“You are too black.”
The make-up artist filed through a brown palette of bottles of foundation in annoyed haste. Her purple tinted nails clawed at them and they clamoured over each other in protest.
“I have all the colours here; toast, cappuccino, caramel, cocoa, mocha… even mahogany. But I don’t have your colour, sisi.”
Another make-up artist cackled from the other side of the room, “Weh, ntombi, vel’usebenzise ipolish. Shoe polish is the only thing that will work on that skin.”
She was tending the face of another contestant in the Miss Eastern Cape pageant, with a piece of cotton wool. The girl sat in front of her with her head lifted towards the make-up artist like a sunflower cajoling the sun for beautifying nourishment. Her skin was a caramel canvas and the artist smeared a teaspoon of toffee mud on her face and brushed over it with the cotton wool. Her pores absorbed it and hid with any imperfections under a bright toffee mask.
“He! Zisa lo-polish sana. I don’t know what I’m going to do here.”
The other contestants shared laughs between themselves like children sharing stolen sweets. They gently cupped rehearsed giggles with manicured fingers. The toffee girl laughed with her eyes, not wanting to disturb the sun from making her more beautiful. Her almond eyes had been lined with black liner and she resembled a light brown cat. She was as beautiful as if God had simply shown her to the boxes where he kept noses, skin, eyes and eyebrows, and told her to choose and make her own face.
“You are too black.”
“He! Nihlekani? I used to use shoe polish as make-up as a child. You just put some of the brown polish on a sock and apply it to your face like foundation. But she will need black shoe polish for that girl!”
“Ewe, kuzofuneka lemnyama for this one. Kaloku, this is that navy black not even dark brown,” Qamani’s make-up artist responded without looking at her colleague because a laugh roared out of her mouth bending her neck and head backwards.
“Where are you from, sisi?”
“Hiyu, you are South African kanti? I thought you would tell me you are from Congo or something. Are your parents South African? What is your name?”
“Yes, my name is Qamani.”
Qamani’s mother was Thembu, her skin was the colour and consistency of butternut soup, rich creamy and yellow. Her father was Mpondo. His skin had been cut out from a sheet of night. In the morning when he woke up it would be glowing as if tiny elves put away the black polish her brother misplaced everyday to shine his face with it as he slept at night. His face glowed with the pride he carried it with. Qamani wanted him to feel the shame of his skin. So he could understand the shame he had brought on her by being so dark and then bringing her into the world. She would tell him not to put so much Vaseline on his face or to wipe his face when he was sweating because he glowed unnecessarily. But he would put his coarse hand on her dark cheek and call her my beautiful carbon copy.
“Yuuuu, you are going to have a big problem with that skin. Don’t people think you are kwerekwere?” The make-up artist had a heart-shaped face the colour of rooibos tea, made mostly with milk. Embedded in the tender brown skin were two thin lips painted red with lipstick, probably Ruby Woo. She was confident of her beauty. She wore the pride of years of compliments and they followed her as a personal theme song.
“Uthi ngowaphi?” the cackling make-up artist shouted from the other side of the room.
“Limpondo! Hiyu, not even Mpondos are that dark kaloku. Uyaxoka, she’s kwerekwere, a foreigner from the other side of the Zambezi River.”
“He! Other side of the Zambezi nyan’ sana.”
“Mpondo from the other side of the Zambezi River with that skin, if there is such a thing.”
“But ke, she says her name is Qamani.”
“Weh! They all speak Xhosa now, sana. This is why they are getting beaten and killed here.”
The streets of Johannesburg had an army of rebel civilians combing through the inner city for foreigners. They dropped their fridges from the top floor; sometimes they dropped the people too. They looted the shops of black foreigners threatening them with weapons and a deportation they could not enforce. They swept through the streets of the city with a uniform anger but a scattered reasoning Qamani’s father would say as they watched people burning and bleeding on television. They claimed borders they had never seen in the name of jobs they had never worked and women they had never had never dated or had sex with. They ripped it all from those they called foreigners as shop inventory, as dignity and often as life.
“Ewe nje, you know it’s true. They cross that Zambezi, jump over the Mozambique and Zimbabwe borders, and pretend to be South African. Then they go and steal our jobs. Now she wants to be Miss Eastern Cape looking like that. Yoh! Tshyin’” The cackling make-up artist swept a kiss of pink blush on toffee girl with unnecessary aggression. Toffee girl smiled to try to appease her but the make-up artist was lost in the injustice of people jumping over borders.
“Yeka uQamani, we are all people in the end.”
“There is no Qamani there. And we are not all South African.”
“Leave her alone. She is a dark beauty.”
“There is no such thing. You are either beautiful or not. There is no dark beauty.”
Qamani’s make-up artist lifted her shoulders and curled her mouth, holding a round container of powder like it was the last solution to a trivial problem. “Don’t mind her. We will just have to use this Mahogany powder on you. It’s the darkest one I have. You will look like a ghost but at least the lights won’t make you shine.”
She picked up a brush and flounced a powdery layer of the mahogany dust onto Qamani’s face. All the pores on Qamani’s face were marked out by ashy Mahogany dust. She looked like a ghost. She was not glowing.
“I knew it. I saw it in your bone structure. These cheekbones sitting so high they squash your eyes in and this flat nose, it’s definitely Mpondo. But I can’t do anything about this sponge you are growing on your head. Sisi, if you want to make it in these pageants, you have to relax your hair. Or wear a weave. Or at least wear a wig. Hiyu, and your hair would be so long if you straightened it, just look.”
“There is no such thing. You are either beautiful or not. There is no dark beauty.”
The make-up artist pulled out a single curly spring of hair and stretched it out from its afro slumber. It disentangled itself from other sleeping rolls of hair and unraveled into a long straight line that looked like a relaxed hair strand. She pulled it down to Qamani’s shoulders and it reached past her shoulders to her scapula. It recoiled when she let it go, and sat above the others. The artist patted it down with the tip of her finger.
“Next round I will relax your hair neh? Eish, we will not have time though. Okay, I will straighten it with a tong, neh?”
“Thank you.” Qamani eyes danced from her ashy reflection in the mirror to the make-up artist preaching beauty secrets from an unwritten pageant manual. Guilt dropped from her mouth to her stomach and sat menacingly, chastising her for apologizing and being grateful. The other contestants had gone back to the narcissism of focusing on the pageant. They no longer stared at Qamani.
One butterscotch contestant now had her face tilted towards the sun. She spoke to another contestant, with tan leather skin, seated next to her, without moving her mouth, like a ventriloquist. They both had wrapped themselves in white gowns they had bought themselves. There were no gowns at the Miss Eastern Cape Pageant. The event was held in a community hall in Port Elizabeth. The coastal humidity was a silent killer eating the paint off the building and leaving a gunk green residue.
The contestants were to get ready in a room behind the stage. The room was a large storeroom that had been turned into a makeshift dressing room for the pageant. They could all hear the graceful thumping of girls who had been called out from under the stage to model on it. The sound of feet taking carefully timed steps on the stage joined in with the sound of the cackling make-up artist’s radio. She was playing Mafikizolo’s Emlanjeni and she sang along to the song as she painted and re-applied make-up on eager contestants faces. She enjoyed how they tried to appease her with small talk about how beautiful she was and questions about how long she had been a make-up artist.
Mirrors rested against the walls on their heels, threatening to slide to the floor, break and tell in a thousand tiny pieces of the haste the room had been prepared in. Tables and chairs that did not match but looked like they had all been borrowed from a school classroom stood in front of the mirrors.
In the mirror, Qamani could see a picture of a woman that had been ripped from the centerfold of Bona Magazine. The picture hung next to the door. She was the picture of the kind of woman to take the crown. Doggy ears on the edges of the poster begged to roll up and cover her beauty but she sat firm, staring at Qamani. The woman’s skin was like Christmas custard and her yellow cheeks were sprinkled with cinnamon where the sun had gently kissed her. She was stroking her Brazilian weave. She sat on a dark leather couch clutching a red empire waist dress with black dots sprinkled on it that could be purchased from Mr Price the logo at the bottom showed. She looked at Qamani through her reflection in the mirror. Her skin was just like Qamani’s sisters’s skin. People always assumed they were friends and not sisters. When their housekeeper would walk to school to pick them up when they were in Primary school, people would ask if Qamani was the housekeeper’s daughter. Qamani would walk ahead of them to avoid questions about how possible it was for her sister to be her sibling. But she did it also to avoid being mistaken for her housekeeper’s daughter.
Her housekeeper was a dark woman who had wiped all the black of her skin with bleaching cream. A line of dark brown skin ringed her manufactured yellow skin colour telling of the acidic torture she had put her skin through for beauty. The pores on the yellow of her skin sat exposed and crying for their melanin protection. She would cover it up with caramel foundation and all her skin’s protestations would be invisible under the bright mask. But when she would put her hands on her face, it looked like someone darker had lent her a hand to push her hair back, or cover her mouth from shock or a laugh. She wore long-sleeved clothing everyday. Even in summer, she would wear a long vest to cover the natural colour of her skin. She did not want anyone to know what she looked like.
“We are done. You can go change into your evening dress for the next round.”
Qamani walked to the chair she had hung her evening gown on. The blue gown sparkled on the classroom chair promising a pageant crown. But the cackling make-up artist’s words painfully scraped at the inner walls of Qamani’s stomach. Tears drowned her eyeballs but refused to break. Qamani’s back was turned away from the contestants who will still getting their make-up done. Qamani undid her gown and the warm breath of women in a small room rushed to kiss her body. It was a stale air and humid with human juices like sweat and saliva. The room would have smelt just as bad as it felt, if it was not for the pungent smell of nail polish, the aroma of different perfumes fighting each other for the attention of the noses of nay who into the room and muddy foundation.
Some girls did their own make-up and did not use the services of the available make-up artists. One girl, sat to the corner of the room on her own. Her skin was olive and glowed with bronzing. She had blue eyes and her blonde hair was pulled up tightly into a curly bun. She was the only white girl at the pageant and she did not speak to anyone.
Her mother would walk in and out of the room to bring her water and fruit. She would also come to tell her how she looked as she modeled down the ramp and what the judges had said when she brought them water to drink.
When Qamani had told her mother that she wanted to be a model and enter the Miss Eastern Cape pageant, she did not answer her. She did not look at Qamani to read the words from her hands. She had sunk a knife into a green rock of pumpkin and split it open with the blade. The pumpkin bared its yellow intestines of string and seeds.
“Samkelo and I measured me, mama. I am tall enough to enter the regional pageant.” Qamani could only see the black cotton of her mother’s afro. She waved her hands in front of her mother. Her mother opened a weak smile that looked lost on her face.
“And ndi-slender like a model. And daddy says I look good in pictures.”
Her mother invaded the pumpkin with her hands, scooped out its contents and placed it on the counter in front of her daughter. She took a knife and carved out the thin lining of pumpkin skin she did not want on the inside of the pumpkin.
“All they want is R1000 to registration to enter the competition. But I will have to buy my own dresses and swimsuit.”
“Yes, mama. There is a swimsuit section kaloku.”
“Hayi, no Qamani.”
“I can bring my own make-up but they will also have make-up artists at the pageant that can be paid on the day for doing my face.”
“If I win I can go to Johannesburg, mama. I can go somewhere where I will be beautiful.”
“No child of mine is going to that Johannesburg where they are killing people for not knowing what an elbow is in isiXhosa.”
“But I am Xhosa, I will be fine. They are not killing each other in every part of Johannesburg, mama. When I go there for studies next year.”
“You are not going to study in Johannesburg Qamani. Get that out of your head. You can be beautiful at the university here in Eastern Cape.”
“People don’t understand my look here, mama.”
“What is this look? You look fine to me.”
“If I win Miss Eastern Cape, I can go to Johannesburg for Miss South Africa, or maybe to model for some clothing brands. They like dark skinned girl like me, mama.”
“You need to focus on school Qamani. Its your final year of high school and your father and I want you to go to university here.”
“You wouldn’t understand because you don’t look like me, mama.”
“Ye bethuna, so I give birth to other people’s children? My children do not look like me? This modeling is making you crazy. Where are you going to get this R1000?”
“My husband? My husband is not paying R1000 for his daughter to go walk around in panties.”
“But mama they only choose fifteen women to participate. And I was chosen so you have to give me the money.”
Qamani saw a hand waving in front of her face.
“Did you not hear me? They are going to call you next, get ready.” the make-up artist said, her red lipstick was smudged on her face like a toddler had painted outside of her lip lines. It was probably from all the talking. The dress hugged Qamani’s tall thin frame and covered her feet. She rolled it up in her hands so she could see the black heels Samkelo had bought her for good luck and her steps. She walked up to the stairs to the stage and started the counting they had practiced.
She had sunk a knife into a green rock of pumpkin and split it open with the blade. The pumpkin bared its yellow intestines of string and seeds.
“I need to move to Johannesburg. In Johannesburg people will know what to do with my skin. In London I will be a super star. In New York I will be an artistic model exhibition.” Qamani had said to Samkelo they day he helped measure to tell if she was tall enough to make it into the Miss Eastern Cape pageant.
“You are going to marry a white man, Qama.” Samkelo would say.
“Why a white person?”
“Because they like dark chocolate. When white people date black girls they date the darkest black girls. They don’t want yellow bones.”
“But why can’t I marry a Xhosa man or black man?”
“You can, but you know.”
“I am sure Alek Wek dates black men.”
“I am not saying you can’t. You are like a dark beauty, you know. Exotic and dark. If God were to suddenly make your skin light you would still be beautiful. Some light skinned girls are only pretty because of their yellow colour.”
“I don’t like this dark beauty thing. And its not like you can change a light skinned person’s skin and make it dark like mine, so what is the point of the comparison.”
“Maybe.” What would you mother say if you brought a white man home from Johannesburg?”
“She would tell me I was bringing Apartheid into her house.”
“My mother too.”
Qamani stepped onto the stage and again felt she did not trust the wood that supported her from underneath. The lights glared sharply into her eyes and she could not see the audience. She could only see the shadowy figures of the judges. There was a cheer from the crowd as her name was announced as “Qamani Zendani from East London”. The announcement reminded her of how far she had come from home to model.
She placed a foot in front of the other, more slowly this time than when she was modeling her swimsuit because she did not want to fall over her dress. Beyonce’s Dangerously in Love was playing in the background from croaking speakers. She eased the swinging of her arms. She did not want them to swing too much. The lighting was like staring into the sun, it was too bright to see. She looked into the light. The audience sounded restless. Were the lights hiding how much the mahogany powders made her look like a ghost? Maybe she should have just taken the shoe polish from the cackling make-up artist.
She came closer the edge of the stage and the audience was still hidden but she could see the judges table. It was empty. She had modeled for empty seats. She dropped her smile and walked slowly to the edge of the stage. The room was empty. Then a man came in holding a panga from the back entrance. His faced carried all the world’s anger and his walk was urgent and confronting. Someone had stopped the music.
“Yehla!” his voice bounced from the one side of the wall and sharp pieces of it landed painfully in Qamani’s ear. She complied with his order. She gently eased herself off the stage. She moved to slow for his mission and her pulled her down with to land on her knees on the tiled floor. She winced from pain and looked up at him.
“Uyini wena? Why do you look like a foreigner?”
“NdinguQamani, ndiliMpondo.” She hoped he would hear the Xhosa inflection in her voice and her perfect accent.
“What kind of Qamani looks like you? You are probably one of those that ran away from Johannesburg. You think there are jobs for you here. You think we will not burn you here?”
He eased himself down to sit on his haunches and looked closer at her face with a mocking laugh pasted on her face. He placed the long blade of the panga on her temple and slid it down to her chin as if he was slicing brown bread “eKodwa umnyama. You are too black,” he said with a cruel mocking laugh.
Another man walked in with the same urgency, a panga and anger pasted on his face. “Ngubani lowo, Themba?”
When the first man, Themba, turned around to answer his friend Qamani dashed across the bottom of the stage to the side entrance. She could not feel the cold of the floor on her feet although she knew it was there. She made it to the back entrance. They had not chased her.
“Leave her alone, she wont get far. Look for others. We are going to find all these kwerekwere in this town. They will come out like cockroaches at night.”
Qamani ran out of the hall to its garden outside. There was a crowd holding pangas, sticks and homemade weapons. But they did not have them up in the air. They held them down at their sides. Others were moving away. There was an ambulance. Others, more afraid ran in other directions. The crowd that remained did not see her. They were huddled in a loose circle looking over something. She walked closer to the crowd.
They were looking over a man. They had burned him for being a foreigner. He was trying to rise from his own ashes. But they burned his strength. He faltered on his own ashes. The cool ice from the fire extinguisher that the paramedics had sprayed on him weighed him down. It covered the black of his skin like a cool breaking blanket. The fire had eaten his skin and he was a smaller shadow of whoever he was before. The smoke from his body directed him to heaven. He looked like the moving corpse of humanity. They had burned it all.
A man in the crowd claimed his arm. Another man beat his chest for having broken the man’s leg. Each one, even those that ran away proudly claimed each of the burning man’s body parts but they were ashamed to claim his life.
Andiswa Onke Maqutu is a writer and journalist from South Africa. Her stories have been published in ELLE; African Roar Anthology, Storymoja; Storymondo; Feminine Inquiry; The Killens Review of Arts and Letters as well as Kikwetu Journal. She is also founder of Black Women Be Like Podcast. Twitter: @BlackWomenBLike and @Andiswa_mqt | Facebook: Black Women Be Like | Soundcloud: www.soundcloud.com/black-women-be-like