The Beauty of Africans

August 2019 ushered in a new season of South African xenophobia targeting mostly Africans from outside of South Africa. Gory images of South Africans attacking Africans from other nations, killing them in mobs, setting them alight, and destroying their property populated social media outlets, disturbing my peace here in Nairobi. 

In the past we Africans had watched in helpless horror as our fellow countrymen and women were tortured and butchered for the sin of being Africans in South Africa. Our only response had been to fill social media platforms with our outrage. This time, Africans from targeted nationalities reacted to this violence with protests, boycotts, and even anti-South African violence of their own. On 4 September 2019, the South African Ambassador to Nigeria was attacked in the streets of Lagos, Nigeria by youth and children wielding machetes, metal poles, sticks and stones, as she drove in her official car. She was rescued by Nigerian security personnel but not before her car had been broken into, with some of the passengers in it beaten up. 

In an attempt to understand the source of this disturbing violence, many people have written articles and think pieces providing illuminating insights. In Sisonke Msimang’s perceptive article, Belonging—Why South Africans Refuse to Let Africa In, she reveals that South Africans, both black and white, are united in their hatred of other Africans. This hatred, she argues, has often manifested in black South Africans killing fellow black Africans in what has now become regular xenophobic convulsions. 

I am interested in what Msimang refers to as “crude exceptionalist chauvinism”, a psychological condition that allows Black South Africans to believe themselves superior to other Africans on the continent. Black South Africans go as far as to claim that they do not look like other Africans on the continent. Writing on this aspect of the South African psyche, Msimang notes:

In the democratic era we have converted the hatred of Africa into a crude sort of exceptionalist chauvinism. South Africans are quick to assert that they don’t dislike “Africans”. It’s just that we are unique. Our history and society are too different from theirs to allow for meaningful comparisons. See – we are even lighter in complexion than them, and we have different features. I have heard the refrain too many times, “We don’t really look like Africans.” Never mind the reality that black South Africans come in all shades from the deepest of browns to the fairest of yellows.

This assertion by South Africans that they do not look like other Africans, and that they have lighter complexions than “real” Africans is intriguing but not unfamiliar. This perception that real “unmediated” African features are ugly is commonly held amongst many African communities.

In this time of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, we continental and diaspora Black people need to have internal black-on-black conversations about the effect that being the eternal “other” for at least 400 years has had on our collective psyches and sense of self. However, to have this dialogue takes the kind of courage Msimang has shown in exposing black-on-black prejudice. 

Socio-economic Status and African Ugliness 

I first encountered this idea of the Ugly African as a child growing up in Kenya. Africans could simply never be beautiful because our lips were too thick, noses too wide, skin too dark, and bottoms too big. I also learnt that in countries across the continent, there was always some community deemed the ugliest of all, typically ethnicities with the darkest skin colour. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I listened to my mother and her friends as they judged each other’s beauty based on the fairness of their skin. Those who did not have the requisite complexion could use skin lightening creams such as the popular Ambi, which was advertised freely in the media with slogans like, “Successful people use Ambi!” Dark skin seemed to have the magical effect of blinding fellow Africans rendering them incapable of seeing the beauty of their darker compatriots.

Advert for Ambi Skin Lightening Cream from the 1970s. Sourced here

Colonial Beauty Standards

Growing up in a post-settler colonial state, I had been subjected to the notions of Africans as ugly by the white people around us who believed and propagated this idea and had convinced Africans that it was true. The only Africans who could be seen as beautiful were those with features closer to Caucasian norms. 

I must add a word of caution here, though: Not all African communities in every African country have this problem. Little research exists on this issue and my conclusions come from observing and listening to rural communities I have interacted with. Many rural/traditional peoples are not yet contaminated by the white gaze and have very different concepts of beauty that may go beyond equating it with external physical features, such as the shape of a nose or limbs, shade of skin, or youthfulness. In many of these rural/traditional regions, a woman or man could be deemed beautiful using other criteria such as their hard-working nature, kindness, or generosity. In my community, the Luhyia of western Kenya, it is not surprising that beauty is conferred on a strong, hard-working woman in this agricultural community in which women play an important role in farming for the household and for the community. Traditionally when a man looked for a wife to marry, physical beauty using western standards did not feature. Instead, a girl’s ability to cook well, bear children, and farm and provide food for the family were the main attraction. 

The idea that certain African features are ugly seems to intensify the higher up you go on the socio-economic ladder on the continent. This is not surprising as, in Africa, typically, socio-economic success correlates with greater exposure to westernisation and globalisation. As they become more economically successful, Africans subscribe to the white gaze to define their world. 

In Kenya we Africans, especially those with middle-class aspirations, could not see beauty in fellow Africans living their traditional lives as hunter gatherers, or pastoralists, clothed in any form of traditional dress; they could only be ugly. To have the chance of being considered beautiful, you had to have fair skin, which made you naturally beautiful regardless of how your features were arranged. Long hair was always good. To “improve” our looks we straightened our hair and made it hang as long as possible. We didn’t cut it. We believed that African hair grew very slowly, if at all, so it was important to keep it away from scissors. 

Stories of Black Ugliness

As a student in the US, pursuing a master’s degree, one hot summer found me visiting my cousin Aggrey’s African American wife’s family. Aggrey’s wife was called Pat, and she was from Albany in the state of Georgia, in the dreaded American South, which, in those days, I believed was infested with the KKK. One of the interesting things about Aggrey and his wife is how much they looked alike. We often teased Aggrey about this, asking how he could come all the way to America to find the one woman who looked like she could not only come from his village but pass for his sister.

For me Albany was a strange, burdened place weighed down by a tension whose source revealed itself slowly as I observed the people over the week of my holiday. I noticed that the tension tended to intensify in the public spaces that brought blacks and whites together and quickly deduced that its source was the lingering hardcore southern racism, which was still so flagrant I could feel its menace over that week. It was only 1983 after all.

It was in Albany, Georgia, that I visited my first flea market. At a stall weighed down with jewellery, my crisp English awakened an old African American woman and made her study me with interest. “Where you from?” she asked. 

“I am from Kenya,” I replied. 

She had not heard of my country, and I explained that Kenya was in Africa. As I said, it was only 1983, after all, and Barack Obama, he of a Kenyan father, was far from imagining himself president.

My response caused her to sit up even straighter and, without missing a beat, declare: “You’re real pretty for an African! I thought Africans were all ugly with black skin, thick lips, and fat noses.”

The woman was elderly so I responded with a politeness reserved for elders: I simply smiled at her open black-on-black racism. I was surprised and dismayed to hear such a hateful stereotype coming from a fellow black person who, unbeknownst to herself, looked like a woman who had been born in my village and never left, and therefore remained unmodified by the demands of modern beauty regimens. 

Sisonke’s revelations of how black South Africans distinguish themselves from other Africans because of how they allegedly look is intriguing and yet inevitable. Apartheid, the most extreme form of colonialism, which was imposed, on top of 309 years of “normal” colonialism, left one of its indelible marks on the Black South African population by making sure that most Black South African people could only see themselves and other Africans through racist white eyes. See – we are even lighter in complexion than them and we have different features…We don’t really look like Africans.”

The funny thing is that this “We don’t really look like Africans.” exceptionalism is common amongst many Africans and amongst black people everywhere who have been similarly marked by centuries of habituated conditioning in which all things black and African are wrong and must be denied. We deny each other and ourselves all the time. Ethiopians and Somali are famous for not seeing themselves as African. However, most other Africans believe much the same thing about themselves in their private spaces. In many countries, Africans believe that they do not look like Africans but are convinced that it is other Africans in other countries or other regions on the continent who look like Africans. I remember many years ago a Scandinavian aid worker asserting that it must be west Africans who have the hallmarks of African ugliness, namely; dark skin, thick lips and broad noses, declaring that East Africans were generally fine featured and good looking. At the time, I had never been to West Africa and was not yet “woke” so I mindlessly agreed with her.

Finding Real Africans

One of the places that helped provide evidence for my quest was my participation in continental sporting events. I participated in the All-Africa Games in Algeria in 1978 as a player on the Kenyan tennis team, which won two gold medals and a silver. Two years later found me representing Kenyan universities in the Africa University Games in Nairobi in 1980. This time I played centre-half on the hockey team which won the gold medal. I was also on the tennis team playing singles and doubles and winning two bronze medals. Indeed, the government and the university authorities were so impressed by my performance that I was given the honour of turning off the games torch. 

The importance of these games was that they brought together, in one place, young Africans at the height of their beauty and physical powers. The attire worn by sportsmen and sportswomen is meant to expose their physical attributes to the eyes of the curious. During the opening and closing ceremonies I took the opportunity to study African similarities and differences: shades of skin, shapes of faces, noses and mouths, lips, cheekbones, foreheads, body structures. What I witnessed was incredible diversity and I was not surprised to learn later on that Africans are recognised as the most genetically diverse continent in the world. In their research on genetic diversity in Africa, Michael C. Campbell1 and Sarah A. Tishkoff noted the following:

African populations are characterised by greater levels of genetic diversity, extensive population substructure, and less linkage disequilibrium (LD) among loci compared to non-African populations. Africans also possess a number of genetic adaptations that have evolved in response to diverse climates and diets, as well as exposure to infectious disease. 

This rich genetic diversity is not surprising, after all Africa is the second largest continent in the world. 

During the games I observed the lean, lanky Eastern Africans who made me understand why athletes from this region dominate the long-distance road races. 

Central and West Africans with their muscle mass looked to me like short-distance runners and natural footballers and looked like the idea of a real western-style athlete. However, the games taught me that the only thing Africans have in common is that they are different. Moreover, that they are ordinary, and that in each country there is beauty and there is “ugliness” and everything in-between. And in each country, local tastes determine what beauty is and what it is not.

Reconciling with the Real African

In his Caine Prize-winning story, “Discovering Home”, the late Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainanina, sets out to capture the ambivalence of so called “modern Africans” as they try to reconcile themselves to aspects of their Africanness associated with what they have come to believe to be African ugliness. In this passage, Wainaina reveals his efforts to love the traditional Nandi woman with her original tribal features represented in a painting in his parent’s home. He admits that she scared and repelled him in equal measure. He confesses that his real desire is for the modern African, represented by the westernised supermodel Iman. 

I make my way to the kitchen. The Nandi woman still rules the corridor… Light from the kitchen brings the Nandi woman to life. A painting. I was terrified of her when I was a kid. Her eyes seemed so alive and the red bits growled at me menacingly. Her broad face announced an immobility that really scared me; I was stuck there, fenced into a tribal reserve by her features: rings on her ankles and bells on her nose, she will make music wherever she goes. Why? Did I sense, so young, that her face could never translate into acceptability? That, however disguised, it would not align itself to the programme I aspired to? In Kenya, there are two sorts of people: those on one side of the line will wear third-hand clothing till it rots. They will eat dirt, but school fees will be paid. On the other side of the line live people, you see in coffee-table books. Impossibly exotic and much fewer in number than the coffee table books suggest. They are like an old and lush jungle that continues to flourish its leaves and unfurl extravagant blooms, refusing to realise that somebody cut off the water. Often, somebody from the other side of the line. These two groups of people are fascinated by one another. We, the modern ones, are fascinated by the completeness of the old ones. To us, it seems that everything is mapped out and defined for them, and everybody is fluent in those definitions. The old ones are not much impressed with our society, or manners – what catches their attention is our tools: the cars and medicines and telephones and wind-up dolls and guns. In my teens, set alight by the poems of Senghor and Okot P’Bitek, the Nandi woman became my Tigritude. I pronounced her beautiful, marvelled at her cheekbones and mourned the lost wisdom in her eyes, but I still would have preferred to sleep with Pam Ewing or Iman. It was a source of terrible fear for me that I could never love her. I covered that betrayal with a complicated imagery that had no connection to my gut: Nubian Princess, and other bad poetry. She moved to my bedroom for a while, next to the faux Kente wall hanging, but my mother took her back to her pulpit.

Re-creating the African Gaze

We now know that seeing is not passive.   In the film What the Bleep Do We Know,this idea of seeing as an active aspect of human existence is explored with the story of Native Americans and the arrival of the Spanish Armada. The Spanish Armada are huge ships, but when they first arrived in the Americas, the local people could not see them because their eyes had no experience of seeing such things. They could see the ocean water rippling as if disturbed by something large but could not see what it was that was causing the ripples. It was only after their trusted shaman saw the Spanish ships and then described them to his people that they were able to see them.

theodore de bry indians - Google Search

16th Century Indigenous People from what is today called Florida (Source: Pinterest)

<b>Spanish</b> Armada (1588) Photograph

Image of Spanish Armada Ships (Source: Pinterest)

This Native American example illustrates that how we see, what we see, is a product of so many sources: our experiences, our world view, the context of our lives, the product of our culture, our socio-economic status, our race, education, gender, conditioning from various sources, the state of our minds in the moment, and more. In Africa, how we see has been created by several hundred years of racist colonial/apartheid conditioning, which has normalised seeing ourselves through the lens of the white gaze. 

What Wainaina was trying to do with the Nandi Woman in his story “Discovering Home” was to retrain his mind and eyes, his whole being, to see an African beyond the racist white eyes that see for him, that see for all of us. We have to retrain ourselves to see ourselves newly, without colonial racist filters. 

Using the white gaze to “other” our fellow Africans is to fall into the trap white supremacy still uses to recreate blackness and Africanness as anathema, as barely human. Writing on this Frantz Fanon noted the following:

As I begin to recognise that the Negro is the symbol of sin, I catch myself hating the Negro. But then I recognise that I am a Negro. There are two ways out of this conflict. Either I ask others to pay no attention to my skin, or else I want them to be aware of it. I try then to find value for what is bad–since I have unthinkingly conceded that the black man is the colour of evil. In order to terminate this neurotic situation, in which I am compelled to choose an unhealthy, conflictual solution, fed on fantasies, hostile, inhuman in short, I have only one solution: to rise above this absurd drama that others have staged around me, to reject the two terms that are equally unacceptable, and through one human being, to reach out for the universal. When the Negro dives–in other words, goes under–something remarkable occurs.

Back to the Beginning

Through literature, Africans have tried to imagine what it was like to be Black before it became so abhorrent. Maryse Conde explores this in her epic novel Segu which begins in the 1700s and tells the story of a family from the Kingdom of Segu as the world intrudes on Africa bringing slavery, Islam, colonialism, Christianity, violent change, and Black inferiority. In the beginning the Bambara African characters are unaffected by the anti-black prejudices of other people that they encounter, be they Arabs or Europeans. 

One of the stories that interests me in the book Segu is that of the Agoudas, former kidnapped and enslaved Africans, who managed to return from Brazil and to freedom on the African continent. Most had grown up in the cultures of the continent and still spoke local languages. Whilst in Brazil, the Agoudas were subjected to a brutal slavery that left many plotting their return to Africa. Yet when they got back, instead of re-integrating into their African communities they used their Brazilian experience to set themselves apart, becoming literally a new tribe. They adopted a chauvinism fuelled by the belief that they were now somehow special because of their time in Brazil. The Agoudas adopted Portuguese names, Brazilian dress, Brazilian food, and spoke Portuguese. All this despite having been enslaved Africans, kidnapped against their will. Did they say “…we have different features…we don’t really look like Africans”? 

These Agoudas were very much like South African Africans who, despite having been subjected to the horrors of colonialism and apartheid, respectively identified with one of its worst pillars: the dehumanising of Africans in what can only be seen as an extreme form of the Stockholm syndrome. Yet this is not surprising, and I will not lecture South Africans for taking this position; rather I choose to analyse and understand.

South Africa was colonised by different western powers for 309 years and then subjected to apartheid for another 50 years from 1961 to 1994. It is not surprising that research has shown that Black South Africans are suffering from trauma and PTSD. The belief that “we have different features… we don’t really look like Africans” tells us that the damage went right into the souls of Black people. 

Instead of pointing fingers, other Africans need to recognise that we are all damaged by the various colonial regimes, even ones that lasted for a shorter period than that of South Africa. We have our own versions of self-denial or self-hatred. 

Adopting so-called Christian names, straightening our hair, believing other Africans are lazy, naming estates after places from the country of your coloniser, waiters who refuse to serve Africans, believing in foreign gods, embracing homophobia, etc. – all these are ideas that come from our colonial past and reflect our self-hate. These attitudes also reflect the reality of our world, which all around us holds up whiteness as the only measure of success in this capitalist world. Africans are not only repudiating themselves but also re-constituting themselves to access “white capitalist success” just like all of the other non-white peoples of the world – Indians, Chinese, Arabs, South Americans etc.

The thing is, Independence was supposed to be simply the beginning of our journey to self-determination. Yet it never is. After the Independence ceremony, the newly-free-people believe freedom has been achieved and put all their faith in their new leaders, who look just like them. Unfortunately, colonialism has damaged their new leaders too. All across the continent, these new leaders, formerly heroic freedom fighters, quickly renege on the promise of independence. They instead step into the shoes of the coloniser and take up white privilege as if this was the purpose of the freedom struggle. Franz Fanon, a psychiatrist, diagnosed the inevitable condition of our leaders when he so eloquently wrote the following:

The gaze that the colonised subject casts at the colonist’s sector is a look of lust, a look of envy. Dreams of possession. Every type of possession; of sitting at the colonist’s table and sleeping in his bed, preferably with his wife. The colonised man is an envious man.

So, what are we going to do?  It is tiring to imagine that we have to continue the fight for real independence and real self-determination. Yet all over the continent, these many decades of Independence have shown us what happens when we stop the fight. Our continuing oppression and poverty perplexes us and we soon turn on each other in so many ways. We Black and African people must continue with the work of dismantling the real structural oppressive systems which continue to create inequality and poverty. And in doing so create new visions of success that go beyond whiteness. 


  1. Sisonke Msimang “Belonging—Why South Africans Refuse to Let Africa In” Africa is Not a Country, August 2019.
  2. Sisonke Msimang “Belonging – Why South Africans Refuse to Let Africa In” Africa is Not a Country, August 2019.
  3. Binyavanga Wainaina, “Discovering Home” Pg. 8/9. Winner of Caine Prize 2002.
  4. What the Bleep Do We Know!? (stylized as What tнē #$*! D̄ө ωΣ (k)πow!? and What the #$*! Do We Know!?, with Bleep being a pronounceable placeholder for a grawlix) is a 2004 American film that combines documentary-style interviews, computer-animated graphics, and a narrative that posits a spiritual connection between quantum physics and consciousness. The plot follows the fictional story of a photographer as she encounters emotional and existential obstacles in her life and begins to consider the idea that individual and group consciousness can influence the material world. Her experiences are offered by the filmmakers to illustrate the film’s thesis about quantum physics and consciousness. The 2004 theatrical release was succeeded by a substantially changed, extended home media version in 2006. (Wikipedia).
  5. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
  6. The term Agoudas comes from the Portuguese “ajuda” meaning “help” and means in Benin, and in neighbouring countries, the descendants of Brazilians (re) came to settle in Africa during the 18th and 19th centuries. 
  7. Trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder in South Africa: analysis from the South African Stress and Health Study. Lukoye Atwoli, Dan Stein, David R. Williams, Katie A. Mclaughlin, Maria Petukhova, Ronald C. Kessler and Karestan C Koenen.
  8.


Feature image by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Sitawa Namwalie

Sitawa Namwalie is an award-winning Kenyan poet, playwright and performer known for her unique dramatised
poetry performances which combines poetry and traditional Kenyan music. “Cut off My Tongue,” was her first
production and was performed in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and the Hay Festival, UK. She has been a fellow of the
Sundance Theatre Lab and is currently a fellow of the Tallberg Foundation. Sitawa’s growing body of work includes
dramatized poetry productions and plays, “Homecoming” (2010), “Silence is a Woman”, (2014), “Black Maria on
Koinange Street”, “Room of Lost Names” (2015), “Taking my Father Home” (2020), Escape a musical (2021), articles
and short stories.
Sitawa has worked with the United Nations and the World Bank. She currently earns a living working as an
international consultant and is based in Nairobi, Kenya. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Botany and
Zoology from the University of Nairobi and a Master of Arts degree in Environment, Society and Technology from
Clark University in Massachusetts, USA. Sitawa has achieved excellence in many areas of life, including
representing Kenya in tennis and hockey in her youth.