I am My Hair and My Hair Is Me

I am My Hair and My Hair Is Me

I am My Hair and My Hair Is Me 668 621 Lorna Likiza

At 21, I went bald.

I remember walking into a neighborhood barbershop and declaring to the youngish looking male, Nyoa yote!, Shave all of it!

In turn, he quickly asked, Yote?!, All of it?!, with uncertainty written all over his face, for in that instant, we both knew how unusual a request it was.

It wasn’t every day that a campus lass would show up at a barbershop blatantly asking for a clean shave, or Jordo in local slang, which took its name after famed US Basketballer Michael Jordan, but I had my reasons.

Struggling to get a Bachelor of Arts degree in Travel and Tourism Management at the University of Nairobi during this time, it had since dawned on me that it was not only my tuition fee that posed a problem, but the hair on my head as well.

And so, in a moment of frustration, I had made the shocking decision to go bald. This would probably mark the only time in my life I had been that daring with a choice of hairstyle. Needless to say, I walked out of that barbershop feeling the welcome, gentle breeze on my newly-shaved scalp. A choice that led to the consternation of my hostel roommates, peers, and family. The only ones who seemed to be genuinely fascinated by my bald head were matatu, public service vehicle touts, who suddenly paid more attention to me in the coming days, than usual.

Suddenly, I had been transformed into that rebel Nairobi girl who could care less for stylish hairdos, instead opting for a clean shave, like the African models walking European runways whose job description demanded an out-of-the-ordinary look. Ironically, I savored the attention soon cut short by my mother’s reaction at the graduation ceremony of a family member.

Mum was visibly appalled that I had been walking around Nairobi bald-headed. All that hair she had spent a significant amount of time nurturing into a desirable texture when I was younger, gone in an instant under the workmanship of a skilled barber. My hair texture had always been significantly different from that of the other females in my immediate family. I had grown accustomed to hearing who got who’s hair and somewhat confusion on whose hair I took after. I would later discover that I had my father to thank for my hair type.

I also quickly discovered that I loved the smell of TCB Hair Products.

Indeed, if there was someone who had really worked to ensure my hair texture improved, it definitely had to be my mother. And although it never quite got to hers or my sister’s naturally finer textures, all the previously problematic spots had surely begun to grow out. By the time I was 10 or 11, I could boast a full head of kink, thanks to all those previous natural hair treatments that would sometimes earn me compliments.

*

Msichana hanyoangi nywele yote, A girl does not shave all of her hair, mum kept reminding me, dismayed that I had resorted to such drastic measures just because I could not afford the services of a hairdresser. I did not dare tell her that there were indeed affordable hairdressers who did most of my hostel mates’ hair and how waking up at 6am to beat the queue of clients was just not my cup of tea. I simply went along with the unaffordability of the whole hair styling exercise in Nairobi, the capital city, where everything was automatically assumed to be expensive.

And while mum had spent a significant amount of time preoccupied with the welfare of my hair, it was she who some years back, had chopped off her previous efforts on the day I was to report to boarding school for the first time. I unsuccessfully threw a fit, crying throughout the ordeal, even though mum’s reasoning was to ensure my hair maintenance would be easier while away from home. If boarding school required shaven heads, then I loathed the experience even before I first set foot in the compound.

Curiously, boarding school equally came with its own set of African hair politics and accompanying rules which I would quickly become aware of. For example, we were not allowed to plait our natural hair. There floated an unconfirmed reason for this; the hair plaits were considered untidy and especially if they were bound to not be re-done for lengthy periods.  If you maintained your natural hair at its full length, it needed to be blow dried and always tied neatly at the back with a black hair band. Styling differently communicated a lack of seriousness and interest in boys and could easily land a girl in hot soup with the school authority. Short, natural hair for girls was surprisingly considered very neat.

And if you relaxed your hair, like I quickly did with mum’s blessing, it wasn’t supposed to be visibly curly. Many were the times when I had to hide behind my taller classmates to avoid getting into trouble with how shiny and curly my relaxed hair looked in the sun at assembly. In a way, it seemed like there was a never-ending battle on what exactly was considered an ideal look for an African girl at boarding school with African hair growing out of her scalp. One I failed to make sense of until I cleared my high schooling.

Fast forward to 21, and my decision to go bald this time round, was in essence a communication of something else which I had managed to expertly hide for a while under the pretext of a don’t-care-and-I am-doing-fine attitude. This would prove to be a somewhat breaking point after years of trying to cope with my parents’ separation, and subsequent estrangement from one parent.

Unbeknown to everyone, I had been battling the worst feelings of emptiness and despair, and shaving my head clean had nothing much to do with making a bold-fashion statement. Instead, it was what I was going through inside, contending with my dad’s absence, my unpaid tuition-fee, and the fact that my hopes for a better future seemed dashed, that drove me to take it all out on that frustrating kink I possessed.

Indeed, all my life up until that point, I had enjoyed short periods of embracing that which was my God-given natural hair. The only time I had managed to fully embrace it was in my late teens, when after lengthy stints with a weave on, my natural hair would fall thickly to my shoulders, giving an illusion of length and fullness while attracting compliments to that effect. I was relaxed then, and although I had not seen my dad for about 6 years the magnitude of his absence was buffeted by friends and family.

Choosing to relocate to Nairobi from Nakuru for a second attempt at a different Uni had been fueled by a desire for that freedom that is so much craved by those who are just coming-of-age. The amazing feeling of being an adult while reveling in that fact. The allure of a more vibrant environment from the one I had grown used to, and an interest from childhood in seeing the world (hence my Uni Course pick).

But the minute I set foot in the city, as if sensing just how difficult a journey it would be, I would never again witness that amazing kink falling to my shoulders. I hated how much my hair broke and looked even when chemically relaxed and utterly frustrated by trying to maintain it when I couldn’t even afford to get it done properly most of the time. I had eventually shaved it all without a second thought, determined to maintain a bare scalp for as long as things were not going right in my life.

Unfortunately, I did not seem to have someone I could trust to openly share my deepest concerns, worries, and fear. I had no idea then that my mental health mattered and feared the judgment in a society that associated mental-related issues with the people who walked down the street in tattered, dirty clothes, mumbling to themselves. As long as mine were not visible, I figured, I could keep them to myself.

My mum’s exclamation however, would make me reconsider. It was probably out of guilt, or from the realization that this was not really how I wanted to look, that I made the decision to re-grow it. Once it was at a reasonable short length, I gave hair chemicals another chance, and relaxed my hair. I also used strawberry food color to dye it maroon. I would eventually drop out of campus, but my hair would be on a growth process the entire duration of me trying to get a degree. And while it did not always look as good as I wanted it to, I surprisingly managed to tolerate it, and nurtured it through constant braiding to its full length.

*

At 26, going Natural. I had grown particularly fascinated by Oscar Award Winning Actress of Kenyan descent, Lupita Nyong’o’s short do and naturally, I found myself gravitating towards the same. By then, a larger number of Kenyan women were steadily joining the natural hair movement, and more shops were stocking on beauty products for natural, African hair. There were even Facebook groups that strictly focused on natural hair journeys. A favorite past time for me would quickly become browsing the shelves of a shop I liked along Aga Khan Walk in Nairobi, that stocked on a wide array of the same. It was amazing to realize just how much there was to offer for what had seemingly felt unmanageable.

In turn, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter a general positivity from the one who had since transformed into my trusted barber then as well as the people I met. Perspectives were changing, and rocking a short, natural do’ was no longer associated with being straight from the village or a financial strain of sorts. Kenyan women, myself included, had finally got to that place where they were doing things that felt comfortable for their looks and not what society had since set for them to attain. It was indeed a beautiful season to be natural, and to feel catered to and embraced.

At the time, I had no idea how I would manage to pull this off given my hair texture which had stubbornly been of the kinkiest type. However, I would quickly learn that going natural meant living with that which was yours in its raw state while finding ways to ensure it suited your needs. It was a re-discovery of sorts when as if rewarding your nightly matuta-, bantu-knots making efforts your hair responded by ensuring that the comb passed through it with less difficulty. It was truly a deserved break from consistent visits to the salon, although the banter and TLC that were part and parcel of those visits were occasionally missed. It was nice to settle in on one’s own routine after a couple of trials and errors and experience natural African hair in its most rewarding state.

Whenever I look back at my natural hair journey, I notice just how calm and surprisingly, consistent it has been. I notice just how much my perspectives regarding natural, African hair have since changed. Prior to it, I would always get questions in my head whenever I encountered a woman who had “not done anything” to her hair or had chosen to get a hairdo that resembled those only associated with school girls. Nowadays, I barely get questions because of a renewed sense of appreciation for that which makes us all African. My hair has unfairly suffered the brunt of my low moments, but it has equally lifted me up in ways I least expected it would. I can only conclude that I am my hair, and my hair is me.

Header photo © William C. Crawford.

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