Hair. Ngozi’s hair.My hair.We have come a long way,and still have a long way to go.
First Stop-Sierra Leone-The Gambia-Sierra Leone-South Africa: As a baby,my hair was so unmanageable because it was really really coarse,that instead of firstly requesting for shoes and clothes,my mother would ask my father to bring back whatever “texturizers” and hair softeners he could find,whenever he travelled abroad for business.Now, whenever she recounts stories of how she would comb my hair several times a day,and it would still look “jaga-jaga“,I laugh so hard,tears run down my cheeks.What a pain it must have been for my poor mummy,having to deal with unruly hair,compounded with all the other wonderful baggage I came into this world with-completely refusing to eat,thus having to be force-fed a number of times ,being a super skinny baby,constantly crying and whining, and now-coarse,unruly”jaga-jaga” hair as part of the package.I’m sure you’re wondering “Aren’t all babies supposed to have soft hair?”.HEHE-not this one! Oh Ngozi!
I had my first encounter with the good old stretching comb at a very tender age,I can’t remember how old I was ,but apparently,it was time for the hair saviour. I remember the searing heat of the iron comb as it was pulled through my hair.I remember sitting on a stool outside the kitchen,a towel wrapped around my shoulders,dead sure that my hair was on fire,because I could actually smell burnt hair.And I remember wailing and sobbing,begging whoever was doing the stretching to please stop. However,it was “for my own good”,or to be more specific ,for my mother and my older sister to have to spend less time before church service on Sundays and before school on weekdays,ploughing through my stringy tresses, to make it at least,a bit more presentable to the world.
I started having braids installed in my hair very early too.I can remember having braids as young as five years old whilst living in The Gambia, and inevitably,that was when I fell in love with braids.I looked forward to the school holidays,when my mother would find a professional Hair Braider ,buy the synthetic hair fibre and then send me off to this person,usually a very young woman,who would part my hair into ridiculously tiny sections,and install braids into my hair,as I squirmed in pain.The end results were always amazing! The braids made me look and feel older,and for some reason ,braids with soft curls would always be bought for me,and while some curls would cascade down my neck,some would be hanging forward to hide my high forehead and make it seem less prominent. For my 10th birthday,my mother decided it was about time I got my first perm.I think she was more excited than I was! I still remember the relaxer used-Dark and Lovely Beautiful Beginnings-Super Strength. I remember how nice the cream smelt,a fruity but chemical essence, and how I wondered if I could taste it,because it looked like yoghurt ; how I watched in amazement as the hair dresser mixed the different potions together with the perming cream to create a pinkish soft mixture,the cooling sensation as she smoothed it on my hair,her comments on how “tough” my hair was and how we would probably have to buy another box of relaxing cream( I was saved from that-I have a small head),and then the creeping burning sensation as I waited for the relaxer to “set” into my hair for approximately 10-15 minutes.I think at some point I started to complain very loudly about how my hair and scalp were burning,and the irritated hair dresser washed it off before the instructed time. Anyway,in the end,according to everyone involved- hair dresser,mother and daughter,the results were satisfactory.My hair was very soft,jet black with a purplish tint,and for about a week,a fruity smell emanated from my hair because of the relaxer,and that’s when I realized,at the tender age of 10,that relaxers might be the answer to my “hair problem” .
I used relaxers religiously almost all through my teenage years,before shocker of shockers,I cut of all my hair when I was 18.Of course I did it when I was at boarding school in African Leadership Academy,all the way in Johannesburg,South Africa,3000 miles away from my mother,as I don’t think I would have even A)thought of it to begin with or B) had the courage to go through with it even if I had thought about it ,if I had been in Sierra Leone.I’m not sure why I did ,it to be honest,but I think it was because at some point I stopped “re-touching” my hair,and it started to fall off,since my hair,when relaxed, is very delicate.So I had extremely short hair,almost bald,and then the insecurity hit.I hated it.I tried all sorts of hairstyles to boost my self-esteem,a self-esteem that had always been very fragile and sometimes non-existent in the first place.But I knew that I wanted my hair to grow,I really wanted it to be healthy and luxurious,like the ones I had seen in magazines.I tried having the little hair I had left on my head into Afros,afro puffs,then I became bored and just kept it in braids again.
Next stop-the United States of America: I don’t think I have ever been more AWARE of my hair and my hairstyles till I came to the United States.In Sierra Leone,and I am sure in many other West African countries,it is common to have braids,weaves and wigs installed as often as a woman can and wants to,regardless of her class,or income level. During my high school days in Sierra Leone,I would have my hair done in intricate braids or twists or cornrows and they would last for two weeks,and I would get them redone again for another two weeks,usually for less that $2.I had only put in weaves twice,before I decided I didn’t like them because they just seemed to make my scalp itch so I would usually remove the installments within two to three weeks . So,my point is,I was used to changing my hairstyles a lot,and I was never aware of how often I changed my braids or how often I would have in other hair attachments. For me,hairstyles were just hairstyles,like manicure,or pedicure,or an eyebrow wax-they were meant to enhance a girl’s beauty.Of course girls who wore brazilian high quality weaves or Virgin hair weaves or Remi weaves were thought to be wealthier than us average chicks,or had wealthy boyfriends or husbands, but it was never an issue of how often you changed your hairstyle,or whether it was really your hair or not.I guess that hair story for me changed in August 2011.I had my braids in Expression synthetic Kanekalon Hair with different colors-maroon,brown ,black and blonde,and they really looked beautiful! So there I was with my braids on campus and for the first two months,my hair had a lot of admirers and everyone said how beautiful my hair was.And then I got bored and decided to remove those braids and install something else.When I initially removed the braids and had my hair out,I remember a few people on campus asking me “Did you cut your hair?” .Now imagine me,fresh from the continent,right in the middle of Ohio,and suddenly realizing that quite a number of people thought that the braids were actually my hair! Of course I was bewildered,not to mention thoroughly amused.
My second set of braids were very curly and soft and looked like natural afro textured -hair,maybe 3b or 3c type ,but my hair was relaxed at the time(yeah ,I had gotten cold feet and relaxed my hair again during my gap year in Sierra Leone),and looked nothing like the braids I had. Amusingly enough, quite a number of people still assumed it was my hair,and when I changed my hairstyle the third time-people were MORE confused.To be honest,I was also in deep confusion as well.
Firstly,I did not change my hairstyle as often as I usually would in Sierra Leone,because it is dead expensive here.I dint even dream of going to hair salons to get my hair done for$150- $200 and I initially had to pay $80 to have my hair done on campus,and as I didn’t have a campus job at the time,$80 for new braids was hard to come by.I later had to learn how to do my own braids through youtube videos . So,I didn’t comprehend why people though I changed my hair “too”often,because to me,the rapidity of my hairstyling had actually slowed down significantly.
Secondly,I was shocked at how little information and knowledge there was about afro textured hair or hairstyles.It was so hard to explain the concept of braids,and when I explained,I would sometimes get the question of ” but why?”, “Why do you want to add more hair to your own hair?” And trust me,a logical ,detailed explanation was demanded.I couldn’t get why hairstyles that quite obviously could not be my hair,would be assumed to actually be my hair that had either grown at an alarming rate,or I had cut to a ridiculously short length .
I cut my hair again in April 2012, because relaxers were just not working for me,my hair(my actual hair 🙂 ) was falling off again. A close friend of mine who , saw me with a very short ‘fro the next day and said ” Welcome to the sisterhood”.Typically confused Ngozi had no idea what the “sisterhood” was till I started searching youtube videos and realized that there was actually a “natural hair movement”, and this started with either the “big chop” , or “transitioning”.So by having my Afro out,I was supposed to be sending out a message that I did not feel inferior about my natural hair.The problem was,I had never felt inferior about it.Yes it was really coarse when I was a child and I had to put relaxers in it very early and I had cut it and styled it and what not,but I had never “hated” my hair in its natural state. I was intrigued by it,would relax it often,cut it when relaxers started damaging it ,tried to make it grow,but my hair itself was never a big deal or a larger conversation,it was just hair. The reason why I was constantly keeping my hair in braids was because,I just liked changing up hairstyles,I liked the different features that braids and wigs gave me,I LOVED FAKE HAIR,both “natural” and synthetic and I still do!
At some point ,I started to feel slightly uncomfortable and apprehensive whenever I changed my hairstyle because I had already played out the comments in my head :” Did you cut your hair?” “wow,your hair grew so fast”,” how often do you wash it”,or the all time prize winner “…is it REALLY your hair?”.Of course these comments are sometimes made in good faith and usually out of admiration for the hairstyle ,and the questions are asked out of confusion and innocent curiosity.Sometimes, I would say “yes,it’s my hair”,or “no,I have an attachment installed”,depending on my mood, and what side of the bed I got up on that morning. And to learn that people felt “cheated”,or “deceived” when they realized that it wasn’t really my hair,made me all the more confused because the braids ,weaves and wigs are never meant to “deceive” people.For me,hair installments are just hairstyles,that is all.
Unintentionally,my hairstyles have become one of my outstanding features on campus. And I don’t mind it,I actually like the attention,I relish it,even though it can be a tad bit irritating at times. I just removed the vivid red twists I installed back home during the summer(that a few people thought was my actual hair too) and now I have my natural hair out now,but there is an afro puff attachment to it.Not because I “hate” my natural afro puff,but if I can get a bigger attachment to it,why not? I might change my hairstyle next week,tomorrow,in the next two hours,next month,two months from now,I can grow dreadlocks,or go bald,but I have come to realize as an adult, that I can do whatever I feel like doing to it ,within my means, regardless of wherever in the world I am. It’s my hair,it grows out of my head and I can keep it in weaves, wigs or braids if I want,or let it out to breathe in a ‘fro. It’s just hair,JUSt my hair.
Hair ,whether intentional or unintentional can be statement,depending on what part of the world you live in.Whenever I go back home and have my ‘fro out,the main question is “so what next are you planning to do with your hair?” The assumption is that hair cannot be constant,hair styles are changing,its fashion.In the States,having my ‘fro out might be interpreted as me joining the “natural hair movement” because I am trying to prove that I don’t think my hair is inferior,or having dreads or twists might mean that I am “soulful” ,or as Adichie says in the video below ,an “artist”.In one part of the globe,hair is a fashion conversation,in another part,it reflects the relationship between members of a society.And yet,its still hair.Just hair.