I’ll start at the beginning. Here is who I am…I am an African-American woman. I am 32 years old. I was born in the United States. My parents are from the United States. My parents’ parents are from the United States and so on. Many of my ancestors were already here…Some of my ancestors were brought here in chains, and sold on auction blocks. I consider myself African by nature, American by nurture.
Once upon a time when I was 21 years old, I was a student at United States International University in Nairobi, Kenya. It was my first time in Africa. I had been there about for about two months, when I was out at a bar with my friends, very close to the campus. My friends and I were all college students, and dressed accordingly so. I walked myself to the bar and took 200ksh out of my pocket to buy my myself a beer. Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around. It was a Caucasian male in his late 40s with scraggly hair. This man was slightly out of place in a college bar, but not an unfamiliar sight in the Nairobi nightlife. The music was blaring. I couldn’t hear him well, but he seemed to be pointing to another corner of the bar and making motions towards the beer I had already ordered. I side-eyed him and shook my head. Whatever it was I wasn’t interested. I had what I came for. He tapped me on the shoulder again and motioned for me to bring my ear closer to his lips so he could tell me something without yelling. I sighed and conceded, bending down slightly. “My friend would like to buy you a drink,” he said. I, beer already in hand, raised my beer and pointed to it. “I’m okay! I just bought myself a drink, but thanks!” I sashayed away back to my friends, and started dancing.
Scene 2. I was thirsty again. I walked back to the bar. The same 40-something white man with the scraggly hair was there. This time he stood up directly in front of the space I thought I would be able to squeeze into the bar. “My friend wants to buy you a drink! He wants to meet you!” he yelled, again pointing over to some dark corner. At this point somewhat curious, and one Tusker in, I replied “why can’t your friend talk to me himself?”. “He’s shy,” he responded. Amused that we had reverted to middle school interactions, and half expecting him to deliver a paper which said “will you go out with me” with “yes”, “no” and “maybe” as boxes to check, I became curious. I thought, maybe his friend is a cute 20-something Kenyan banker, a gorgeous 30-year old Ugandan lawyer… I thought, who knows. “He’s right over here” he insisted. I said “ok” and followed him just a few steps away from the bar, to a high top in the corner. The friend was an unattractive 50-something Caucasian- American. He greeted me, shook my hand, asked my name, and where I was from. I answered, recoiled my hand, said “nice to meet you, but I’m going to go back to my friends”. He motioned for me to join them. I shook my head and hustled back to the table where my friends were.
Scene 3. Last drink. Same man. Same spot. Same question. Same refusal. Followed by the question, the first of many of the same design, with different accents, languages and configurations, that I would hear often while living in Kenya, “my friend wants to know how much”. I said, “how much what?”, totally confused. “My friend wants to know how much it would cost for him to sleep with you?”. What happened next, is somewhat of a blur. I know that a fury engulfed me. I remember walking outside. I felt like I was suffocating. I remember coming back. I remember using a lot of expletives. But what I will never forget is how the situation was resolved. I was asked to leave the club… I was told I was making too much noise. I was disturbing business. This was not the last time something like this would transpire. It would go on to happen in Djibouti, and in Ethiopia, and in Ivory Coast. I Black woman, minding my own business, sexually propositioned by he, White man with a few dollars in his pocket, was at fault for disrupting a totally unacceptable and disrespectful attempted “transaction”.
Since this first occurrence back in my 20s, I have learned to contain myself somewhat better, to learn to listen for the response to the question I now pose genuinely curious, “what makes you think you can buy me?”. I have heard everything from “oh I’m sorry…I thought you were from (insert country here)” to “everything can be bought”; everything equally as insulting. All that these answers have amounted to is this, “as a Black woman, your body is a commodity, that I as a White man, have the right to purchase it/you”. While this is a personal narrative, I do not share this burden alone. It becomes important as it makes the case of what I will call “sexual neo-colonialism”, a legacy of the exploitation of the bodies of women of color. If we understand neo-colonialism, as the last stage of imperialism, as did Kwame Nkrumah, as its most dangerous stage; as a stage in which sovereignty is only a façade and that power is used for “exploitation rather than development”, than we must too understand neo-colonialism as the most dangerous stage not just for the “developing state” but for its people, particularly its women. The African female whether in diaspora or continental stands to lose her sovereignty, and too be exploited, rather than space intentionally made for her to develop herself the way she sees fit.
Colonialism left in its wake the destruction of pre-colonial political, social and economic systems in which women ranked highly, and replaced them first with “native authorities” exclusive of women followed by clientele-patronage systems, which too excluded women. Women often lost tremendous power during the colonial period as well as economic autonomy. This resulted from women’s exclusion from the global marketplace and new reliance of women’s unpaid labor. Customary laws developed under colonialism and inherited from Europe, disadvantaged women favoring men. They accorded particular rights to men, such as the right to testify in trials, that were closed to women. Women were removed from power as heads of associations often with the final say over market or agricultural disputes, and replaced with men. Simply colonial rule restructured family, sex, gender and sexuality by creating legal mechanisms to control women’s positions in society, positions in their families, and expressions of their sexuality, for the sake of White Western capital.
The trickle-down effect of the disempowerment of the African woman has also emboldened the White hetero male to assume his place in the hierarchy of African affairs is one of superiority, and one in which any Black woman continues to be for sale. This is further reinforced often by the colonial mentality, the internalized colonialism of many members of African society, which favors and in fact protects unfettered white male hetero sexuality and promotes its unbridled exploits. It is this internalized colonialism, in actuality, the reaction of those around her, that asks the Black woman either to suppress her reaction to verbal sexual violence totally, or to react within the confines of what white hetero-males have sanctioned as polite gender normativity; to smile and say “no thank you”, to gently brush away prodding hands, to repeat “no” quietly, avert our eyes, and meekly insist that we decline such advances. This internalized colonialism of its witnesses says she is “overreacting”, when she yells, pushes away, tells, or even says no firmly. It says that “well, most other women would have said yes”.
Someone will say that this will stop when African women stop having relationships with such men. Someone will say that when these women, who may find poverty less miserable than sex with the occasional dream peddling foreigner, simply say no, then all African women will stop being objectified. To which I would respond that until the system that has systematically underdeveloped not only Africa but the entire Global South, a system which has destroyed indigenous spirituality and replaced it with a White savior both hanging in the homes of its believers and walking the streets as sex tourists, is dismantled, then Black women, Brown Women, all women of color, will continue to be harmed by it.
This returns me to my story. The man in question was an American. There was no question of impoverished conditions. I clearly stated that I too was American, but this did not prevent the proposition, nor has it on multiple occasions. I, due to the intersectionality of my race and gender, was considered a commodity, buyable, and expendable. I am not the only woman of color who has had such an experience. I often exchange stories with my expat women of color friends, who have often witnessed and experienced the same. The globally internalized white hetero male superiority complex and systemic inherited exploitative North-South relations that support the continued effort to colonize, conquer and commodify the woman of color’s body, as an economic enterprise, must necessarily change, and sexual neo-colonialism, must be destroyed and at last put to rest….
So I will finish at the beginning. I am an African-American woman. I am 32 years old. I was born in the United States. My parents are from the United States. My parents’ parents are from the United States and so on. Many of my ancestors were already here. Some of my ancestors were brought here in chains, and sold on auction blocks. But, “How much do I cost?”…I am priceless. We are priceless. Not even on the auction block were my ancestors’ souls for sale.