Anyone who has looked closely at non-European skin products knows that skin bleaching is a serious industry. The international issues of race, racism and beauty standards must be addressed in any discussion of skin lightening and aspirations to white skin (and I would encourage you to read some excellent comment pieces on this and look at the academic work here). It is hard to buy a soap, face cream or anti-acne product here in Juba that does not contain skin lightening agents.
The skin lightening trend in Juba is catching on, particularly among young women, and public opinion has been hot to condemn these girls for their vanity and apparent self-destruction. In October, 24 female students were suspended at Juba Day Secondary for skin bleaching – some of whom said that they didn’t realise the acne creams they were using were skin lighteners. Another 7 female students were suspended from Comboni Secondary School at the same time. More recently, a man in Godele was reported to have divorced his wife because of her habitual skin bleaching.
However, what is frustrating – although interesting – is that the local discussion of this, in newspapers and on the radio, has centred around two targets: the usual condemnation of women’s sexuality and vanity, and more interestingly, the idea of this practice undermining national culture and character.
I will not accept [my wife] again in my home as house wife, because she broke both my order and culture.
Skin bleaching is not part of South Sudanese culture, according to all the commentators; women here are supposed to be black. How black, though, is at issue. In the recent beauty pageants here (Miss Malaika and Miss South Sudan, working in competition), there were the usual Equatoria-Nilotic tensions that centred repeatedly around the preferred skin tones of the female contestants; many Equatorians felt that a Dinka or Nuer woman would win because extremely black skin is seen as ‘properly’ South Sudanese. However, lighter skin tones are more popularly understood as ‘better’, particularly among those returning from Khartoum and East Africa.
[The wife] said when she visited Khartoum, she found all her former school mates who went to Khartoum have changed their color from black to brown, and then she was forced to do the same to win the love from her husband.
This debate over the right skin colour to have to be South Sudanese is a tiny part of the wider tensions created by East African returnees, ex-Khartoum residents, and the broader tensions between the ‘browner’ Equatorians and ‘black’ Nilotic-origin people; women continue to reflect – painfully – the cultural and political narratives of national identity.