THE AFRO: WHAT CAN YOU DO WITH YOUR HAIR?

I was just reluctantly pulling out from the softest kiss, still relishing the sweet-tasting impression of our lips dancing together when he asked a question that snapped me out of my reverie “What can you do with your hair?”

I looked back at him as he moved off the bed to adjust the air conditioning in the room and I immediately felt the weight of the world return to my shoulders. I sighed. This question always comes up each time I’m wearing my hair without braids. Anything I want, I thought without answering.  I wanted to ask why he’s asking me this question before I  give him an answer but his answer could annoy me. So not wanting to spoil the moment, I changed the subject to something more pleasant, tea?

Yet I’ve been asked this question a million times before by all kinds of people.

Women Ask: is that your real hair? What have you done to your hair? If they are the hair stylist; why don’t you relax/blow your hair (a chemical process which makes the hair softer, straighter and easier to comb and or plait or braid/run your fingers through it) if they are “woke” or activists they don’t associate with people who do not have visible Afros or locks. Therefore if you are wearing braids/weave/wig you are dismissed as fake.

Men Ask: What can you do with your hair? Why do you wear your hair natural? Why don’t you put braids on? Why aren’t you natural? Are you going out like this? Take these things out! or if they are “woke” – why don’t you lock it?

These questions and statements are often made irrespective of the person’s race.  Despite consistent negative comments or innocent questions regarding why I wear my hair the way I do, I have chosen not to debate the issue any longer. But I have also been shocked to discover that this is the one question that has been, a silent deal breaker for me.  I know it’s the end when someone asks about my hair like it should look different. As we all know people like what they like, think what they think and sometimes any explanation to the contrary is futile.

Why should everything be a struggle? A fight. Can’t we just be? Do you like me or my hair?

So this week as I faced the mirror once again to undo the thin long braids I have been wearing since March I had to fight the urge to simply cut the braids off along with all my hair and start again. Because over the past four months my Afro-virgin hair (un-processed) had grown in and around the braid and had become so intertwined with the synthetic hair – it was like trying to separate salt from sugar.  At the end of 2012 I cut off my locks because they had also grown in between the braids and I did not have the patience to extricate the fake from the real so I cut it all off, until I was completely bald. The bald hairstyle while acceptable in South Africa, drew even more curious looks from men and women in Senegal “etes tu un moine femme?” are you a female monk? Why don’t you wear earrings? Lipstick, something? Are you a man or a woman? You look like  Mandela, another said at the supermarket. You look like me said another, a brother from another mother.

It’s different when someone close to you says it.

Since then I have committed to growing my hair and have had to resist cutting it every year which is why I often wear braids, first to allow it to grow and second so that I have something other than my hair to cut when I need a change. And with braids I don’t need a comb.

Determined to do the impossible I put on my favourite movie on repeat and tackled each braid until my hair was free of all of them and the morning sun sent light beams through my window. I went into the shower to wash and detangle it and that’s when I realized, what it is about the Afro/African hair which makes people so worked up about it. Including myself:

It clings-tight.

In its natural state African hair clings to everything. A fact which,  necessitated the pencil test in South Africa to help government officials determine which race you belonged to during Apartheid, if your skin was not a clear enough indication.  If they stuck a pencil into your hair and it stayed stuck,you were classified as  Black. And if the pencil fell easily from your hair you’d be classified as Coloured. The latter being a more desired classification as it promised a slightly better life (opportunities) to those reserved for black-Africans.

It’s not what it seems

The black spiral coils are so tight they are often deceiving, which is why one day you can comb your hair out have a huge big afro or a straight looking do  and then next moment your hair can be so short it’ll look like you’ve had a haircut, you can mold it into any shape you desire. Basically…

You can do anything you want with it.

You can make it curly, straight, short and long, you can lock it, iron it or braid it. Any hair style imaginable is possible with African hair.  The naturally tight spiral coils mean it can endure so much more, it is pliable, it can stretch so much further and can also allow for an infinite amount of diverse hairstyles. At its best it stands tall and firm.

When the winds blow, it is not moved!

I think the Afro is a wonderful metaphor for Africans too. Strong and versatile. Incubators of ideas, knowledge and mysteries. Stubborn yet soft inside. While we may look friendly and outgoing or loud we are also very private and inward looking people. Once we’ve grabbed on to an idea (good or bad) we cling-tight to it, making it grow bigger and larger for better or  for worse.

So while there is almost nothing I can’t do with my hair, I also know that not everything I do  with it is beneficial.

Either way, it is my choice to make.

THIS IS ME : A FAMILY HAIR TRADITION


This is Me:

Between my Aunt Masi’s legs. I have been nagging her all week, all day and all night to “please, please plait my hair” . She finally is now.  There’s something comforting about being trapped between her ample thighs and the sound her thin silver bangles make as she twists and turns my hair into submission with wool. I try to focus on that and on the conversation, her frequent hearty belly laughter which she seems to draw from the very core of her stomach. I enjoy the sound of her voice and the easy conversation which floats fluidly through her finger tips, I enjoy the punctuation marks she makes as she chews her gum.  I can feel her breathing and in between twists I hear the inner movements of her belly. The sweet smell of her sweat hovers over my nose. The warm rays of  sunshine pierce into each and every pore on my skin and hers. I feel hot. clammy, dizzy. I am tired of sitting in this position. My buttocks are growing cold, numb and my shoulders involuntarily  reach up to my ears in an effort to shield them from a wave of terror.  Everything is beginning to sound loud like blaring disco music, a collection of sounds gather around my ear lobes like buzzing bees to honey as she chats, laughs, and inflates her chewing gum with hot air , snapping the bubbles flat with her short razor-sharp teeth. I want it all to stop. I am regretting my decision now. I forget how sensitive my scalp is, and how roughly she  seems to de-tangle my steel wool like hair. This is as close to a nightmare  one  can get in broad day light. She calls my hair “skirrrpot” a colloquial reference to the iron scrubs used to scour burnt food from pots. That is how tough my hair can be. I can feel the pull of each strand of hair as she separates it into parts and it feels as if she’s drawing blood from a  rock hard skull, my neck sinks into my chest with each touch. This is a conundrum. I can’t even look at myself in the mirror – I don’t know how I will look, I don’t know how far she is. I am about to pee on myself. Now I truly wish I never asked. Why did I even think this would be a good idea for Masibeso to do my hair, I know how she is: tough, no toilet breaks, no going to look at the mirror. You have to sit down until she’s done with you. Then you have to cover your head until the next day. Oh my god, this is never going to end I tell myself swallowing hard to suppress an urgent pressing need to just stand up and run and never look back.  “Are you finished?” I ask sheepishly wincing from the pain and bracing myself for a sharp retort made louder by my tight grip on her legs. “Haaiman poppy man, how will I finish when you keep running away? sit tight and don’t move” She says trapping me even deeper into her triangle  with her heavy long legs“ Relax your shoulders and bend your head”. I try to imagine what my head looks like from her vantage point. “But it’s painful” I manage to say in a whimper. It’s a routine we are both familiar with  by now. I know my aunt dislikes plaiting my hair because I am afraid of a hair comb and I cry at the mere suggestion of possible physical pain. Plaiting my hair is not a walk in the park. But if I see someone’s hair done I am relentless in my pestering. “Bona! ” She finally shouts at me “It’s the last time I do your hair, how many times have you been pestering me… o batlang mara Hhe?”  She would say. I will start to cry. Because  it hurts and I know I will want her to do my hair again despite the pain and  the gnawing fear hat I had finally ruined any future possibility that she would do my hair again. She’s the best and the only one who can do hair in the family, in fact there’s a long waiting list.   But I just don’t know how to stomach the pain.  “Don’t worry, we’ll be finished just now” she says,  her voice softening, her way of silencing my now loud cries. We both know how the story ends: I will be the happiest child in the world after my hair is done.  Perhaps I will walk like I am stepping on sleeping snakes for a day or two but after that, the war waged with me between her thighs is always worth it. She too will be rewarded. I see the proud twinkle in her eye when she looks at me and says  “See how beautiful you are, cecece! “.  I think of my aunt now that I myself have grown up to be an aunt to an increasing list of nieces and nephews some of whom I am yet to meet. I may not be the best hair braider in the family but I  do work with words. So it gives me great pleasure to introduce my niece, Buhle Zulu, who is our guest blogger in the second installment of a series of hair stories.  This is her short  hair piece:

 HAIR IS HAIR by Buhle  ZuLu

Historically hair  represents different things for women across the African continent. For Ethiopians hair was worn as a crowning glory in elaborate, elegant styles when a woman was about to marry, much like the ubiquitous tiara. Ethiopian Traditional Wedding HairKenyans traditionally wore their hair in protective styles using oils and clay to style it. maasai4 Pride was the common denominator in all these hairdressing traditions; hair represented a source of pride for  women.  Morden Kenyan Masai Hair Style

 I used to like the fact that hair represents pride and is defined by some as a woman’s crown.  But after I learnt that the above was a social construct as well as a western influence my opinion changed. Hair became a political issue for me when long flowing hair and light skin became the standards by which a woman’s beauty was measured.  Relaxers and lye were introduced to deter women of colour from appreciating their natural hair textures and features.
As a child who used to get my hair  relaxed all the time, I have come to find that what ever  I do to my hair, the truth of who I am grows back underneath all the relaxed hair without fail. So I started  to accept my hair as it is. I have found that natural oils; mixing mayonnaise with eggs and using less heat has been the best way  of taking care of my hair.
The biggest challenge with maintaining natural hair has been a lack of knowledge and information. So I got a little help from the world-wide web or the internet as there was little information on ways to take care of it or  to determine which hairstyles would best suit my hair texture.  During this process I also discovered that it is possible for one person to have two or more different hair textures  :(.
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The notion that black hair is hard to manage  is  subjective and  it  does not mean that women who prefer weaves to natural hair are less African. I do however applaud those who have taken the time to acquire in-depth knowledge about the healthiest way to take care of natural hair. Maintaining natural hair is relatively cheap or affordable and can cost me up to a 150 ZAR.  The greatest triumph in my natural hair journey was watching my  hair grow towards the sky as if it was trying to be close to God. The healthier it was, the more it glowed. I keep my hair mostly natural and I also enjoy wearing it in braids.
 Buhle Zulu is reading law at the University of Cape Town, she’s also a  performing Artist and vlogger. You can follow her many hairstyles on her Facebook Profile.

#HAPPY WOMEN’S MONTH!

All Natural. Jedi Ramalapa 2014

All Natural. Jedi Ramalapa 2014

Last month my talented singer song writer sister Jenna, introduced me to Colbie Calliat. She sent me her latest song TRY, which resonated deeply with me.  The song speaks of  how women often bend over backwards  trying to achieve the perfect image; the perfect look, figure, appearance and popularity.  We think that by changing our appearance,  more people will like us ( and sometimes they do, but as a male friend of mine likes to say  it’s not  “real”).

I cried when I heard the song for the first time. It  brought with it images of my younger self trying so desperately to fit in, trying to be part of a group, trying to have friends, trying to be liked.  Trying to be “intellectual”, trying to sound sophisticated and trying to be polished, trying to be wild, trying to be loud and carefree,trying to please an imaginary crowd.  Most of the characters I chose and owned, but at the core of it, I assumed all of them because I was attempting to “fix” myself into an image of someone who people would ” like”. Until it dawned on me that it didn’t matter if the whole world loved me, what mattered  most  is if I loved myself, if I liked myself, could live alone with myself and like me once the “performance” was over.

I was inspired to create a motivational parody for women’s month –  using Colbie’s song, symbolically stripping myself of everything I wasn’t born with.  Because while it  is always wonderful and fun to try new looks,  I have observed in myself and in others  that over time we slowly begin to believe that it’s the extra hair, the make up,  the clothes, etc that makes us beautiful. We put value on accessories, costumes and fashion, on the appearance of beauty instead of spending time loving ourselves as we are (men are good at loving their natural selves). We end up feeling naked without all of these appendages.

This tendency to create an external attachment to beauty was recently  crystallized in my own life when I decided to cut off my long braids which I loved and enjoyed. I found myself having an internal struggle with myself, suddenly doubting that I could be/ find myself beautiful without them. I had received more compliments about my ” good looks” when I had long braids than at any other time with my natural hair.  I had to cut them off because I noticed that I started believing that I was beautiful because of the braids.  I found my attachment to the plastic hair  curiously disturbing, because it was not the first time I had braids, but it was the first time I had a hard time letting go of them.

I began to understand  that a head knowledge (theoretical) understanding of what self-worth and self-love is, is not the same as the actual experience of it.  i.e – I could just as easily argue that wearing braids and make-up is evidence of self-love because I am taking care of myself, making myself look nice while at the same time I could be using the same hair and make up to hide the fact that I don’t like how I look “naturally” or  without the extras. Unless we experience what loving ourselves actually means we can always hide behind theories, using them to explain why we  continue to place our worth  on external, material things.

This song helped me through that moment of insecurity, which was bizarre to me because I thought I was confident in myself i.e I am not my fake hair. I had to remember that my beauty is not without but within. I had to begin again the journey to self-love.  We spend a lot of money and time making ourselves beautiful for the world and little time loving ourselves just as we are.

Then I thought if fake hair had this effect on me after a few weeks then, many more women must be going through the same thing too ( though I do hope I’m wrong here).

In celebration of women’s month I decided to do a motivational parody  or what I call a ” selfie-performance”,  short video of my own – taking off all my  literal and metaphoric masks. Because it’s not the hair or the make up that’s in question, it is whether you can like or love yourself without it.  Hope you enjoy the video ( I didn’t expect to cry while doing it) but I am after all a woman.  The video is not edited in the spirit of “not trying too hard” and just keeping it real.

Happy Women’s Month!  Let’s love ourselves first – The rest will follow!

LOVE, YOU!

Because you’re amazing, just the way you are!