Esther Armah’s Thoughts: UNMASKED …external shine, internal struggle

Esther Armah

Masks. They have become part of a globally recognized wardrobe. Symptomatic of the coronavirus pandemic that has devastated nations, revealed leadership challenges for some, and a rise to this challenge for others. What it has done for everyone is to reimagine how we all live, work, and go to school. Our paths have been altered beyond recognition. The aftermath is economic, but it is also emotional.  

With coronavirus, we wear masks to protect our health. There are other masks we wear. To protect our truth, our pain, our struggle. What about these other masks we wear? The ones that are not visible, but are armour and shields.

For millions of us as Ghanaian women, masks are essential wardrobe. These are the masks we wear to protect the story of who we appear to be, and suppress the struggle we may be dealing with. They are the disguise to keep our internal struggles from ever being visible, so we blind each other with armour that speaks to versions of success – titles, clothing, cars. What these masks may be doing is simply creating a shield for mayhem that is devastating us internally, but must at all costs, stay hidden. 

This is part of the price Ghana society extracts from women. It is a pattern we are all nurtured to follow; and follow it so many of us do.

Success is not merely a narrative about ladders being climbed, walls being scaled, new titles being earned and fresh zeros on cheques – although this should absolutely be celebrated. Our emotional success depends on a different set of realities. Where do we go when the shine we spent so long carefully nurturing is dull, and we are breaking, we are struggling, we are not coping? Where do we go when the marriage we hold up as a sacred space and example of successful womanhood is actually a space of mayhem, pain and powerlessness?

What too many of us have learned to do is weaponize emotions to keep women in line, it is done by men, and it is done by women. Two powerful emotions we use to do that are: shame and judgment. Shame is a rod used to beat women into silencing struggles, hurt, harm, and mayhem. Judgment means we protect what is broken, prevail when we are hurting or drowning, and smile harder even if we want to scream. Our faith communities do not necessarily provide comfort in these moments. We are told – indeed we tell each other to pray harder, or we question each other’s faith, declaring that it is a faith deficit that is the single cause of our struggle. We scold the sister who is crying out for help, urging her to hide her pain in case anyone sees. We do this. We have done this. We continue to do this.

In Ghana – indeed across so many African nations – strong African woman is not a description of an African woman who happens to be strong. It is a nation state where the human emotions of struggle, vulnerability, shame, pain are given no room to breathe, much less be. It is a state where only your shine is visible, and your shine is the ‘everything is fine’ when you know it is falling apart, when you may be falling apart. Who is taking care of their emotional needs in a society where they are expected to be care-givers, even as they navigate this challenging path with fewer resources and higher expectations?

It is true for men too, for African men, for black men. This masculinity that leaves little room for vulnerability may confine and contain rather than enable you to confess and express. Our strict gender roles of provider have always been a lie. We are a people with a history who worked together to make villages, people flourish. That work was not always gendered. We gendered it, colonialism helped – and entrenched that even further. The legacy of the untreated trauma from colonialism continues to shape how we move, and genders these notions of brilliance and leadership. Toxic masculinity’s mask can be deadly for the humanity of any man.  It may mean when you need help you don’t get it, when you’re in trouble you don’t reveal it, and when you are drowning, you tell the world you are going for a swim.

Anything rather than simply speak the truth, the difficult, painful, personal, ugly truth. Because of course it is not simple.

Maybe this pandemic, its requirement that we change our lives, hunker down, stay inside, limit our movement is breaking parts of us, of you, of me, of your family, of this nation. Maybe it is simply revealing a breaking that was already happening. Maybe there are parts of ourselves, our families, our nation that we cannot recover because they seem forever gone, severed. Maybe it has been an important time of reflection, offering space to reckon, to make change, to reimagine what you want for yourself, your family, your future.

Nation building is more than a thriving economy of flourishing mineral resources, working institutions, strengthening democracy, civil society, political leadership, and coffers bursting with cedis. Nation building requires an emotional economy too. That emotional economy is where our struggle lives, breathes, and must find space to heal. It is a space of multiple emotions, not singular ones. It is a space where emotional currency matters. That is about the value of your humanity, not the currency that expands your bank account. Economy is more than a question of markets, market prices and appreciating and depreciating economies. An emotional economy is understanding how the power of emotions, and emotionality can wreak havoc if we do not tend to what is broken. A broken place does not make you a broken person, does not make us a broken people. What it means is we must treat the healing as a matter of urgency, of policy, process and practice requiring resources – both fiscal and human resources – and not as an individual whim to be masked or muted.

This is why Emotional Justice is so crucial here in Ghana, across Africa’s nations and for a global black people. That term ‘Emotional Economy’ is one of its four pillars.Emotional Justice is a visionary framework for healing as a global black people. It means an intimate reckoning – the kind that provides compassion when we feel shame, that applies care to the constant judgment. It is one that stills tongues ready to criticize, vilify, and demonize when what is required is understanding and tools to help heal.  We have to hush the harshness so many of us have been nurtured to engage as a ready tool to bring each other into line.

There are challenges here too. For some, vulnerability is an opening to manipulate, it is an opportunity to maximize power over someone, it is an open door to gain access, to revel in someone’s pain and derive strength from what hurts them. This truth impedes so many of us from speaking our own truths. And we all know these people – they are in our families, our communities, our places of work, our churches, they lead institutions, some lead nations. So, the wariness is inevitable. It makes sense.

Nation building requires we reckon with the world of emotionality and how this feeds our leadership. We have a bloody history of coups that devastated a democracy journey, but it also devastated families – left wounds that remain untended, that fester, that manifest in how we lead, learn, work, build – even how we love. Our history is much more than dates in books. It is a living reality that requires healing in order that we can be bolstered and not burdened by it. We stand shining, a beacon of democracy on this continent. We must also stand fully, a bastion of meritocracy, where merit, value is ascribed to our emotional economy, to our full humanity.

Your mask may help protect you from a virus. Unmaskingemotions may better protect you and your future from the lie of external shine, when you are navigating internal struggle. If it were safe, if there were no judgement, if there was support – take off your mask. What might the world see?

We, our ancestors, our forebears, did not fight this hard or come this far, to fail. Failure is not struggle, it is silencing the struggle. Find your voice, speak your truth, tend to what is broken, that you, that we may build back better.

It is time for Emotional Justice.


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