Juba, South Sudan – A swell of laughs and chatter fills the air as Jemma* greets familiar faces inside Juba’s cultural centre, one of the few spaces in South Sudan’s capital to offer young people some entertainment.
But the voices get quieter as soon as the conversation turns to a topic that’s hard to avoid in this river port city of roughly 500,000 people.
“From the moment we’re born, we open our eyes and we know that everything black is bad,” Jemma told Al Jazeera, explaining why she is bleaching her skin.
Some young women nearby would rather not speak about this, not even anonymously. It’s too embarrassing, they say in a low voice, even if many are doing it.
Skin bleaching is a popular practice in many parts of the world – from Africa through Asia and the Middle East to North and South America – that promotes light skin as the standard of female beauty. Conservative estimates put the value of the global market at around $10bn annually.
But in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country and home to some of the darkest people worldwide, skin whitening and the issue of colourism – commonly defined as prejudice or discrimination against dark-skinned people – is linked to a complex history.
It can be traced back to centuries of colonialism, the violent birth of a nation and its displacement, as well as its decades-long struggle for acceptance and independence from its northern neighbour, Sudan, from which it seceded in 2011 after decades of civil war.
Most of South Sudan’s tribes are of African heritage and the majority of them are Christian, whereas their northern counterparts in Sudan are of Arab origin and mainly Muslim.
Before independence, the latter, more light-skinned Arab Sudanese, ruled a then-united Sudan out of Khartoum, with a clear goal to Islamise and Arabise the entire country. In a speech to the National Assembly in 1987, Sudan’s then-Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi said: “The dominant feature of our nation is an Islamic one and its overpowering expression is Arab, and this nation will not have its entity identified and its prestige and pride preserved except under an Islamic revival.”
The southern African-identifying citizens were religiously and politically marginalised and suffered discrimination due to their skin colour – the region had long been a source of ivory and slaves, and the association with slavery prevailed.
Discrimination and racist commentary were commonplace. Classifications such as “blue-black” or “green black” can still be heard today in Sudan and some neighbouring countries, referring to the hue of people’s dark skin.
“When we were one Sudan, you were being made to feel like you’re a second-class citizen,” says Rebecca Joshua Okwaci, South Sudan’s minister of roads and bridges, and one of the country’s most known advocates against skin bleaching.
“The fact that you are from the descendants of the slaves, and slavery is always associated with black colour” played a big role, she adds, leaning forward to rest her arms on the large desk in front of her.
Proud of her skin colour, Joshua points out that “Sudan”, the country, is literally named after the skin colour of its people. “Sudan or South Sudan comes from the word sud,” she says – “sud” in Arabic is the basis for the word “aswad”, which means black.
“We [Sudanese and South Sudanese] are called ‘bilad al sud’ or the ‘country of the blacks’ because of our colour and therefore we are already there in history,” Joshua says.
Sudan experienced two civil wars (from 1955 to 1972, and from 1983 to 2005, which resulted in the 2011 secession), both of which were conflicts between the North and the South of the country.
Suzan Kim Otor, country coordinator for the anti-hate speech organisation Defyhatenow, went through that experience.
“I grew up in Kenya and Kenyans are reputably lighter than South Sudanese and it has always been an issue,” says Otor, who doesn’t use skin-whitening products and never wanted to try them either.
Joshua also had her own run-ins with colourism during her time living in Egypt and Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.
“Sometimes, some parents would say ‘be careful. don’t befriend these children who are coming from South Sudan’,” she says, adding that people can feel “vanquished, defeated and they will struggle to find a way … to be accepted and therefore they may end up bleaching. I sympathise”.
After independence in 2011, many South Sudanese who had gone abroad to flee fighting and instability at home gradually decided to return. Having lived through racial abuse, some had grown accustomed to bleaching their skin in order to better fit in.
It’s a habit they – including Jemma at the cultural centre, who lived in Egypt – brought back home.
“I’m going to reduce it,” Jemma says, “because now I’m in my country. No one will look at me like I’m ugly”.
Still, Otor says there is “hatred and discrimination against dark people: who don’t use skin-bleaching agents”.
She points to a persisting social pressure to use such products, especially during weddings.
“When a bride is about to get married, they expect her to be light skinned. Why? Because light skin is a sign of beauty. So if you’re not light skinned and you’re not using the bleaching products … you find that your friends are going to talk ill about you. Your family members are going to force you [to bleach your skin],” Otor says.
Her frustration shines through as she recounts instances where husbands would urge their wives not to tamper with their skin tone, telling them they prefer a natural complexion – even as on the side, these men would have affairs with light-skinned women who would be using bleaching products.
“And now, it’s a battlefield between the girls who are naturally dark and girls who are light skinned” who bleach, says Otor.
But she doesn’t budge. “If you have an issue with my colour, you shouldn’t be around me,” she says, adding that South Sudan is supposed to be a country of Africans, who are black.
Two years after its independence, South Sudan was plunged into its own ruinous civil war which was sparked by leadership disputes. As the violence continues, a lack of an administrative history paired with political instability means there are no statistics to portray the extent of the skin-bleaching practice.
Alier Nyok Deng Kuot, a dermatologist at Juba’s teaching hospital, estimates that out of the roughly 30 cases he sees daily, “10 to 15 are using bleaching agents”.
He says most people don’t necessarily set out to bleach their skin, but they get the creams prescribed to cure hyperpigmentation – skin areas that are much darker than others.
“But the way people end up using it is different,” he adds.
The bleaching agents are made to destroy or stop the production of melanin, the pigment responsible for the colour of the skin. Without it, the skin is left more vulnerable to UV light. In some cases, this has been linked to cancer, Kuot explains. In addition, many of these products rely on hydroquinone, a substance that thins the skin to the extent that it easily rips and becomes hard to repair.
Most of Kuot’s patients are women aged between 18 and 40. But he also often sees teenagers, some of whom are encouraged by their parents at a young age to use skin-lightening products. In some cases, he says, the young girls would steal the creams out of their mothers’ drawers.
The skin-whitening creams would, in fact, be unaffordable for the majority of South Sudanese teens. Most of Juba’s markets feature several stores, where people can buy bleaching agents. In one such store, stocked with skin-lightening products all the way to the ceiling, the owner says it’s mainly women in their 30s or 40s who are able to afford them.
His bestselling and cheapest skin-whitening cream costs between 450 and 500 South Sudanese pounds ($1.80 and $2 – black-market rate of 1:240). His most expensive product is about 5,000 South Sudanese pounds (roughly $20), which is roughly the average monthly income of a mid-level civil servant.
Al Jazeera spoke to about 10 women who bleach their skin. They all said they’re aware of the health risks and expressed concerns they would never be able to return to their original skin colour, even if they wanted to. But Kuot has encouraging words: “If the person stops using the bleaching agent, gradually the skin can turn to normal.”
At the same time, a growing chorus of voices opposed to the skin-bleaching practice, including prominent public figures such as Joshua, the minister, coupled with the international rise of dark-skinned celebrities like Senegalese model Khoudia Diop and Kenyan Hollywood actress Lupita Nyong’o, seem to have helped many South Sudanese women embrace their skin colour.
Joshua says she sees fewer women who bleach their skin, amid an increasing awareness about health risks and a growing pride for their young country.
“I believe the negative effect is fading away slowly and therefore, now, those who remain and still insist [on bleaching their skin], maybe [it’s] because of a hangover? Or maybe the message has not reached them,” she says.
And just like Jemma who says she’ll stop bleaching because she won’t be seen as “ugly” in her own country, Joshua concludes: “We are South Sudanese now. So, acceptable all over the world. It’s very difficult for others to get your colour.”
*not her real name
This report was made possible through a reporting fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) as well as Nancy Cerino, Samir Bol, Silvano Yokwe and Maura Ajak