Henna as home

My voice shook slightly and I hesitated before asking quietly, “How much money can I give you?” With that one question, the easy camaraderie of the evening was momentarily shattered and there was a nearly imperceptible pause in the constant movement of the room. Or perhaps I imagined the pause because of the shame I felt at highlighting the disparities between a roomful of women I admired and me.

I had spent the last three hours in the home of my friend Halima, a Somali refugee living in the urban slums of Kampala, Uganda’s capital. I was living in Kampala on a study abroad program and met Halima at the office of a local organization during an adult literacy class that she was attending with a few friends.

Her house was divided into three small rooms, often overflowing with family members and excitement. The women’s room was always the busiest and served as the bedroom for four women and girls by night, a hub of gossip and laughter by day. To this day it is one of my favorite places.

The first time I stepped into the room I was overwhelmed by colors, sounds, and smells. The girls and women crammed in were all chattering quickly in Somali, readjusting the multitude of cascading fabric that encircled their bodies and faces, and liberally applying bottled perfume to both fabric and skin. All of the sensory overload was beautiful to behold. And there was the aura of female secretiveness. In this room only, the women would remove their head coverings. Young girls brushed their older sisters’ long curly hair, while other women left and came back glistening from the adjacent bathing room.

Halima spent several hours decorating my arms and feet.
Halima spent several hours decorating my arms and feet.

On this particular occasion I was at Halima’s home not only to visit, but to get henna designs. The process was long and careful. The artist, her cousin Sari, began by mixing two different powders, one that began and remained black, and another that turned a deep red. She covered the bottoms of my feet in the red substance, and then began gracefully tracing designs onto my hands, ankles, wrists and feet. The red lines dried and flaked off, revealing a deep burnt orange beneath. She finished by accenting the patterns in black.

So our late afternoon visit stretched long past sunset. As the hours passed, our plates of sticky Somali sweets were constantly replenished and we all laughed easily at my attempts to speak their language. When it was time to go, however, the moment I had been avoiding since our arrival came. I had planned all along to pay for the time and supplies, but I was nervous about bringing up the subject of money.

When I finally did, with that one question, all of the reasons for my fear rushed at me.

Halima’s family had endured many hardships getting to Uganda, and once there were forced to live in one of the worst slums in the country. Without a grasp of English or the local language they were unemployable, their only income being small remittances from an uncle resettled in America. I, on the other hand, come from a comfortable suburb of Chicago and was in Uganda by choice. I felt as if taking out my wallet and handing Sari 15,000 Ugandan shillings (about $8) represented a gulf between us. I am a “have” and Halima and her family “have-nots.”

In that seemingly innocuous encounter I was forced to face the difficult truth that I am extremely privileged with wealth and safety, and that many of the people I have come to value in my life are not. I still, and probably always will, struggle with the strange mix of guilt and gratitude that comes from acknowledging my luck.

I also learned, however, that there are ways to overcome societal gulfs between people. Halima handled the moment with grace, gratefully accepting the offering with little comment. We spent many happy afternoons together after that one.

Although I haven’t spoken to Halima since my return from Uganda in September, I still remember her and the ease with which she and her family welcomed me into the perfumed secrets of the home that they left behind through the ritual application and art form of henna. Reliving the flash images of hair peaking from under scarves will always represent the unconditional connection I felt to them as a woman and fellow human being.

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