By Saul Gwakuba Ndlovu
SOME indigenous Zimbabweans use chemicals to change their skin colour from black to a very pale hue generally referred to as white — an illegal practice in this country because it exposes such people to skin cancer.
The practice is a result of a racial-cultural inferiority complex that believes first and foremost that white races are superior to black ones, and that cultural practices by black races are primitive and evil but those of white races are modern and righteous.
That myth is propagated and promoted by anti-African European literature which describes anti-social practices such as witchcraft as ‘black magic’, and African ancestral spirits as ‘demons’.
It is of much interest to note that in the English language, the scientific study of spirits has two categories — demonology and spiritualism — one is based in the world of spirits as is found in black communities while the other in a similar environment but in white communities.
In Zimbabwe, as is the case in many black African states, human beauty is associated with colour; the paler or lighter, the more beautiful one is.
That is especially so in the case of women.
In Tanganyika (Tanzania), before independence, a certain tribal community near Lake Victoria had a very strange practice in the charging of malobolo/roora — the paler the woman, the higher were her malobolo; the darker she was, the less her parents or guardians demanded!
The explanation was simply that light-coloured African women were in much higher demand among the Arabs and Indians than the darker ones and were easier to assimilate socially among those two foreign communities, (Arabs and Indians) than dark-coloured ones.
Skin bleaching in Zimbabwe by African women started as far back as the mid-1940s when some schoolgirls used a cream called Metamorphosa, a brand name derived from the zoological term of Greek origin metamorphosis, which means transformation from an immature to an adult as what happens when insects change from the larval to the pupal then to the adult stage, or in the case of frogs, when they develop from tadpoles to frogs.
Manufactured in South Africa, that skin bleaching cream took some of the then Southern Rhodesian urban African women by storm.
Its first effects on the face was to destroy the skin’s outer cellular layer in which pigment is located.
Sooner or later, the users’ facial skin looked as if it had been burnt. It could regain its former colour some five or six months after the person had stopped using the cream.
Metamorphosa lost the market to another cream, Butone, which was less potent as a skin bleacher than its forerunner.
By the mid-1950s, Butone had been replaced by another skin bleaching chemical, ‘blue butter’.
Whereas both Metamorphosa and butone came in glass jars, blue butter was sold in small tin containers.
It was a messy night cream and was used even by some boys.
Pillow cases of most blue butter users were virtually always repulsively dirty.
However, the cream did indeed bleach the user’s facial skin and even the lower arms but appeared to be less dangerous to the user’s skin than Metamorphosa.
Butone had the same cosmetic epidermal effect as either its predecessor or its successor.
Blue butter was taken over by Ambi, a much more potent chemical that made some of its users look quite comical as they were more or less orange or pinkish on their faces but dark or blackish on their arms and legs — eliciting the term ‘chicoke-fanta!’
Several African countries outlawed the sale and use of Ambi. Zambia and Tanzania were leading campaigners against Ambi from the 1960s right up to the 1970s.
The two states strongly advised that the regional rise in the incidence of skin cancer could be associated with the use of Ambi.
The sale of Ambi predictably went underground in both countries, and eventually its use diminished to a very insignificant level in the late 1970s.
Meanwhile, another skin bleaching chemical, Topsolon, had invaded the African market in the mid-1970s.
It was a much stronger product than anything Africa had experienced before, and consequently, was banned by virtually all black African states.
Topsolon acted much faster on the skin, turning the user’s facial colour to look like that of an albino’s in about a week.
Topsolon users became objects of public ridicule and laughter, especially by the youth in Tanzania in the late 1970s.
In Zimbabwe today, women who regularly use skin bleaching chemicals are obviously those who are not aware of the health risks associated with the practice.
That has been the major characteristic of skin bleaching chemical users since the 1940s.
Some black women actually think, if not believe, that they become more beautiful when their skins have artificial than natural colour.
In scientific terms, white is the absence of colour.
It is associated with death, hence the saying that some dead white people look ashen or ghostly white.
A black African looks rather strange, if not frightening, after using skin bleaching chemicals to become white.
It would be extremely embarrassing if African women with bleached skins were to participate in inter-racial beauty contests.
White nations would laugh in derision at all black African nations and would ask why we are not proud of what we are.
Talking about what we are brings us to what traditional African women used to care for their skins.
They used one of three types of ointments: Lactic emollients, vegetal oils and lard from various animals.
Lactic emollients (ointments or creams derived from milk) were prevalent among communities that kept livestock, particularly cattle.
Vegetal oils were got from various vegetables, especially peanuts.
Lard was procured from tails of sheep, from pigs and from stomach linings of other animals, even wild ones.
Bone marrow was also used but especially for chafing the legs, feet and arms after exposure in winter.
It was also used to cure pedal cracks (man’a).
Hair oil was processed from any of those sources, that is milk, vegetables or some oil-producing plants and from slaughtered animals and also from some amphibians such as iguanas.
None of those emollients changed the users’ skin colour.
They only warmed and smoothened the skin, making them glossy and shiny, admirable and a joy to touch.
We should mention here that natural beauty is incomparably superior to artificially created appearances; that is why the old English wisely said: “Beauty is adored where it is least adorned.”
Saul Gwakuba Ndlovu is a retired, Bulawayo-based journalist. He can be contacted on cell
0734 328 136 or through email: firstname.lastname@example.org