Birthday Reflections. Birthday, because I specifically wanted to conceal my age. Age is one of those things that breeds a lot of insecurities in me... it is quite up there with language and financial status, but I shall not get into those. However, let me tell why age is one that causes so much anxiety in me. 

I come from a culture of timelines. Lives perfectly curated to start school here, finish then, get a job then, married then and have kids when. According to those timelines, in context of my country, I am perfectly on track, except for that get married part. πŸ˜‚  However, I am fortunate or unfortunate enough to be living in a globalised world where according to "world standards" (or at least world standards as I assume them to be) I am a couple of years behind. It doesn't help that I study at an American institution where I am constantly the oldest student in the room by two or three years. Therefore, I constantly feel like I am late, moving too slow, or was cheated by time (and I secretly blame my parents) for not having "started young" -whatever that means. This is a significant theme as I reflect on my 23 years of life, what I have accomplished and what I have "not" accomplished, where I am vs. where I "should" be... all fixations of my imagination. So, I'd like to share with you my reflections on the consequences of not starting young through three things that I have been obsessing about throughout my 20s; hair, spirituality and sex.

ON HAIR

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I started growing my hair at 19 and so I have never thought I could grow my hair "long enough" or as long as other people (you will soon discover that I compare myself to others a lot; don't worry, I am working on it). By the time I figured that my hair can grow, can grow long and was infact growing, I had already done a lot of self-sabotaging on my hair (relaxed, straightened, styled aggressively e.t.c.). Two years in and my hair was so damaged. Then I had to do the big chop and start over. At this point in my life, I kept telling myself I wish I had started growing my hair sooner, by this time I would have already figured what works for me and what doesn't. I would have fallen in love with my hair. Despite my hair illiteracy, I continued to nurture my teenie weenie Afro until it was fully grown. Then I had to learn how to take care of a not so teenie weenie Afro. It took me half a year of violently styling my hair to realise the internalised self-hatred -my use of the term "great hair" towards anyone with less coily hair, my constant obsession with detangling and forceful combing to straighten my hair- and eventually the damage I had caused on my hair. This episode taught me a lot about myself and my black self in particular. I realised that my being African and growing up in Africa doesn't make me immune to the ubiquitous "ideal beauty" gospel in the media. Though I dreaded the fact that I was coming to this awareness so late, I thanked heavens for the timing. A couple of years earlier and I wouldn't have been able to discern what was my own thought and what was regurgitated media constructions. I rejected wigs and weaves for myself because of this consciousness that I am sure my younger self would have ignored in exchange for fitting in. Don't get me wrong, I love how they look on people who are comfortable and confident in them. I just have trouble reconciling my journey to self love with laying down edges. My edges do not lay. They itch, wigs make them itch. Plus, I feel like I am deceiving the world by walking around with hair that doesn't look like the kind that grows from my skull. I feel like a liar and a fake when I have a teenie weenie Afro one day and long hair the next morning. This is more about my passion for authenticity than it is about the reality and convinience of wigs. I am just always self-conscious people know it's not my hair and I am constantly scared the wind will blow it away. The part that I hate the most, and arguably why I stoped wearing wigs, is when people told me (friends even) they like "my" hair when I have a wig on. This is why I insist on doing my hair with yarn, in colors that human hair doesn't grow in. I feel like I need one to either acknowledge the beauty of my hair or the beauty of my art -what I consider the things I do to my hair- rather than appreciating my successful simulation of another person's hair texture. So, at 23, I am glad I started growing my hair late because at least I am doing it consciously and in lign with my politics.

ON SPIRITUALITY

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When I started travelling the world at 17, it was expected that I would still go to church and pray to God with the same vigour as I had done throughout my life thus far. I was born and raised Catholic, and so it wasn't hard to find a church everywhere I went (since the Catholic church is so pervasive) and so I did. Although my church-going frequency remained constant, my spirituality plummeted over time. From the consistency of the Catholic church services, it was hard, even for me, to explain why I hadn't been able to sustain my spiritual strength. Don't get me wrong I still consider myself a Christian, and a Catholic for that matter, however, my love for the Lord has significantly been put to test in the past 5 years. After reflecting on it for a long time (literally the past five years) I realised my love the Lord hasn't reduced, it has simply become conscious. You see, in the countries that I moved to, preaching and praying was being done in English -a language that exists in my life as a purely intellectual one- and thus, the spiritual connection that I had established with God in Swahili was not sustained. I found myself being forced to understand the Lord with my intellect not with my spirit and when I couldn't -because I simply can't conceive anything spiritual in a language other than Swahili- I began to withdraw from spirituality altogether. I convinced myself that if I was truly faithful and faith-full, I should be able to love the Lord in any language. I was certain that I had to now learn to understand the Bible in English, so I bought an English Bible; re-learn my catechism in English, so I started re-learning all prayers in English; sing praise and worship to God in English, so I joined the gospel choir in Uni. In my attempts, to anglophone-ise my entire spiritual existence, I couldn't help but notice the limitations of the English language in constructing a God that accommodates me. I had not independently imagined God as male until the English language introduced a God that uses he/him/his pronouns. In Swahili, the language, God is an asexual being. Before you come at me with your disagreements, notice that I said in the language... in culture and preachings and teaching, people can and have imposed a masculine existence on God, but from the syntax of the language, and therefore people's independent understanding of God, is that God is asexual. To show you what I mean here is a scripture, John 1:1-3, in both Swahili and English:

Swahili, BHND

Hapo mwanzo, Neno alikuwako; naye alikuwa na Mungu, naye alikuwa Mungu. Tangu mwanzo Neno alikuwa na Mungu. Kwa njia yake vitu vyote viliumbwa; hakuna hata kiumbe kimoja kilichoumbwa pasipo yeye.

 

English, CPDV

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word. He was with God in the beginning. All things were made through Him, and nothing that was made was made without Him.

 

Without going into depth of Swahili grammar, here is how you can see how Swahili is more sufficient in representing an asexual God. In Swahili, the syllable "a" as highlighted above is used to refer to a singular being, male or female or otherwise, thus all beings are considered simply beings. Females or males are only identified in sentences from their names (names being gendered in themselves) or titles that are gender specific. God, however, is consistently referred to as genderless and in the few cases where he is gendered male, for example when he is called Bwana -a title reserved for males- a reference is often made to speak to his symbolic role as opposed to his sexual orientation. Therefore, although I had initially felt disadvantaged by not having developed an Anglophone spirituality since I didn't learn in English since I was young, there was yet another place I thanked God for having been late. Thanks to my having grown up with a Swahili spirituality so to say, I have been able to yet again reconcile my spirituality with my politics because my reading my bible and praying in Swahili gives room for constructing a gender nonconforming and nonbinary God. So, at 23, I insist on praying and believing and being spiritual in Swahili... I can imagine a female (black) God here.

I guess what I am saying is that at 23, I am always conflicted! I am never sure if I should be grateful that I am living a life more consciously than my peers, or if I should feel self-conscious about having a conscious so different from my peers. All I know is, there are decisions that I make easily because of my "late booming" and that I am trying my best to live a life God has laid out for me in every single action I do. I hope you do too. May the Lord's spirit remain present and apparent in your lives. 😘