Sticks and Stones
I'm sure anyone can relate, that growing up, we all had names. Not the ones on our birth-certificates, but other names affectionately crafted just for us, based on stand out features or character traits. During my childhood, everyone called me mbuya (granny). I never truly got to understand why I was called mbuya, but it was a name that stuck. As the mind of a child would have it, I constantly looked in the mirror to see If I resembled what a ‘typical’ mbuya looked like. I figured; I was probably a ‘Benjamin Button’; aging backward.
As I grew older and the environment changed, so did the name. It’s also a given that each ecosystem had its own name and most times, the names that stuck, where those that brought the least joy. Having been a pretty chubby child, hurtful names like thunder thighs from peers made going to school heavy and unpleasant. At some point being smarter than others in class, also brought about unsolicited names and obstacles to social inclusion. Let’s not forget the added impact of being compared to siblings, friends, or others in your social circle. I always felt wrong in some way. Nothing about me was good enough to be accepted by any part of society.
Sadly, however, when such feelings of stigmatization and ridicule are felt at home; the one place where you should feel safe and protected emotionally, your sense of belonging and security becomes grossly warped. I recall growing into my adolescent years with immense body image issues, maybe even some form of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (a mental health disorder in which you can't stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance — a flaw that appears minor or can't be seen by others. But you may feel so embarrassed, ashamed, and anxious that you may avoid many social situations- Mayo Clinic). A family member would cartoon me with oversized legs and other body parts, make fun of my adolescent acne and darker skin tone. I had a cousin even likening me with creatures like a Tsambarafuta/African Thief Ant, or passing comments about their views of what I should or shouldn’t look like. I recall never feeling enough and being overly self-conscious about my looks. In some instances, I found myself overcompensating to either fit into the standard or just to stop wagging tongues. Either way, I never succeeded. Be careful, stigma and bullying do not always come from strangers. My self-esteem was buried in the soil, like the head of an ostrich.
Now as I reflect on my youthful years, I wish I listened a lot less, I wish I loved me a lot more and I wish I had embraced the person I was more. I should have crafted appropriate responses for every uninvited opinion. Now, I certainly do! As a girl, a daughter, a woman, I had such a poor opinion of myself, that any words of affirmation or compliments were difficult to believe or accept. I allowed myself at one point to fall victim to a bully because I didn’t feel worthy enough to stand up to her. So, to some effect; in my mind, that bully was entitled to their reign of terror in my life. That was up until I met a strong-willed Jamaican British girl, who called out bullies all the time at school. Every week, we could expect a fight from my good friend Simone. No one dared start a fight with her, because she never lost. So, when she discovered I was on someone’s daily to-do list, she gave me a very simple choice. ‘Janet’ she said, ‘it’s either you stand up to that girl, or you’ll have me to deal with!’
I’m sure you can guess; I didn’t have to think very long and hard about my options. Shortly after, without a plan (just fear of Simone), I stood my ground with that girl and that was the last I saw of her. From that moment something snapped. I am forever grateful to Simone for that. I realized, despite what others thought of me, What I thought of myself mattered and I was responsible for how other people treated me. When I got to know God, what He thought of me, mattered so much more. I felt empowered and I felt in control for the first time in my life. Since then, I am enough and I welcome those willing to complement my flow and gracefully dismiss the unwilling. I don’t force anything.
Needless to say, I have carried those lessons with me, so much that my kids are reaping the rewards of my education. To start with, I am very careful about the language I use with my children. I never use words, I know, I would never want to be said to me, neither do I use words that cause them to doubt themselves. However, because I know the world is unkind, I encourage them to shut their minds and ears to people who use words to destroy and not build. They know they were made by the Hand of our Almighty God and they are all exactly as they should be, in all regards. They know, what they think of themselves, sets the foundation for how others treat them, I constantly recite to them;
Psalms 139, 13:17
13 You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
15 You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
16 You saw me before I was born.
Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
before a single day had passed.
17 How precious are your thoughts about me,[b] O God.
They cannot be numbered!
5 Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.
These words of affirmation, have empowered my children to know who and who not to give attention to. My daughter is aware that some opinions are not worth giving audience and my son is too engrossed with the desire to play that he rarely pays attention. However, he is clear about what he does and does not want for his body and will make sure where ever he is, he has peace. I realized negative words spoken by someone you love and trust are more damaging than they are constructive and we need to be conscious about their impact. Kindness and love are the foundation of all our engagements in our home.
Tell your child, they are beautiful or handsome. Tell your child, you are proud of them. Tell your child, you love them unconditionally. Tell your child, they are a blessing to you. Tell your child, they are enough! Tell your child, for as long as you are alive, you will be there for them. Don’t compare your child with anyone else. We are all individually unique and perfect as we are. God doesn’t make mistakes; diversity is His forte. Don’t make your children look for affirmation, affection, and love among strangers. There is nothing worse than living with the regret of not being able to say such simple yet profound words to your own child. May you be encouraged and strengthened to know, it is never too late to start and healing can be done with the right mindset.
Let’s speak more and not assume our actions are enough. Tell that person you care about how you feel. We are on borrowed time. You never know, those words of affirmation, may be the last you get to share with that person. Say, ’you are dear to me’, ‘wakandikoshera’, instead of, ‘kusviba (blacky)!’
To you who is struggling with your identity and sense of self, may you find a Simone, who will help you realize you are worth it and so much more.