When I reflect on why I have kept my hair natural all my life, three childhood memories stand out quite clearly.
The first is one of accompanying (more like being forced to go!) my mother to her hair salon for her regular retouches. This was the 1980s, the heady age of the perm, and so I’d be put on a seat next to her, or close by as the hairdresser cackled through some gossip and interesting tidbits with my mother.
Now, imagine being 4 or 5 years old and being stapled to a seat, waiting and waiting for those chemicals to seep into hair follicles and work their science. It was excruciating. I always cried that I too wanted to sit under the hair dryers blowing desert heat onto the hair of rows of women sitting patiently, awaiting their transformations. But alas, my role in all of this – which I soon learnt – was to just sit.
This has much to do with why my first visit to a hair salon, on my own terms, was when I was aged 17. Salons and I had gotten off to a bad start and having endured them for a bit of my childhood, I was in no rush to continue to patronise them.
The comb or the cut
The second memory is of myself sitting at the feet of the very same woman, my mother, weeping as she tried her damnedest to rake tracks into my tangled Afro. Oh, the pain of kurukwa mabuns, that standard schoolgirl hairdo. With a strong fear of pain, I disliked having my hair combed out too hard. As a result, my roots always ended up tangled up and knotty.
And this is where all the problems would begin. My comb-wielding mother and my heaving sobs combined for a showdown that always ended along the lines of this;
Mum [with serious ‘no games’ face]: You have two options. Either I comb this hair out or I get my scissors.
Me [suppressing sobs]: But it’s sore!
Mum [still deathly serious] : Yes, so make a choice.
Me [snot dripping out of my nose]: Okay… we comb it. But it’s sore!
And thus it went for the greater part of my childhood.
My decision to keep my pain-inducing hair was all about the aesthetics, and socialisation. I was not about to be one of those kids moving around with a brush cut or something like that. Usually, girls at my school only cut their hair short (if they hadn’t started out with short hair from Grade 1) if they had worms or lice.
I was not ready to live with such stigma, and besides – given a bit of extensive combing and oiling – my natural hair tumbled down to my shoulders; something which was always nice to show off on Civics’ Day.
The third reason for keeping this hair as it grows out my scalp is my sister’s first experience with a relaxer. She was about 16 or so at that time, the ‘legal’ age my mother permitted for you to finally have the option to get a relaxer going on if you wanted to.
I remember her coming home with this sleek black hair combed down her head. Wow, I thought. Can I touch, can I play with, can I comb? We went through the excitement together and cooed and smiled at how easy it was to get anything between the now softer strands.
But that’s where my excitement stopped. Soon, there was the concern of a burnt scalp. Itches. Need for all kinds of creams. Growth. Retouches. Oil treatment. And not to forget, those unsightly oil patches that this new crop of hair left on pillowcases and sofa covers alike.
No thank you, I thought. Too much effort.
My hair, my choice
Being a wash-and-go sort of person, I find things that slow this hasty process down tedious. As such, I wouldn’t be able to identify with anyone who wakes up 30 minutes earlier than necessary to do up makeup or conduct elaborate hair antics. The morning person that I am not, this will never be me.
While I keep my hair natural for these reasons, and more, those memories from my childhood have played a significant part in informing my decisions. In much the same way, my mother had an embargo on my sister and I getting our ears pierced young; you make that decision when you are older, she reasoned. And so it was that we either went for those ridiculous clip-ons the size of buttons, or we just went without.
I had my ears pierced when I was 20. And I had decided by then that I wanted to have them pierced. In many ways, it was exciting and liberating to make that decision for myself. And it has just been as exciting to make a decision about my hair for myself. You might argue that that decision was in fact made on my behalf when my mother embargoed the use of ‘creamy crack’ in my childhood. But I actually think the opposite. She knew I would have that option later, and that it would be a quite popular option.
But it would be my decision to make later on.
In a time where a constricted standard of what passes as beauty is being continually revised and fed to us all, to stand outside of that standard – out of choice – is something quite empowering. I do not relax my hair because I think it’s just fine the way it is and I am comfortable with it. And though women on the streets may hiss and call to me shouting, “Sister, tinoruka”, I am now pretty good at either politely declining their offers, or just walking on.
Sometimes what seem like non choices in childhood (when a parent declares rules which are are not amenable to broad negotiations) turn out to be decisions that give you more freedom with time. And in some cases, these decisions are pivotal in informing your politics and world views. My hair is not just natural because I like it that way; it is also a political statement I make about myself. It communicates a certain non-conformism and rebellion within me; a freedom to be different.
And I am thankful for every Afro comb and protracted altercation that got me here.
Main photograph is shared from www.mysoti.com