My name is Simone Khetu, I hail from a small town in Eastern Africa called Afeni. I am currently a resident of China, eastern China to be precise. I live in the city of Chongqing; never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would ever be this far from home. At GMT +5, dawn comes a good eight hours before papa wakes up to milk ‘Fiona’ his prized Frisian cow. The distance is unfathomable if calculated by miles even to my mother a primary school teacher. My siblings Wehtti and Rufusa who are both technology savvy and are sated by the weekly emails we exchange and the photos on social media. I will be frank and admit that there is no day that passes that I do not miss them.
My time here was preceded by four grueling years studying in a local secondary school near my hometown. Every ounce of me wanted to study civil engineering in my later years. It was somewhat of an obsession that was triggered by a female doctor who came to our school during a prize giving ceremony. Mrs. Seko was her name; she was not only a doctor but also a successful farmer. She was everything I wished I could be and to this day I can recite her speech from that day, word for word. She offered to sponsor the two best girls for higher education in that school. I developed tunnel vision toward s that goal and I achieved it. In retrospect, the aforementioned is by far my greatest personal triumph thus far.
When I came to this country I was inevitably hit by culture shock, but it soon wore off given the fact that I wanted to absorb as much of the culture as possible. I stayed up late, walked the neon bathed streets of the city. I grew a pot belly from indulging in the delicacies the place had to offer and I made a myriad of friends from all walks of life. Put simply, my life here has been a far cry from anything the small town of Afeni would have ever offered. I however, did not have in mind one of the best lessons learned during my six year stay on self acceptance and body image.
I was never one given to problems with impulse controls and especially not food, but the food here was so great I gradually gained weight. On my second year here I joined a local gym towards the end of November as winter crept in. I had grown accustomed to standing out given my ebony complexion as opposed to getting lost in the bland masses as I did in my country. Countless times did I have people politely ask to touch my skin or even take photos. I cherished this status as it won me a platform to make good friends and fast.
I am very modest and was raised in a house where nakedness was shunned like you would witchcraft. My mother could not fathom how a skirt’s hemline would expose the knee let alone be above it. In that regard I managed to avoid showering at the gym. I walked home to my apartment that was nearby and showered there. This was not the most financially viable option; power bills in the city would dictate a free shower being most sensible. I would have taken my showers at the gym had the idea been less intimidating.
Women would hang their towels at the entrance and strut, soap in hand, to one of the twenty shower heads in the white tiled hall. They would plunge into animated chats while showering with friends of all ages immune to the embarrassment regarding their own pubic hair, cleavage, stretch marks or pot bellies of others. I was mortified upon noticing this and got gravely self conscious despite the fact that I never got down to stripping in front of the other women. Each time I would splash my face with cool water, take my bag out of the locker and go.
Two weeks into my routine, the electricity at my apartment complex was knocked out following a fire in the next building. I didn’t mind using candles as much as I dreaded the cold freezing showers in the dead of winter. I cursed at the lack of private shower stalls at the gym for two days and refrained from full showers. For two days I took sponge baths but on the third day it was soon clear to me that the power would take longer to be repaired. I had to take a shower at the gym. After my work out I stripped down; I figured that if I was going to do it, I would start in front of my locker. I took my towel and scurried to the showers trying not to stare at anyone.
That was probably the longest shower I have ever taken in my adult life. I took a shower at an isolated corner and stood under the hot jet grateful for the chance to rinse off two days worth of grime. It was not until I finished my shower that I realized that nobody was watching. Everybody went about their business cleaning their bodies. I was impressed by how women of all ages, shapes and sizes, women with telling scars and even children in their bellies pacing the locker room in confidence. It made me proud of being a woman just like them. I had never felt that way before.
Up until that day I had been mutually naked with my sisters and my boyfriend who we had long since broke up. The only other female bodies I had seen naked were those of retouched celebrities in movies scenes and heavily made up cover models. I even got to see the bodies of senior and middle aged women. I thought they were beautiful, the wrinkly pudgy types and I do not mean that in a condescending manner. Seeing their aged bodies gave me relief about what awaits the few of us that make it beyond yore. The sixty and seventy year olds I saw were particularly not bad looking, I thought they could certainly have attracted some positive attention.
One woman who particularly stood out was Georgina; our gym instructor and aerobics coach. She was originally from Nepali and spoke little mandarin like me. We avidly became friends owing to the fact that we both spoke fluent English. She was a cancer survivor who had lost both her breasts to the disease. She never got implants as in most cases like hers; she said she liked it that way as it stood to remind her of the battle she had fought. She freely entertained jokes about her flat chest especially as she walked bare-chested almost all the time in the locker room. She insisted we call her George and laughed heartily when I asked her what her husband’s opinion was.
“That man would follow me to hell if I needed him to! He stood by me all through chemotherapy; it reminds him of how much of a gift I am of him. Those are his words not mine…” she said amid giggles and a wink.
Georgina or George as she always insisted o being called went on to mother two sons and last I heard from her she was coaching acrobatic minors in Australia. She had so much life in her not even cancer could take it away. I could never thank her enough for the wonders she did for my confidence. She made me appreciate the present and approach the future with constructive pessimism.
In sum, I learnt to feel comfortable in my own skin and love my naked body. As time went by I developed certain camaraderie with other women in the locker room. I realized we all have those body parts and we are expected to meet society’s vain expectations; but we are going to be alright. I marvel at how character shone through the mundane confines of a place like a gymnasium locker room. Georgina tattooed it in my soul that we were capable of doing more than just getting by. We were capable of living the good life!