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Girls & Women

Mothers and daughters take a stand against the skin-lightening industry in Senegal

Maria Morava

This interview took place on February 12, 2016 in Dakar, Senegal as the first of an article series exploring the potential of a mother/daughter stand against skin-lightening practices. Aminata Kane Balde, originally from Thiès, now lives and works in Dakar with her three children, Alioune (7), Oumou Salama (5), and Bashira (2). Her husband lives and works abroad. 

As Aminata and I reach the doorway of the Balde household, she turns to give me a quick smile. Suddenly the door opens and Oumou Salama, age five, bounds from the doorway and into the arms of her mother, eyes shining, buried in Aminata's royal purple skirt. "Maria!" she says upon seeing me, and moves to hug me in the sweet and simple way only a five year old can. 

Upon entering, I recognize the warm atmosphere of the Balde household: splashes of lavender dressing the walls, a fuzzy rug in line with a corner of the room designed for family prayer. "Have a seat," I'm told, as Oumou Salama scurries around the house. "She loves people," Aminata tells me later, "when you arrived, she ran around the house looking for something to offer you," How clearly this demonstrates Senegalese teranga,or, hospitality, which I've been grateful to live with in the past few months. 

I introduce the topic of skin-lightening, asking Aminata how it would affect her if her daughters took part in these dangerous practices. "I think it would affect me so much," she starts, "because it already does when I see it on the street." She says when she sees women with dark skin, she makes it a point to tell them "how beautiful that is... how proud they should feel about that." 

At this point, Bashira, age 2, stumbles into the room after a nap. Bashira's smile is just as loud as her crying, I notice, and as she sits on the fuzzy carpet and drinks milk I see Aminata's gaze follow her. 

"What does being a mother mean to you?" I ask, while a smile spreads across Aminata's face. "Oh," she says, almost singing, "I can't even describe it... It's like - it's the feeling of having someone that comes from you," she pauses, "someone in whom you can see all the things that maybe you didn't happen to do or be." 

It's a very deep feeling, she concludes - and very sweet.

"I want to teach them self-mastery, respect for others. But faith too - I think faith embodies all of that." 

Looking at the mother and her two daughters, I am struck by how connected they are. Bashira cries, wailing loudly, and Aminata pulls her up into her lap and blows into her ear. For a moment, crying and laughter seem like the same thing as tears turn to bright belly laughs in the little baby. The immense power of motherhood is potent and clear in this moment. This bond is timeless, vital, and holy.  

For this reason, Aminata believes that mothers are essential to their daughters' protection from skin-lightening practices. "Mothers are their first role models... daughters mirror their mothers," she says, which rings incredibly true, especially in this household. The family dynamic is weaved with songs, practices, values that carry from Aminata and her husband straight to their children - and it's clear that some of those values came from Aminata's mother, too.

"This whole interview should've been about her," Aminata jokes, "she's just amazing." She shares that when she was younger, everyone told her that she was the ugliest of her seven sisters. Running to her mom for support, "She never told me I was pretty, or that those people didn't have taste. She told me to focus on internal beauty, and I'd say 'okay, so I AM ugly'. But as I grew up, I realized she was right," Aminata leans forward, "and now, I don't even - I just don't care about that! I just don't even care,"  

"What I want to focus on is what legacy I can give... because I know I will pass through this life with only one chance... and what is any impact I can give with physical beauty compared to the impact I give as a mother?"

Aminata says she hopes to instill a sense of self-mastery in her daughters. She hopes they recognize the power of legacy over beauty. When asked how mothers and daughters can work together for healthy self-image, she puts the first responsibility on the mother: "... or perhaps the daughter will grow up to have the resources to change the mindset of her mother to a healthier one. Or perhaps they have the same mindset, and can keep working to sensitize eachother to the effects of skin-lightening, and continue being themselves."

She concludes, "It (skin-lightening) has to do with hiding who you are, and borrowing another identity - which is really very confusing." 

In my precious time with the Balde's, I observed through word and action the incredible and near transcendental presence a mother has in her child's life. It's unspoken, a bond that's seemed to pre-exist for lifetimes. It seems natural that so much in the world is born out of this first relationship; thus, it seems a natural responsibility that our fundamental well-being be fostered mutually through this bond. The joining of female hands against skin lightening and other self-alteration methods is surely most powerful hand-in-hand with our first role models. As Aminata puts it, legacy is stronger - and along with her daughters, along with any mother and daughter - lives a legacy with the potential to be strong, vital, and holy.  

Be at your mother’s feet and there is Paradise.” (Ibn Majah, Sunan, Hadith no. 2771) 

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