Author: Grace A. Musila

Open letter to the anti-TV brigade and my Nollywood people

A black 4 x4 rolls down a driveway to the sound of D’banj’s Oliver Twist and stops outside the palatial triple storey residence. The cast’s names unfold: Desmond Eliott. Rita Dominic. Mike Ezuruonye. The driver turns off the engine. As he opens the car door, D’banj declares:

I have a confession
See, I like Beyonce!
I like Rihanna, she dey mek me go gaga
I like Omotola, cos people like her….
…Oliver, Oliver Twist!  

The young man — played by Mike Ezuruonye — steps out of the car. With calculated chill, he adjusts his trendy aviator sunglasses. The camera zooms in on the Gucci logo, then lingers on the trendy haircut that would get a nod of approval from the Kinshasa’s sapeurs; those gentlemen whose renowned stylishness is encoded in their very name: Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes (Society of Ambience-Makers and Elegant People). A beautiful young woman in impossibly high heels emerges from the passenger side, as D’banj declares his liking for Genevieve. Her makeup alone is worthy of a Vogue magazine cover. The man puts his hand around her waist, and looks into her eyes with a loving enchantment that would be perfect for a John Legend video. The couple walks into the opulent lounge, boasting the requisite plush lounge suite, thick carpets, huge flat-screen TV, and artworks on the walls. Seated alone is a well-dressed older woman, her turquoise head-wrap intricately folded like an origami. “Good-morning mama,” the young man greets cheerfully, arm still around his lover.  The camera zooms in on the origami head, as she gives him ‘The Look.’ We sit back and wait, knowing what is coming seconds before it is delivered: the multi-syllabic Nolly-sneer….

*         *        *

Hi. My name is Grace and I own a TV.

As a lapsed Catholic, I know a thing or two about confessions. You know what they say: Catholic guilt, like Catholic marriage, is truly a for-better-or-worse situation. You can take the Catholic out of mass but you cannot take the guilt out of the Catholic. So, like D’Banj, I have a confession to make: I watch the news and sports, but my main TV viewing diet is soapies and Nollyflicks. Yes, including 7 de Laan, Rhythm City and Nollyflicks with titles like Adam’s Apples and Daughters of Eve. I realise this is a dangerous confession for a wannabe Kleva Black, because we are supposed to have our noses perpetually buried in Slavoj Žižek’s or Cornel West’s latest thoughts, as fantastic jazz plays in the background. Naturally, we are not supposed to know who Sarkodie is; never mind the latest ghetto kids’ choreography of Ugandan hitmaker Eddy Kenzo’s Jambolee.  And we definitely aren’t supposed to be pondering how to transcribe that trademark Nollywood sneer-and-click combo, which has inspired an entire range of memes.

Look atew 2

Look, in my defence, in between trying out these Jambolee moves and Nollywood sneer-clicks, I read books and listen to jazz, in the interests of keeping peace with the jazz snobs and literati in my life. I am currently bonding with Ahmad Jamal and reading Kenyan Caine Prize winner Yvonne Owuor’s Dust. But I remain guilty of owning and watching a TV. This is a serious indiscretion, which might explain why a few second dates never materialised in my dating past. Perhaps I should not have betrayed such enthusiastic knowledge of Jason Malinga’s marital problems on Generations, or such passionate irritation at Gita McGregor’s perpetual scheming on 7 de Laan. Or maybe it was my sincere puzzlement at the murder mystery in Thathe, implicating the Great Warthog of Luonde, He-Who-Says-Die-and-I-Perish.

While we are at it, what’s the deal with the duplication of stories across South African soapies? I see now the missing Malaysian plane that first resurfaced on Rhythm City with Siyabonga Twala’s stylish character, DH Radebe’s private jet disappearing, has now reappeared and disappeared again on Isidingo. Yes, it is another stylish black businessman’s private jet: Vusi Kunene as Jefferson Sibeko, disappeared somewhere off the Angolan coastline. I am guessing the scriptwriters don’t know this, but some of us are equal-opportunity viewers (to borrow a phrase from my friend who once defended his polyamorous tendencies by explaining that he always made it clear to the women in his life that he was an equal-opportunity lover). Unlike my bank which recently demanded financial monogamy from me, by declaring they wouldn’t handle some of my transactions unless I stopped ‘seeing’ my other bank; some of us  have dispensed with LSM monogamy, and we are now equal-opportunity viewers who gallivant across SABC and DStv’s audience Bantustans.  And I can tell you this much: when you start on an amnesia and stolen identity story-line in Diepkloof at 18h30, by the time you get to the Thathe flavour of this amnesia on Muvhango at 21h20, you have just about had it with the amnesia angle, in all its manifestations. While we are at it, I am this close to organising a Red October campaign in protest against Paula van der Lecq’s (Diaan Lawrenson) use of the word ‘phantasmagoris’ on 7 de Laan, and KK Mulaudzi’s  trying-too-hard-to-be-hardcore  robotic laughter on Muvhango.

But I must distance myself from The Bold and the Beautiful. There is a way in which if you started watching The Bold from episode one, when you were six sizes smaller, the sight of Brooke Logan Jones Forrester (x7) walking down the aisle with her daughter’s husband’s father for the umpteenth time is harmful to your health. It is not so much the many tribes of primary, secondary and tertiary incest involved, but the deep shame that you ever nursed a committed teenage crush on Ridge Forester. As did half your school. The other half was busy ogling the NBA’s Dennis Rodman and his peroxide-blond head. I wasn’t a Rodman fan, but I supported the San Antonio Spurs with the same passion I now dedicate to the Super Eagles of Nigeria, the Ghana Black Stars, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, the Desert Foxes of Algeria and the Elephants of Côte d’Ivoire. What? Too many teams? No, friend. When it comes to soccer, I am an equal-opportunity Pan-African. Sure, I got that memo about all my Foxes, Eagles, Elephants, Lions and Stars being whipped out of Brazil before they even finished unpacking.  This, despite the fact that many of Europe’s soccer leagues would have a crisis of SA platinum-belt proportions if all their players of African descent decided to go on a prolonged strike.  Like all matters Pan-African, supporting African soccer is not for part-time Africans. It takes the loyalty of an Arsenal or Bafana fan, and the patience of biblical Job.

So, you can see why I have no energy for an anti-TV brigade which has somehow convinced itself  that not having a TV makes it a special breed of really clever, studious, intellectual people. I am generally able to ignore this lot with the same indifference I reserve for those who think my Christianity is questionable because their limited imagination cannot process the idea of a dedicated Christian who does not go to church and is partial to Windhoek lager. What I can’t ignore though, are people who build careers studying popular culture or producing content for these platforms while simultaneously holding TV, radio, and magazines in such contempt. What brand of dishonest schizophrenia is this?

But I digress. The moral of this open letter is really an appeal to my people in Nollywood. Listen: That situation of sunglasses indoors? E no fine oo. E shady.  Abeg, mek we stop this nah.


A TV-owning equal-opportunity Nolly-fan

Grace A. Musila is a Kenyan who studied in South Africa.

The idiot’s guide to misogyny: East and South African edition


Every two years – during the Africa Cup of Nations and the soccer World Cup, to be precise – I change my citizenship to my four self-assigned West African citizenships: Ghanaian, Nigerian, Malian and Ivorian. If you are a soccer fan, you will understand the necessity of this symbolic migration. East and Southern Africa have many things going for them. Soccer is not one of them, save for occasional flashes of hope from the Angolans. But in March this year, I found it necessary to symbolically emigrate from East and South Africa, for less sporty reasons: I could not handle the toxic gender politics in these two regions, in March. In an inadvertent collaboration, East and South Africa embodied the idiot’s guide to misogyny in March and, as they say, I just couldn’t deal.

On March 24, Kenyans received an apology from Dr Susan Mboya-Kidero, the wife of the Governor of Nairobi County. You see, her husband, Dr Evans Kudero, had been spotted in public wearing a torn sock. A local daily had found this so newsworthy that they published the governor’s foot with the torn sock.  This photo apparently prompted the good senator’s wife to apologise to Kenyans for this ‘lapse’ in her responsibilities as a wife,  and promise all offended Kenyans that  she will “put stricter measures in place” to ensure this doesn’t happen again in future.

Eight years ago, another prominent politician’s wife apologised to Kenyans for a similar ‘lapse’ in vigilance over her husband’s feet. Apparently Kenyans take serious offence to these lapses in wifely duty by their politicians’ spouses. These wives’ failures in managing their husbands’ wardrobes have serious implications for service delivery in the city of Nairobi, the commercial engine of East and Central Africa.

So, Dr Mboya-Kidero told Kenyans she “takes full responsibility for this serious mistake” in her husband’s dressing. In her defence, she cited the notorious Nairobi traffic, which forces him to leave home at 5.30am, before she has a chance to ‘approve’ his dressing. Of course the good Nairobians will accept her apology, and will in fact forgive the little fact that the person who should be speaking to them is the good governor himself; and not about his torn socks, but about his plans to unblock Nairobi’s legendary traffic jams. In fact, they might also forgive the not-so-small fact that this same governor of torn socks allegedly slapped a woman politician in a public altercation a few months ago, sparking public uproar, a court case, and finally a court order that they reconcile.

But I digress. One of the beautiful things about South Africa for feminists is that you get to mark women’s month twice: in March, along with International Women’s Day, and in August, the national women’s month. March holds a special spot in my heart as the month when I formally encountered the language of feminist thought as a young undergraduate student, thanks to a group of politicised friends in university. Together, the four of us started marking International Women’s Day with themed public lectures and feminist marches on campus, much to the amusement of fellow students and some university staff members. But this March was a hard one to be a politicised woman tuned into East and South African public discourse.

Reflecting on it, I can’t help but note the ways in which women’s bodies occupied centre space in March in East and South Africa in very troubling ways. Of course women wrote brilliant books this month (the fantastic South Africa scholar and novelist, Zoe Wicomb, launched her new novel October); they won Oscars (Kenyan Lupita Nyong’o); and countless other ordinary women engaged in various acts of excellence, heroism, generosity and courage. But how were women figured in public discourse?

Reeva Steenkamp and Thuli Madonsela
During this month, two South African women dominated the public space, for very different reasons, with different responses: the murdered South African model Reeva Steenkamp occupied centre stage as her boyfriend and killer, Oscar Pistorius, stood trial to prove his case – that he didn’t kill her in moment of rage, but actually mistook her for ‘an intruder’, whom he presumably intended to kill. That this high-profile case’s defence essentially hangs on the assumed appropriateness of pumping bullets into an intruder – code for young black criminal – is a whole other conversation.

The second woman to occupy South African public discourse is Public Protector Advocate Thuli Madonsela, who delivered her report on the so-called Nkandlagate scandal relating to the opulent expenditure on the president’s security, which included a state-of-the-art chicken run.

What was curious for me was the spectrum of responses these two women attracted: distress over Reeva Steenkamp’s killing, with murmurs of a possible case of an abusive relationship; and the mixture of celebration and vilification of Advocate Thuli Madonsela for her findings on Nkandla. Significantly, despite attempts to frame these two cases differently – blue collar and white collar crime in South Africa – ultimately, the two women’s gender continued to haunt them; in the shape of a possibly emotionally abusive relationship that spilled over into tragic violence; and an equally tragic attack on the public protector’s person and looks, for daring to speak out against massive misuse of public funds.

Meantime, on the side strips of these high profile cases, two other largely unrelated stories unfolded: a man in Limpopo province offered to launch a series of awards to reward young girls for maintaining their virginity. He neglected to offer men a similar incentive. Apparently there is no premium on male virginity, nor for that matter is it necessary to incentivise them not to pressure young girls into sex.

Back in East Africa a few weeks earlier, the Museveni government arrived at the ‘scientific’ conclusion that homosexuality was a lifestyle choice, and therefore, decided to formally legislate against it. If we remember the ways in which homosexual men are often feminised in public discourse and how the abhorrent phenomenon of ‘corrective rape’ targeted at lesbian women has become a plague in South Africa, it is not hard to see that the common denominator in these two moments is anxieties about policing the female body and female sexuality. This push for female virginity is just one face of patriarchy via female sexual purity. The other face patriarchy wears is homophobia, precisely because same-sex love makes lesbian women symbolically unavailable to male sexual pleasure, hence the need to ‘correct’ them through rape. Gay men on the other hand sabotage patriarchy by deviating from the script of heterosexual consumption of women’s bodies and through their feminisation, which further threatens the ‘approved’ template of manhood by blurring the assumed rigid boundaries between masculinity and femininity.

It has been a long month, March. So, I mentally exiled myself to West Africa. But I know my other countries will disappoint at one point or another. In the meantime, I’ll hope for a better April. Being my birthday month, my biggest wish is a misogyny-free month for all women.  Hopefully the universe and my ancestors are both listening.

Grace A. Musila is a Kenyan who studied in South Africa.

Sex education on a street kerb

Between HIV prevalence statistics, child grants, polygamy, Ben 10s, sexual violence and the annual initiation-school deaths, the medical, moral and economic panics that swirl around black bodies in South Africa are enough to power all the geysers in Gauteng for a month.  Perhaps it is with this knowledge of the many panics surrounding all matters black and sexual that enterprising self-proclaimed miracle workers going by nondescript names like ‘Dr Tony from East Africa’  promise all manner of miracle cures for all kinds of sexual problems – from fixing relationship crises to penis enlargements. (For some mysterious reason, these doctors are almost always from East Africa). This social investment in matters relating to black sexuality may explain why on one Cape Town train, the only stickers gracing the walls and roofs of carriages are adverts for penis enlargements and “quick, same-day” abortions (their  words). Whenever I take this train, I am uncertain what bothers me more: these doctors’ advertorial monopoly or the logic of having adverts for “quick, same-day” abortions side by side with adverts for penis enlargements.

True, I failed maths in school — which explains why all numbers have a slippery encounter with my mind — but the equation here seems too unfortunate, even for my anti-algebraic mind. I can’t decide whether it is a question of  ‘to each their perils’ or an acknowledgement of some correlation between penis enlargements and women’s desperation for backstreet abortions. In this social climate, a roadside conversation about sex and its perils is bound to be tinted with all manner of ideas.  But what better place than the Cape to have a random conversation about sex, with an unknown teenager, at 8:23 in the morning?

(Pic: Flickr / Rob Allen)
(Pic: Flickr / Rob Allen)

I am walking to work on a typical Cape winter’s day.  Sheltered by my umbrella, I’m listening to an SAfm talk-show on serial killers. Among the panelists is an ex-convict, invited in his capacity as a former serial killer. He clarifies to the talk-show host that, eintlik, he is an ex-murderer. Not a former serial killer. He just happened to have murdered, well, several people.

I feel the presence of someone beside me. Being hyper-sensitised by the talk-show discussion, I almost jump.  As I turn to my left, I hear the ultra-polite greeting, “Good morning m’aam”. I respond, as I remove my earphones, slightly puzzled at this young man, about sixteen, a few inches shorter than me, cuddled in a heavy coat, hands in his pocket.

“Ma’am, can I ask you something?”

I don’t know where this is going, and I am puzzled at the polite “Ma’am” laced with the heavy ‘coloured’ Afrikaans accent, but as we walk on, I say, “Okay?”

“Please, I am not being rude, but I want to know: is sex painful?”

Ei? But really now!?! I turn and look into his face, preparing to firmly tell him he is way too young to be trying this nonsense with me, and even for his age-mates, he will need to learn some ‘pick-up’ protocol. But as I look for words, I realise from the serious, slightly shy look on his face that he is not being cheeky. He is actually expecting a serious answer to this question; and from the shy look on his face, he has been pondering this question for a while.

“Yes, sometimes it is. Why do you ask?”

“My girlfriend says it is painful. Is it painful for men too?”

I never! It occurs to me then that I have never asked the men in my circles and life this question. The automatic assumption is that of course sex is always pleasurable for men.  It is still drizzling, and my office is a block away. It quickly occurs to me that this is a Dear Sis Dolly moment; and I must respect  this young man’s courage to ask this question of a complete stranger. He must have realised this conversation could go very badly. I quickly don my big-sister hat and step into this street-kerb sex-education scenario. I truthfully explain to him that sometimes it is painful for women, but I do not know if it can also be painful for men. I am a big sister/aunt. I tell him the best way around this is to always listen to his girlfriend, and never force her to have sex when she is not ready. I fumble around for polite language for explaining the importance of foreplay to women’s sexual comfort, as he listens attentively. Lastly, I tell him to always be safe and ensure he protects himself and his girlfriend, by using a condom. He giggles at this last part, and shyly tells me he knows about the importance of condoms.

“Good!” I smile back at him. “So, where are you going so early in the morning?” I ask.

To pick up something from his father, who works at our local supermarket.

As we parted ways, my heart ached for this teenager, who had to resort to a stranger on the street to explain sexual matters when he lived with his father. I found this encounter so bizarre that the first thing I did was describe it to my colleague at work because it was so odd that it felt like a hallucination. My colleague had only one question for me: Why is it that of all the people on the streets he decided to ask you?

The jury is still out on this question.

Oh, and now, thanks to my male friends, I have an answer for my young friend on whether sex is painful for men.

Black laughter and suing Pontius Pilate

Black people’s relationship to laughter fascinates me. As a friend recently pondered, where does one begin understanding a Facebook status update that says: “That awkward moment when your mother dies”? Or how does one make sense of the Kenyan lawyer, Dola Indidis, who took such strong exception to the unfair prosecution of Jesus Christ that he decided to sue Pontius Pilate, Emperor Tiberius and King Herod at the International Criminal Court in The Hague in July 2013?

The obviousness of this move astonished me. Indeed, why hadn’t anyone thought of this before? Never mind that accused number one, Pontius Pilate is long dead and probably long forgiven by Christ— as are Emperor Tiberius and King Herod. Never mind, too, that not-so-small detail that the Christian in me is daily reminded of by my name: God authorised His son’s ‘unfair’ trial as an act of divine grace. Despite this — or as we say in Kenya, ‘irregardless’ – Indidis took serious umbrage to what he calls the abuse of Jesus’s human rights. So, he is suing Pilate for judicial misconduct, abuse of office, bias and prejudice. He is also suing the Republic of Rome and the State of Israel for their complicity in Jesus’s malicious prosecution. His aim? To have the trial of Jesus declared null and void; following a similar precedent in the nullification of the unfair trial of Joan of Arc. As a Christian, this is the part where I get stuck. It is all well that Joan of Arc got posthumous justice, but what would it mean for Jesus’s trial and crucifixion to be declared null and void?

In all honesty,  Indidis’s court case cracked my ribs when I first read it. But absurd as it sounds, anyone who has read Toni Morrison will know that black people’s seeming absurdities are not always a light affair. So, when you meet grown men and women bearing names like Tea-Cake and Baby Suggs, it is not funny in a Nandos-advert kind of way. It is funny in that funny-sad way that explains how Louis Armstrong‘s fans could fondly call him Satchmo [Satchel mouth] as a loving nickname.

Come to think of it, it is in naming that this contradictory blend of hurt and affirmation plays out most explicitly. My personal favorite is Pilate Dead, a woman in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Her family carries the unfortunate surname — Dead — courtesy of a drunk soldier who captured her father’s details wrongly for his identification papers. When he explained that he was from Macon and his father was dead, the soldier entered these details under ‘name’ and ‘surname’ respectively. And that is how many generations of the family came to be, well, Dead. But Pilate’s first name is an in-house job. The same father inaugurated a family tradition of naming children by opening a Bible and pointing a finger at a random page. Wherever a finger fell, that would be the child’s name. This tradition is strictly observed in the family, generations later, despite literacy. So, when her father’s finger landed on the unfortunate spot in the Bible, the name stuck, despite the midwife’s protests about saddling a new born baby girl with not just a man’s name, but a “Christ-killing man’s name.” Thanks to this tradition, Pilate has nieces named Magdalene Dead and First Corinthians Dead.

Pilate Dead and Satchmo’s names are a reminder that black people’s laughter embraces the grey ambiguities of life, in full recognition of the fact that life and death are next-door neighbours. So are pain and laughter. This sensibility was brought to me recently in a most bizarre way. It was a Sunday mid-morning, and I was looking at children’s clothes in a retail store at my local mall. It is generally a quiet shopping time, which I like. You have space for your thoughts, without bumping into everyone else’s thoughts in the aisles. Even the music is played at a lower volume. So, on this Sunday, as I looked at little boys’ shirts, the store was quiet enough for me to hear four attendants’ voices from different parts of the shop, having a loud lighthearted conversation, in Afrikaans, filled with relaxed laughter. They all seemed deeply amused at an inside joke. My entire Afrikaans is a few phrases picked up from 7de Laan and the inevitable swear words one tends to learn when one encounters a new language, so I had no clue what the joke was. But one phrase kept coming up, followed by long peals of laughter: “Easter bunny”. After the fifth Easter bunny, I looked around the shop, slightly confused: had this store decided to have a second Easter marketing campaign in the middle of August? But there was not a single ‘Easter-branded’ item or poster in sight.

I was still puzzled at this when I got to the pay counter, and one of the assistants called out to one of the colleagues they had been conversing with, to come and serve me. As Alex walked over to the counter laughing, he shouted, “Easter bunny!” to his colleague, who responded with another “Easter bunny”. And another laugh. It was when he came in my line of vision that I finally figured what the word was, and felt even more confused. It wasn’t Easter bunny. It was isitabane, laced with an Afrikaans accent.

I was speechless. To my knowledge, this is a derogatory, homophobic word. And Alex was clearly a gay black man. Many thoughts collided in my mind as Alex processed my purchase: When did this word become publicly sayable? Laughable? Was I witnessing the playful taming of a violent word? The softening of a hard, damaging label? Was this the same as the reclaiming of the word ‘queer’? Or was it normalising a hurtful word? Did the foreign languageness of the word make it easier for the Afrikaans speakers to play with it, in much the same way swear words in your mother tongue sound much dirtier than in English? Reading Siyanda Mohutsiwa’s concern about similar taming of hurtful racial and gendered words a few weeks ago, I was reminded of this conversation.

As I left the store this Sunday, wrestling with what this lighthearted banter between colleagues meant, I remembered another even more random conversation a few years earlier between two young ladies at Wits University:

“He says he will love you forever? Aawwww, chommie! That’s so romantic!”

“Ja, but forever is a long time, hey?” the friend responded, in a matter-of-fact tone.

Something about this conversation just killed me dead, as they say in Nollywood. It was both funny and profound. You see, forever IS a long time. This is the spirit in which Pilate Dead walks around with that name in Morrison’s novel. This is probably the same spirit with which a gay black man would be laughing at “Easter bunny”. It is the same logic behind Indidis’s pursuit of justice for Jesus. See, forever IS a long time to promise to love someone, but two thousand years isn’t too late to get justice for God’s son. This is that awkward moment when conventionalised logic gives way to unconventional logic.

Grace A. Musila is a Kenyan who studied in South Africa.

Me, Obama and Sarah Baartman in Istanbul

Despite my general disregard for Turkish Delights, Istanbul holds a special place in my heart. This is where I became two iconic black people: Sarah Baartman and Barack Obama – for a few minutes anyway.

I associate cities with books I have read about them. But when I think of Istanbul, it is not Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s novels; nor even the must-read Honour by Elif Shafak that comes to mind. I associate Istanbul with The Book of Chameleons, a novel by Angolan Jose Eduardo Agualusa. You see, this novel is about a man who trades in memories. His business card reads: “Felix Ventura – Guarantee your children a better past.”  His clients are well-heeled people whose futures are secure, but who lack a good past. So he sells them brand new pasts. He gives people saddled with disgraceful family trees or uninteresting childhood memories, a chance to photoshop their histories, complete with tangible evidence to support these new pasts. This is how one fellow gets a new set of illustrious grandparents resplendent with nobility— along with photographs of him spending memorable days at their lovely house.

Istanbul reminds me of this novel because, like Felix Ventura, Istanbul gave me two brand-new identities in 2011. I got to be watched and photographed like the enslaved black South African woman, Sarah Baartman, whose body was exhibited as an ‘exotic’ across  Europe. I also got to be Obama. But unlike Felix Ventura’s customers, my new identities came unprovoked, uninvited, on a prepaid contract – compliments of my blackness.

The day I became these two icons is the same day I first tasted roasted chestnuts. We were visiting the Aya Sofya museum, which embodies Istanbul’s popular image as ‘where East meets West.’ An architectural wonder when it was completed in 537AD as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, the building has over the centuries served as a Roman Catholic cathedral, and a mosque, before becoming the museum it is now. Its architectural wonders aside, Aya Sofya’s interiors are a rich display of Turkey’s layered histories, as distinctive Islamic calligraphy rubs shoulders with stunning mosaics of the Virgin Mary and Angel Gabriel.

So, outside Aya Sofya, my friend and I waited for the vendor to wrap our freshly roasted chestnuts, entry tickets already purchased. I enjoyed the familiar sounds of the Turkish greeting ‘Merhaba’, which could have come straight from Kiswahili; glowing with pride in our shared Arabic linguistic roots. I was at home.

There was a long queue of tourists, but I noticed a particularly excitable bunch of Turkish school children in uniform. I figured they were typically excited as students tend to be on school outings. I remembered my pure delight as a Grade 4 student about a class trip to our local museum, whose key attraction was its reptile collection and the requisite ‘Picasso-goes-native’ anthropological paintings of bare-breasted black women bravely bearing the burden of beads on their necks. So, I dismissed these teenagers’ laughter, jostling and their inability to stand in a queue as typical student excitement.

When you have never been an object of paparazzi interest, you don’t quickly make the link between flashing cameras and yourself. It took me a while to join the dots between the mini-stampede of flashing cameras and my face. Then I stood there transfixed, blankly scanning the queue, the nearby streets, my friend, the chestnut vendor, before I finally acknowledged the truth I had already registered, but suppressed: I was the only black person around. The second truth was harder to face: I was the cause of the students’ excitement. So much for our shared linguistic roots. To them, one of those women they only knew as paintings and pictures about Africa was standing right before their eyes. In the flesh. Munching roasted chestnuts. Sure, I was dressed wrong for the ‘peoples-of-Africa’ look of those paintings and postcards, but my blackness remained astonishing for this group of teenagers.

Snapping out of the shock, my friend and I literally ran into the Aya Sofya, school children and cameras in tow. And thus unfolded my ‘participant-observer’ tour of Aya Sofya Museum: playing Black Mampatile (hide-and-seek) with a bunch of Turkish students desperate to capture evidence of their close encounter with blackness for their Facebook friends. I was a bonus on their museum trip, an artifact to be watched and photographed, alongside the murals on the walls.  As I ducked into corners in the beautiful Museum, in-between nervous glances at its gorgeous paintings, while my friend ensured the students were safely out of sight before we could move to the next part of the museum, I remembered Sarah Baartman. I had read lots about her, most recently in Pumla Gqola’s book What is Slavery to me? But for the first time, I had a glimpse of what it must have felt like be a curiosity, to be ‘exotic,’ to be studied and photographed because you are different; to be assaulted with the giggling stares of teenagers’ cameras. Unlike her, I may have been a free woman, there on my own volition. Yet I remained helpless and humiliated. It wasn’t my favourite Kodak moment. But my day was about to get even better: an encounter as Obama awaited me at the Grand Bazaar market.

After sneaking out of the Aya Sofya church, my friend and I decided to visit the Grand Bazaar market, on a bargain hunt. As we explored the busy market, each pathway filled with throngs of shoppers and stall owners calling customers to their wares and haggling over the prices, one man’s voice rose above the din shouting ‘Obama! Obama! Obama!!’ This sounded odd to both my friend and I; and we simultaneously looked back to check who Obama was. ‘Yes! Obama!’ the man said, making eye-contact with me, and waving his hand, a wide smile on his face. Goodness?!  It was me! I was the Obama in question. And, by the smiles on many shoppers’ and vendors’ faces, I was the only one who didn’t realise that I was Obama.

I had followed the endless stream of media commentaries on what an Obama presidency meant for Kenya and Africa at large. But I had clearly missed the part about his name becoming the new shorthand for ‘black person’— at least at this market in Istanbul. I wondered whether to be flattered, amused or offended at this new ‘John Smith’ code for black folks. I smiled awkwardly and gave the man a little wave, hoping to shut him up with acknowledgment. As we squeezed through the crowds to leave the market, I wondered how this would play out in Turkish villages. Would I be followed by groups of children shouting ‘Obama! Obama!’? Would I need a souvenir T-shirt declaring ‘I am not Obama’ the way tourists to East Africa wore the ‘I am not Mzungu (white) T-shirt?

Fast-forward to April 2013. I am sharing a house with colleagues from different countries. One housemate, Salah from Iran, is a spitting image of Obama. His dress-sense, his graceful walk, his height, his salt-n-pepper hair, his skin-tone, right down to the smile. My friends and I remark to each other on this similarity. Salah shares my friends’ passion for Table Tennis, and they play regularly. One day, I tell him. “You know you look like Obama.” Ever graceful, he looks at me slowly, then asks: “is that a good thing?” Yho!? Who saw that one coming?  I mumble that I mean the nice Obama, not the one busy killing every audacious hope we ever invested in his presidency. My friends jokingly break the awkwardness: “Actually it is not such a bad thing. You could play Obama in a Hollywood movie about him. But do you play basketball? You will have to learn basketball for the movie.”

Salah laughs good-naturedly, then says “No. I play table tennis. Obama will have to learn table tennis so he can be more like me.”

Ek se! Give that man a Bells!, I think quietly to myself.  I suppose this is what they mean by thinking outside the box. Indeed, why shouldn’t Obama learn table tennis, in the hypothetical scenario of Salah playing him in a movie? See, sometimes the mountain must go to Mohammed.

Grace A. Musila is a Kenyan who studied in South Africa.