IMG_5088This month’s series of  hair stories from African women was inspired by  the story of  the courageous  57-year-old Isis Brantley  who fought and won a 20 year battle with the government of Texas (USA) to allow her to braid African natural hair for commercial gain. This incredible story made me curious about natural hair struggles in South Africa where the hair industry  is valued at approximately 9 Billion ZAR according to 2010/2011 figures. In the past couple of years there have been numerous reports of a decline in sales for chemical relaxers for African hair as more  African women choose to  go natural. But the hair industry still remains lucrative as most African women on average  prefer straightened hair  and hair extensions (braids and weaves) to their naturally coiled hair.  I asked a few women  in my life to share their  natural hair stories  and the challenges they face maintaining it. In this week’s installment former colleague and friend, writer  Zukiswa Zimela  shares her journey from chemically processed hair to natural hair. She says:
When I stopped using chemical hair relaxer to straighten my hair fourteen years ago it had  nothing to do with taking care of it or making a political statement. It had more to do with feeling the pain. The caustic “creamy crack” as it is sometimes called, is dangerous and painful. Sometimes, following a session in the hairdresser’s chair I would end up with weeping sores on my head, all because I wanted to make my hair more “manageable”.
Back then, I was still at boarding school and didn’t have the time or the knowledge on how to nurture my very tight curls and so I spent  years alternating between braided styles.
It was only after I graduated from university in 2010 that I found an online  community dedicated to the care of natural ethnic hair that I realized that although I had an Afro,  I wasn’t taking care of it properly.
The movement for natural hair had begun before I was aware but when I found out about it I was hooked. Women, whose hair was just as kinky as mine were sharing tips on how to retain moisture, keep length and style our hair.
I went out to bought all the natural products they recommended. From virgin coconut oil, honey, cider vinegar to other oils like Jojoba and sandalwood. I learnt terms like co-washing, porosity  (your hair’s ability to absorb moisture)and protective styling (braids, twists, plaits).
In 2012 I cut my damaged hair and decided to take better care of it.   As it grew, I made sure that I stopped using combs, which would break my fragile strands, and finger de-tangled  it instead. I found that companies were beginning to make products that did not have sulphates, which strips the hair of its  natural mineral oils which coat the strands with grease without allowing any moisture to penetrate.
I washed my hair twice  a month, because I am not athletic and don’t have a lot of sweat build up. I decided that this was enough. Armed with my different oils and conditioners I would dedicate at least three hours to wash day. I used a sulphate free de-tangling solution to get rid of the knots, followed by a gentle shampoo and conditioning. I would then clarify the hair with an organic apple cider vinegar and water solution to get rid of any product build up. Following that I used a hair mask to replenish any moisture that I had lost, then I applied a vial of sheep placenta.
At this point I would be exhausted but there were still some steps to get through. After gently drying my hair with an old cotton t-shirt I would oil it a mineral and paraben free moisturizer then  seal it with grape seed oil before twisting it into locks to dry.
The result of all this hard labour is soft, long and healthy looking hair that I can style without using any heat, which is very damaging to my hair.
A month ago I decided to cut my hair again. I had been going through a particularly difficult time emotionally and didn’t have time to lavish on my hair. I decided that short hair can take a little bit more abuse.
Natural hair has since become political. People think that I am making a statement with my virgin coils and I guess to an extent I am. I want women to feel like they are as beautiful with the hair that’s growing out of their heads as they would be with lye straightened locks.
It’s affirming to know that you are not less than, when you decide to go natural. None of your worth is diminished by choosing to honour your hair in its natural state. The gains are immeasurable. Besides the fact that you are not harming your scalp, it’s also a prevention of potential health problems as some research into this area show that chemical relaxers can have a negative impact on our reproductive health.
There are days when I wish it wasn’t so labour intensive to care for my hair, but often this is the only time I have in my busy life to focus on myself and to nurture and care for a part of me. I have found that it is well worth it.
Zukiswa Zimela is a multimedia journalist for Business Day. She is also a blogger and entrepreneur.  You can read more of her words, on her blog Dear Darling.



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