I was 25 when I met Dr. Anita, the first thing that struck me about her was that she was very dark skinned but she was beautiful and confident. She came to see how I was doing at the hospital and the worried expression that furrowed her brows told me I wasn’t doing good. Instead of walking away, she pulled out a chair and sat with me. I knew my kidneys were shutting down and that the dialysis wasn’t working as well as the doctors had hoped. I also knew it was my fault. A boy in my class had told me I was too dark, he had called me shoe polish when his friend had whispered in his ear that I liked him. He picked Folake instead, she was very light skinned and everyone said her skin made her so beautiful. I was 13 years old and I felt ugly, rejected and dejected. One of my friends had told me Folake used ‘cream’ to maintain her color and this friend had suggested I start using cream and soap to make my skin more attractive for the boy I liked. That was how I started bleaching my skin in JSS3 and the fairer it got, the more my self-esteem increased. I really felt beautiful. I didn’t care that my skin had blemishes, I didn’t even notice when I started waking up at night frequently to urinate or my feet got swollen often. It was when my face started getting swollen every morning that my Aunt dragged me to the hospital.
I pause and look at Dr. Anita, she is listening so intently. She is so black, like shoe polish but her black is fine, simply because she is herself, elegant and comfortable. I wish I had her self-esteem years ago in secondary school. Maybe I wouldn’t be dying right now. Yes I saw the looks on everyone’s faces and the fact that sometimes they told me I was unconscious. Dr Anita asked what I was thinking about and I told her. She smiled sadly. She had also been the butt of cruel black jokes but her mom and sisters had constantly reminded her that her black was beautiful and she had chosen to focus on the positive and block out the negative criticism.
I continued my story…the cream and soap I had used for 12 years were a popular brand and cheap but the doctor informed me that they contained mercury a harmful chemical that destroyed the kidneys over time and now I was paying the price. I thought about how the boy who called me shoe polish and ruined my self-esteem was living his life now somewhere. I didn’t even like him that much sef. I thought about my friend who had introduced me to the bleaching, she wasn’t in a hospital on drip, she worked as a banker in Asaba. Why was my own different? Dr Anita explained to me that some people’s kidneys were more susceptible than others. She told me so many nice and encouraging words and I wish I had met her years ago. I wish teenage girls knew about the dangers attached to low self-esteem. Many had gotten unwanted pregnancies, STDs, drug addictions, gotten depressed and joined cult because of low self-esteem. As I lay on that bed at the teaching hospital, I realized that bleaching my skin didn’t really help my low self-esteem. It masked it but I became dependent on it to feel beautiful and that addiction had finally landed me in hospital. I knew that if by a miracle I survived I would be a changed person.
***Ufuoma died at the age of 25 from complications associated with end stage kidney disease due to mercury poisoning. Dr Anita eventually became a dermatologist and started the Embrace Melanin Initiative, an NGO with a vision to kick harmful skin lightening practices and colorism (discrimination as a result of darker skin tone) out of Africa.