As a “Big Man” in Ghanaian society the trick is to marry early. Give your wife at least two children sharp. After the firstborn, and certainly by age thirty or so, on a diet of oily, starchy foods and sweet cakes with no exercise, she should have already turned into “Big Mama.” You know, grossly overweight with everything hanging out. You may have already seen the American caricature on screen; huge sagging breasts, big belly, giant thighs and an even bigger behind.
What does it matter that the once slim young woman you married now waddles in fat and can barely walk anywhere? Or that your children may inherit the obesity trait and your daughters will most likely follow in their mother’s untimely footsteps to deadly diabetes and heart disease?
Here in Ghana, where we equate size with wealth and power, the hefty mother of your children is already seen by all and sundry as the wife of a very rich man indeed–a “Big Man.” And as long as you can afford to keep her latest hairdo done, and provide a “home used” 4×4 all-terrain vehicle for her to roam about in at will, she’ll be happy enough to just play “de madam” of the house for the rest of her natural life.
Leaving you with enough time on your hands to go chase the young skirts, and maybe even a few tight trousers, too. For your wife and you now live very separate lives, still under the same roof but in separate bedrooms. You may come together for church, but only on Sundays and funerals. Not that you would have it any other way. You have finally arrived. You are now a “Big Man.” No more small boy-ooo.
Kwame Nkrumah once said, “Far better to be free to govern or misgovern yourself than to be governed by anybody else.” This statement directed against the British colonial forces oppressing Ghana at the time has inadvertently come to represent a way of life for one Stephanie Benson, modern heiress to the ancient Queen of Ashanti throne.
Sultry, sexy singer, mother of five, independent woman, and loving wife are just some of the hats worn by Stephanie Benson. Dressed casually in jeans today, this beautiful woman would cut a dashing poise in any setting. But don’t let the chiselled features, hour-glass shape and sexy pout belie the strength of character and steely determination that drives this woman towards her single-minded path for happiness.
The stories of a fairytale princess never normally go from rags to riches, not that Stephanie is short of a bob or two these days. But never did the Brothers Grimm or The Arabian Nights tell tales of beautiful princesses who gave it all up for love and a bungalow in Kent. Then again, these stories were written long before Princess Akua Ohenewaa Asieanem of Kokobin (a.k.a. Stephanie) was born. So, this daughter to millionaire pharmacist Samuel Benson and Queen Nana Achiaa Boahemaah II decided to marry an English bloke and live in the unsanctified world of unsanitised people.
It all started when Stephanie’s father died. She was sent to live with her strict uncle in England. At the age of 15, she thought that she had escaped the restrictive lifestyle of royal protocol but found out that although she was living in North London affluence, her movements were still constantly supervised and under the watchful eyes of her uncle and his employees.
When she had finished her schooling, she took up employment as her uncle’s secretary. Whilst there, she was sent on a computer training course where she met her future husband, Jonathan. It was more or less love at first sight for him, says Stephanie, and she recalls that it took slightly longer for her to warm to the idea.
“I was 19 when I went on my first date with Jonathan. And I ended up falling head over heels in love with him. I had also realised that my uncle would never accept it, so we had to meet in secret.” When Jonathan proposed Stephanie eagerly accepted. The night she rang her mother to tell her the news, her uncle insisted that she return to Ghana immediately.
Once there, a huge party was arranged and the place filled with eligible suitors. Despite thinly veiled attempts by the family to force her to stay, Stephanie quickly returned to England where she is now twenty years into her marriage. Five children later, a chocolate shop and factory in Tunbridge Wells, a record deal she walked out on, and a flourishing career as a singer, she still claims to be very much in love.
But who in their right mind would follow the little man’s dream in reverse – from riches to rags – and still loudly proclaim to be happy?
Why would anyone want to give up a life of luxury; personal servants, a 25-bedroom mansion, education in the best schools of the world and, an annual trust fund as big as most people’s lifetime earnings?
“My life growing up was really never easy,” she sighs. “My mother was never around very much. Our life was governed by strict protocols, customs, rules and old-fashioned traditions. I couldn’t just run up to her for a hug when other people were around, or even call her mom,” she says rather wistfully.
This enforced distance between mother and child is in stark contrast to the relationship she cultivates with her own five growing brood, aged 9 to 20 years old. Her busy day-to-day world is very much like any other mother, yet despite a hectic schedule, daily school runs, live performances, time in the studio, and helping to run the family business, she still somehow manages to share quality time with her children.
“I like to be a trendy mum. My children know they can talk to me any time. I am their mum, and their friend,” she says matter-of-factly. So what lessons on race, identity and culture does a black woman who grew up in the royal lap of luxury pass on to her mixed-race children, particularly when deciding on schools and where to live? None, apparently, and it works just fine. “My two eldest daughters went to a private school from the age of three and, as it were, they were the only black children there. They never suffered any harm from it,” she shrugs.
“The only time we had a problem was once when another child told my son, ‘We don’t sit next to brown people.’ My son didn’t understand what he meant and was quite upset by it,” she says now, visibly disturbed by the memory. “That was probably my mistake. I never really discuss racism with them. I never had a chip on my shoulder in that way.” This statement, which to many may seem both ignorant and cold, underlines the reality of Stephanie Benson’s world view.
She has never really seen herself as a ‘black’ woman as such. She has never really shared the same cares or concerns as the masses. What Stephanie Benson knows above all else is that she is in-line to the throne of the royal Queen of Ashanti. She carries within her the lineage of great warriors and daring heroines, and that knowledge of history coupled with determination is what propels her through life and gives her an edge on self-worth.
In fact, Mrs Benson comes across as fiery, rebellious and very, very confident. None of it is a front. She is a consummate professional and utterly charming with it, too. This strong, rebellious, single-minded ancestry is what she claims to pass on to her children, and hopefully, they in turn to theirs.
I love photography. Love seeing ‘people of colour’ captured in strong black and white images. Love fearless form and clarity in pictures. Love perfect composition, and seeing thinking outside of the box, photographically speaking, I mean.
I want to see dark-skinned people pictured using impeccable lighting—all shades, shadows and textures lifted in near 3D tone and quality—just as it was once said could never be achieved with black skin in photography. So when I was offered the chance to download and review an electronic copy of Herb Way’s book, Portraits of Eve: Women of Color Share Their Body/Soul Conversations, I was terribly excited.
I’ve never met Herb Way. I know little about him or his work, except what can be found on his Facebook profile. I therefore had no concept of what to expect from his first book of photographic images. But as I flipped through its pages, and read the personal statements accompanying each photograph, I was surprised by the number of women who spoke of their bodies in terms of ‘scars.’ They had been scarred by pregnancy, hormones, stress, diet or illness, many said, or they talked of a need for breast-reduction, as opposed to the normal breast-enlargement that figure so prominently in most male fantasies.
I was immediately drawn to these personal stories, and struck by how much the human body is still just a vessel. Here were women of all ages, shapes, sizes, and shades, revealing and revelling in their nudity for all the world to see. Whereas we are normally encouraged to think of naked female forms as purely sexual objects, particularly in this porn-obsessed Internet age, there was something very different going on here.
One woman spoke of how her scarring had been diminished by the still athletic parts of her body—which she liked, worked on and emphasised—whilst masking those areas that troubled her most. Another was unhappy with an extremely thin frame from childhood but masked her pain with a long synthetic wig that seemed to suggest other issues. Having both positive and negative body parts that were still considered part of each woman’s overall beauty was a recurring theme in many of the personal testimonies.
Among the male friends I showed this book, many commented on one or two images in particular. “Why were some of the good-looking model-types covered up,” when they at least should be used to being photographed or looked at, and presumably, more comfortable showing their flesh in public? I didn’t see it quite that way. It left me thinking about how difficult it must be for some models and ordinary women too in our society; constantly having people critiquing your body, your looks, in a way that most men are never subjected to and would never voluntarily undergo. Of course, men self-critique, but if our perception of self were based largely on our external appearance, most men I know, and certainly many of those in positions of power, would have no self-esteem at all.
With the women featured in this book, there was little direct discussion on how their body image may have been influenced by the men in their lives. These personal stories centred instead on structural, social or cultural influences, and the women’s own perceptions of themselves. Many cited the act of being photographed nude for this 144-page volume as part of their ongoing process of healing.
In this sense, Portraits of Eve has very little to do with the male gaze. For in our society where female nudity is most often about male pleasure, male power and the objectification of women, Herb Way’s book is a brave and enlightening departure from the norm. Yet ‘brave’ is perhaps the wrong word, but ’empowered,’ which is so much more useful for millions of ordinary women such as those featured here.
Also of note was how the various women self-identified: African American, Native American, Korean, Trinidadian/Italian, Filipino, Brazilian, and so on. My sincere thanks to Herb Way for an opportunity to appreciate the loving and wonderful work that has gone into the preparation of Portraits of Eve: Women of Color Share Their Body/Soul Conversations, and especially to the women themselves for making public the intimate and private photographic sessions that he has so tenderly recorded with them. Herb Way and his camera love real women, just like these women have grown to love themselves.
The self-published, 144-page book, Portraits of Eve: Women of Color Share Their Body/Soul Conversations, containing 120 photographs of semi-nude and nude images of sixty women will be available from September 2010. Production costs are being offset by sales of the e-book version and by advanced sales of the hard copy edition at a special pre-publication price.