No Eenie Meenie In My Mouth


“Bottom line, we don’t realize how much we don’t realize and we should be very humble in our place in the world and within our culture.” —Ken Wytsma, Founder, The Justice Conference

By Idelette McVicker | Twitter: @idelette

I am from bobotie and milktart and the southernmost tip of Africa.

In primary school I earned A’s learning the names of Portuguese traders like Bartolomeu Dias who sailed around that Cabo de Boa Esperanza–the Cape of Good Hope–for the first time and Vasco da Gama who first reached India via Africa.

What I didn’t learn was the name of a man or a woman bought and sold as slaves by traders at Portuguese outposts, like the castle at Elmina on the Gold Coast of Africa.

Until recently, these stories were all separate in my head.

Until recently, I also didn’t know that a simple nursery rhyme is part of perpetuating this horrific past.

This Is Not It

When I attended the Justice Conference in Portland last month, I listened as Ken Wytsma, founder of the conference, unpacked the concept of “justice.”

He demonstrated just how insidious injustice could be by telling us a story. In November 2011, Ken traveled to Cape Coast, Ghana, to research the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade and also film a media project with poet Micah Bournes. While there, Ken spoke to a local scholar who had received his PhD in History in England on the slave trade. He asked for evidence of the widespread gender violence … and if anything was in writing.

That’s when he heard about a song that popped up in Portuguese diaries of the time, a song used by traders to pick a woman for the night.

Where the song ended, determined which woman was selected for the night. The scholar then began to sing it in his heavy accent:

“Eenie Meenie Mini Moe …”

Hearing these words, even in a crowd of 4,000 people, hit me like a machete in my stomach.

How have I missed this? How have I perpetuated this?

While Elmina castle is infamous for the buying and selling of slave souls, somehow I’ve missed this other story happening on the sidelines of the slave horror: The story of prostituted women lined up to serve the slave traders’ sexual whims.

Women marginalized even in the margins.

Now that I know, I hear the echo of this counting-out rhyme in my head as words streaming out of Portuguese buyers’ mouths. Men counting out to determine a woman’s fate.

Now I hear these words, thick as rope, woven around the women, tying them to a destiny of diminishment.

I am not ignorant to the power of words to tie up and enslave.

I know the teeth that can sink into vowels and consonants. I am not ignorant to the degradation that can be embedded and perpetuated down the generations. This very rhyme also has thick ugly racist connotations; so much so that in 2003 two passengers sued Southwest Airlines for emotional distress when a steward jokingly employed the rhyme to encourage passengers to find a seat.

But what if I didn’t know before?

I’ve been wondering whether we can we perpetuate the evil, even in our unknowing? Does not knowing and saying the words, carry on the diminishing?

I don’t know, but it makes me sick that I didn’t know. That this story could be so veiled to my seeing and my hearing.

It makes me sick that too many of us still don’t know.

This one thing I do know: Now that I know how these words were formed in the mouths of abusers, these words will not be spoken in my home or in my presence. I will do my utmost to educate and stop the lineage of injustice through these words wherever I can.

Structural Injustice

“My point in telling the story was the structural injustices that can so easily crop up in our life,” Ken Wytsma told me in a message. “I can grow up and sing an innocent rhyme while playing, without realizing the long history that taints the same rhyme for different people … Something can be harmless to me, but harmful to others. Bottom line, we don’t realize how much we don’t realize and we should be very humble in our place in the world and within our culture.”


Editor’s note:


My dear SheLoves friends, I would love to hear your response:

  • Did you know this dark echo in the story of this counting-out rhyme?
  • Do you think it matters if we don’t know? Do you perpetuate the injustice, or not?
  • Now that you know, what will you do?
  • Any other thoughts or comments?


About Idelette:

I like soggy cereal and I would like to go to every spot on the map of the earth to meet our world’s women.

I dream of a world where no women or girls are for sale. I dream of a world where women and men are partners in doing the work that brings down a new Heaven on earth.

My word for the year is “Roar,” but I have learned it’s not about my voice rising as much as it is about our collective voices rising in unison to bring down walls of injustice.

I have three children and this place–right here, called–is my fourth baby. I am African, although my skin colour doesn’t tell you that story. I am also a little bit Chinese, because my heart lives there amongst the tall skyscrapers of Taipei and the mountains of Chiufen. Give me sweet chai and I think I’m in heaven. I live in Vancouver, Canada and I pledged my heart to Scott 11 years ago.

I believe in kindness and calling out the song in each other’s hearts. I also believe that Love covers–my gaps, my mistakes and the distances between us. I blog at and tweet@idelette.

Image credit: Woman (Mbororo) in Foumban, Cameroon. Originally published 1919.