By Amran Gaye
There are the things we say without a second thought, lines in conversations we have and then forget, never pausing for a moment to think about their impact:
Heyyy he posted a new picture trying to look cute di! Haha – you’ve got to go look – belie kii dina ma reye. The vacant look in his eyes – muneh dafaa smile di – he is so tuoye. Does he even have a girlfriend? Of course not! What girl could love him? His flared nostrils, his broad forehead, and don’t even get me started on those lips… Daf dorn chase Aminata di… Aminata neh ma kii fumaa aandaa morm jang-ha nyu nehka di nyu horl? Hahaha…
OMG go check out the picture she just posted! You HAVE to drop everything and go look! Her over-powdered face, her rouge, that mismatched top she’s wearing from the ’70s – wahu ma muneh dafaa duck face – kii nit la? Does she not look in the mirror before she goes out? Does she never see herself and what she looks like? But I don’t even blame her I blame her friends, who would let her leave the house this way…
But words have a life of their own, separate from their speaker… They are the things that fill the void separating our thoughts from the World, and once they have left our mouths they no longer are under our control, have a separate existence in the World. What good they can do, and what harm, are determined at their moment of genesis, when they leave our tongues, but afterwards there is no taking them back, their fates no longer up to us….
She knew something was wrong as soon as the likes started coming in on the photo she had posted. Before that her most liked photos, the successes, had never gotten more than ten likes, almost all family members, or brazen guys taking the piss. But five minutes after posting this one there were twelve likes, the majority from people she did not even know. She wondered what was going on, but still made herself believe that it was people just complimenting her, who had come across the photo and liked it.
She became certain something was wrong when the likes reached twenty, and kept climbing. Still names she did not know, all girls. And when she clicked through to their profiles all obviously fake accounts: no friends on their lists except each other, placeholder pictures – of the Arch, of the Sea, of The Gambia on the world map – instead of photos of people. And their names: Fatim Touray. Jainaba Makalo. Haddy Taal. She blocked them immediately so that their likes disappeared, but the more she blocked the more that came to the photo, new accounts being created as fast as she could remove them.
And then they stopped trying to even disguise the fact that they were fake profiles, choosing ridiculous names. Kankurang Njie. Ya Nyaawe Jallow. Dore Musa Am Jaykarr Sowe. Kanami Golo Sosseh. She continued to block, though at this point she knew she was fighting a losing battle, that there were more than one of them and she on her own could not keep up.
And then the likes turned into comments, sarcastic ones designed to be mean, to hurt. “Shuu Jangha yaa fi toch!”. “Bee morm sore pareh rek am jaikarr”. “Maang chi top bi – fore ko jainday nii Marchè Serekunda?”. “Dore dorli rouge? Ndah dang ko jehhal? Mungi nii!”, and on and on in the same vein…
She put a brave face on it online, of course, refused to be dealt low or ruffled, refused to give any indication that they were getting to her. While they commented she blocked, and as the whispers of the attack spread online she tweeted in as carefree a manner as possible, to show that she did not care, that they could say whatever they wanted and it would never touch her. She could have changed the settings of the photo to private and removed them all in one fell swoop, or even deleted it entirely, but that would have been admitting defeat, giving in and letting them win. And so she left it up and public, her phone going off again and again with notifications, her timeline on twitter full of subtweets, the new gaaru waaleh of the digital age, aimed at her but not at her, so she could not reply but still got the message.
By evening she was drained, as if she had run a long marathon, given it her all, yet arrived at the finish line last, even though all the other runners had cheated and she alone had not. She popped sleeping pills and climbed into her bed. She silenced her phone and then turned it off entirely, knowing when she woke up there would be a shit-storm waiting for her, yet so spent she could not bring herself to think of it except as something that belonged in the future, something she could turn away from until tomorrow. She turned off her bedside light and got under her blanket, her body completely covered by it.
And lying there in the dark completely alone and cut off from the world she began to cry. The tears burst out of her with scarcely any warning, though they had been building up within her all day and it had taken all her willpower to force them down, and soon turned into huge hiccupy sobs that rattled her frame and left her gasping for breath.
It wasn’t any one of the comments in particular, but all of them combined, not just that day but all the other days before it, all the days of her life, starting as soon as she was capable of understanding words, of hearing what people said when they thought she was out of earshot (and sometimes when she could hear them even, not caring). It was the way men looked at her, with pity in their eyes (the would-be-kind ones), or else contempt (the ones who didn’t care), both groups quickly moving to ignoring her entirely, as if she was not in the room, as if she was mere furniture, relegated to the background of their attention. It was in the way she was treated when she went places, the difficulties she was presented with even as other women breezed past her, all doors opened for them, all ways made easy. It was in the way even her own friends and family would talk about “inner beauty” when they praised her, as if they could say nothing good of what was outside, and so had to look under her skin. It was in the way men referred to her as a “good sister”, even though she had no relation to them, even when she expressed an interest in taking things further.
She hated them all, hated how they judged her at first sight, hated the expressions on their faces that they did not try to hide, hated how at events and gatherings they all formed their groups and excluded her, becoming tight lipped and giving her pointed smiles when she tried to join in, resuming their conversations only when she went away.
But more than all of that she hated herself, hated her body that felt so different on the outside than it did where she lived within it, so that no matter how pretty or sexy she felt after preening herself other people always saw her in the same unflattering way, so that no matter how confident she felt when she left the house in the morning she came home with the confidence crushed as if under heavy stones. Finally, exhausted, she fell into a deep sleep, and dreams in which she walked through crowds naked, everyone pointing fingers at her, her hands trying to cover her body but failing…
When she woke the next morning and switched her phone back on it immediately started buzzing. Wearily she opened up the Facebook app, ready to start another round of blocks and deletions. She started reading the new comments, the first few following the pattern from the day before, grown even meaner in her absence, the fake profiles not blocked during the night now adding multiple comments each instead of creating new accounts.
But while she slept something had changed. While the fake profiles had not gone away, other voices had jumped in too, real profiles, people she knew only passingly online, and people she had friended but never really spoken to. And where before she had stood alone against the onslaught now they were her champions. They denounced the fake-profile girls, spoke of the accidents of birth which are God’s way of making His creation, spoke of the body as a vehicle in whose selection we have no say, a vessel within which the spirit resides, in order to give it form and expression, and nothing more, ultimately discarded as if it were a change of clothes at death. They directed their messages to the girls behind the fake profiles, telling them that they should be ashamed of themselves, calling them cowards who couldn’t even say the things they wanted to as themselves, because they knew what they did was not right, people saying they would pick her – unfailingly polite, always kind to others – to any girl, no matter how pretty, who could sink that low.
And gradually as the night had progressed the fake-profile girls had left off, like all bullies no longer having the energy to continue once a few people had stood up to them and called them out on their bullying. When she went on Twitter it was the same, expressions of support coming to her from all over, in mentions and direct messages, so that for a moment she felt overwhelmed, a warm feeling running through her.
Finally, after she had read them all, she got up from the bed, and went to wash her face. Looking at herself in the mirror she smiled, the heavy mood from the previous night lifted. She thought: it may not be so bad after all. She thought: there are good people in the world still, who do not stop at the shallow level of what a person looks like on the outside. She thought: this is the only body I have, and it has served me well all my life – what does it matter what others see when they look at it? I alone have lived within it, in a way they never can, and it has been perfect for all my needs and never betrayed me – why hate it, then, because others call it names? And so she began her day, light and confident and ready to go out into the world once more, ready to face anything life threw at her from then on.