Throughout my travels, I have met a lot of phenomenal women.
When I first started RAW TRVL, I had a series where I would feature everyday women doing extraordinary things. I would usually use the gram as my main source for finding the women that I would feature, doing my own personal research on them and their stories. I would then follow up by interviewing them and posting a new feature every Wednesday. This pushed me to put myself out there, and in the process I made great connections with people that I never physically met but knew that I could always reach out to in the future.
This time around I am doing things differently. I will be traveling to meet the women that I connect with personally, photographing them and recording their stories. I want to take the time in getting to know the people I feature and develop a deeper understanding of where they come from. The series is not designed to change the world, but rather to lift our sisters up by highlighting the incredible strengths and adversities that women endure and overcome in everyday life. I want to capture the essence of what it means to be w o m x n, while addressing the complexities that make us who we are. That make us phenomenal.
Inspired by the late Maya Angelou’s poem, I would like to relaunch the series as Phenomxnal Womxn.
For our first stop, we travel to Togo to meet the wonderful Kimberly Hayes.
Togo is a small country in West Africa bordering Ghana to the East, Benin to the West and Burkina Faso to the South. It is a multilingual country with 39 languages spoken amongst its people and French being its official language. Togo and its tribes have a rich background, mixed and dispersed through migration. Although I did not know much about Togo before visiting, when I spoke to people about heading there I seemed to always get the same response: the Togolese are some of the warmest people you’ll ever meet.
The same went for Kimberly.
Kimberly Hayes was born in the Eastern-neighbouring country of Benin. Her mother, Atayi Kayi Sandra, is Togolese and was working in Benin when she met her father, an American, whom Kimberly has never met. Nine years later, Atayi moved back to Togo with Kimberly, where they started building their home. She later gave birth to Kimberly’s half-sister, Oriana. The three of them have lived together in that home ever since.
Atayi has always been a strong mother figure to her daughters since she raised them alone. She was born to the Guin tribe in Togo, a tribe known for its strength and resilience. Their origins trace back to modern day Ghana where they were forced to flee due to ethnic wars. Although the history of the Guin tribe has barely been recorded, their culture has managed to withstand the divisions and migrations over time. They are a people of union amongst difference.
Kimberly, however, has not always felt that union. Despite being born and living her entire life in Africa, she has often been seen as an outsider because of her mixed complexion. “It was always hard for me, even today,” she disclosed. “It was hard for me because there are not a lot of mixed people here. ‘Les gens ici m’appelle blanche…’ The people here call me ‘white.’”
In many parts of Africa, there is a word in the local language that they use to call white people. It varies from country to country, language to language. In Swahili, it’s muzungu. In Twi, it’s obronie. It is meant to describe anyone that is foreign, that is ‘not from here.’ With hundreds of years of slavery and displacement, there is a lot of conflicting historical and colonial baggage that is carried with being ‘white’. There are still feelings of anger, frustration and resentment that arise in everyday interactions. Of course, growing up and being treated like a foreigner when you’re actually local – or being called white when you’re actually mixed – can be hard when you’re forming an identity founded upon the notion that you do not belong.
With time, self-work, self-worth and self-love, Kim has grown to appreciate her difference. She has the fighters that she saw around her to thank for that. “The women [in Togo] are fighters, brave,” she explained. “As I was raised by my mother alone, I find her very courageous. She’s my role model.” The strength that she saw in her mother at home was what she witnessed in the physical world around her. Being surrounded by strong women enabled her to gain confidence and accept the skin that she lived in. Today, she wants to motivate other young African women to accept their own differences, challenge the Western perceptions of beauty, and open up conversations about what it means to be an African woman and what life in Africa is like.
“I think that the way African women are represented is very generalized,” Kim explained. “When we see African women [in the Western media], we see afro hair, big boobs, big butts – when in reality no, not all African women are the same.”
To be fair, it is not just in the West where African women are represented negatively. Unfortunately, these representations are pervasive throughout the African continent as well. In a paper written by Gender Links for the African Union, the authors stated, “While women represent more than half of the population in many African countries they are underrepresented or misrepresented throughout all existing media whether online or offline, news media or entertainment. Their voices are not heard, they are likely to be portrayed in a stereotypical manner and they are less likely to hold influential positions in the media and ICT..”
I briefly discussed the harm that comes with constantly being surrounded by images that do not accurately portray reality in my previous article An Introduction to Representation and Why I am Here. When images, representations and ideologies are internalized by audiences, they are then acted out by those that consume them. This is how systems and structures pervade over time. If you are constantly being exposed to images of women where the women are objectified and subordinated, you will internalize these objectifications and subordinations. This will then in turn be reflected in the way that you act towards women or act as a woman, thus maintaining the system.
Unless, of course, you resist.
Tired of seeing the same generalized representations of women, Kim started creating her own. To be frank, she initially started modelling because of a friend. “I started modelling in 2015. I had a friend who was passionate about photography and one day wanted to take my photos. When we took the photos, people really appreciated them and a lot of them suggested that I start modelling. It became a passion for me,” Kim shared. Four years later, creating images has become much more than that. It is now not only a means for Kimberly to express herself, but also a means for her to create the representations that she saw lacking in the media. She demonstrates that African women are complex, that they are diverse. She demonstrates that women can be both soft and strong, sensual and spiritual, coloured and worthy.
“Diversity, it is everything. It is what makes the world. I think that it’s important [to have different representations of women] because each person has their nature, each person has their origins. It’s important to value all of this,” Kimberly expressed.
Although the journey was not always easy, Kim has fallen in love with her skin, her hair, her Togolese identity, and her difference. She finds pride in her African culture, and invites you to do the same. “I would like people to know Africa, it’s very warm here. When you come to Africa, you feel loved, you feel valued. There is a lot more humanity here than in other places. The way that people are attentive to each other here… For example, when you don’t have anything to eat, you can go to a neighbour to feed you. We are all family in some way, Africa is a very big family. We are in solidarity, that’s something that I really appreciate about Africa.”
I loved getting to know Kimberly’s story because I saw parts of her’s in mine. Her story illustrates that there are so many layers to not only being a woman but just being human. Our cultures, our tribes, our makeup, our identities, our differences, our diversity – these markers are what truly bond us as one. Sometimes you need to try walking in someone else’s skin to realize that.
You can follow Kimberly Hayes’ journey on Instagram @kimberly_hayes_. For more raw stories, check us out @rawtrvl.