Mwanamke Nywele (1)

Writing | Maandishi

Spend enough time as a minority, and you just might start to feel like something’s not right about you. That, in being outnumbered, your very existence is somehow a flaw that needs to be amended to fit the ‘norm’. This effect is especially pronounced when the minority in question is a child with a not-yet-solidified sense of self: for me, my time at the pre-school I attended was the beginning of a fraught relationship with my hair that would span the next quarter century of my life.

It was an international school, diverse with students and teachers from across the globe, but the dominant voices in this expatriate community were seldom of those who resembled me. At that age I didn’t perceive racial difference so much through the lens of skin colour as from an angle very readily accessible to a little girl: hair. And so it troubled my four year-old self that I was the only one of my peers whose mane remained rigid during PE class. The tips of the plaits my mother lovingly made stuck upright even while I was upside down during an exercise, and I would look over at my classmates and feel like the odd one out. At least if my hair had been long, I’d think to myself…but no; there it was, short and stiff. At least if it had been braided with extensions; but no, my mother was an avid proponent of wearing one’s hair as-is. So I would beg her to style it to move when I did and she would gently explain that my hair just couldn’t do that, then appease me by weighting it with colourful beads.

This internal turmoil resurfaced over a decade later, when I once again found myself a minority in school. This time it wasn’t about my hair not swinging, but about what I interpreted to be an absence of beauty in those angsty teenage years that are a critical time in the development of one’s self esteem. I was in my home country but existing between two worlds, my international school’s microcosm so very different from the society I inhabited outside it. Those two worlds seldom mingled, and when they did cross paths I often found myself awkwardly caught in between. Fresh from a local girls’ boarding school where closely-cropped hair was part of the required uniform, I continued to wear mine short at the decree of my father who preferred that I put the inevitable hours of hairstyling towards schoolwork instead. Fair enough — but gosh, how I resented it. In my eyes, short hair was practical but not pretty because which sort of girl would willingly wear her hair that way? My classmates were cool, in the trends of the time, while there I was stuck with a plain buzz cut. So I felt ugly, every single day of high school, until graduation when my father’s mandate lifted and I went straight to the Maasai braiders and spent three days — yes, three — getting long microtwist extensions so fine they almost seemed to originate from my scalp. Only then did I begin to feel somewhat more comfortable in my own skin.

Hair 1

Maasai microtwists, freshly installed. (2009)

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when a friend texted me to ask: “How did it feel when you cut your hair?”

For context, she was referring to the afternoon I gleefully took scissors to the dreadlocks I had been cultivating since my final year of college. Over the four years that I’d been growing them, my hair had become long and thick as it tangled with itself; for once, I’d actually been happy with my hair. And then I’d gone and chopped it all off.

I replied to her: at 13 (when I went to boarding school) I detested it, and continued to for the next six years that I’d had to wear short hair; at 21 relieved, as it had become damaged by dryness; at 26, simply amazing. That last major haircut felt thus because it was a choice I made freely for myself, not by requirement or circumstantial necessity. My friend shared that she was nervous about how people would perceive her, particularly colleagues at work who were mostly Caucasian; feared that she’d look “ugly”. I used to worry likewise, and never thought I’d see the day I’d willingly choose to wear my hair short. Yet I reached a point where I asked myself, ugly according to who?  and every answer I came up with sounded silly. I missed feeling water run down my scalp in the shower. I missed being able to exercise or swim and not have my hair behave like a mop. I missed being able to just wake up and go, with minimal effort in the morning. I missed the convenience and yet there I was, persisting in my discomfort for some vague rationale. Once I realised that I’d been clinging to my hair for unhealthy reasons and that my comfort reigned supreme over imagined perception by others, I was able to let it go. I shared all this with my friend, not to coerce her but to get her to question the roots of why we relate to our hair the way we do. I hereby invite you to do likewise.


Four years in, five minutes out. (2016)

The topic of hair, its connotations, symbolism, and politics is one that cannot be justly treated in a single brief essay or even two; I have worn many styles in between the ones featured here, and each has had a story behind it. Each brought me one step closer to releasing internalised ideals of what it means to be beautiful. I used to admire the other African girls I knew with hair like mine who’d regularly shave theirs off without a care, saying ‘Oh it’ll grow back anyway…’ My reaction was always a combination of awed and aghast:
Grow back when?? What if it takes forever?! — today I’d say so what if it does?

With each snip of the scissors came part of my personal liberation, as I finally accepted my hair for how it emerged from my head. Friends, self-devaluation is pernicious; guard against it at all costs. I bless my parents for making every effort to instill within my siblings and I resistance to societal forces, but alas the world’s whispers are loud. In fact, I almost gave in yet again when I bought my first wig on a whim late last year — stay tuned for the sequel, in which I will be back to examine my foray into fake hair!

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