Hair Politics

It is official. The sun has been joyfully shining on us for the past few weeks, marking the end of the rainy season. Couples are tying the knot, and outdoor events are taking off.

As farmers rejoiced in the rainy season – the rain feeding their lands – the city folks have been depressed with dark skies and wet streets. I, like many of my fellow city dwellers, was happy at the passing of the gloomy skies and muddy roads.

And as a side note, can someone please explain to me what calendar the capital’s urban planners use when they decide to plough streets and roads in the rainy season?

Back to my point, though, where the shining sun, blooming flowers and urbanites’ noise have nonetheless left me missing certain things about the rain.

I will miss natural hair. It was amazing to see so many women in braids and frizzy-haired heads roam the city.

There is an underlying politics of African hair in the world. At times it is an outright cold war waged against embracing our naturally curly and frizzy hair. From personal experience, I can testify natural hair can be very challenging.

As inhabitants of a nation that has never been colonised, we do not see the world through the eyes of our skin. Many in the beauty industry are making millions by creating insecurities for women. And the standard for women and their hair are few, most of which are not found naturally in Africans.

Many with African hair complain that it is just not manageable. Some even go as far as saying curly hair is not professional. The truth is that these are lies. And an institution or company that doggedly sticks to this view is attacking our race. Conforming to euro-centric beauty standards is not modernity. One does not look better than another based on the lightness of his skin or the harshness of coarse hair.

Embracing our features as we are is becoming an extraordinary act, it seems, when in truth, as a proud and long-independent nation, our focus must have been inward looking all along.

Personally, I can testify to the phenomenon. A few years ago, I had a standing appointment at the hair salon to straighten out my hair, making it “easier” for the coming week. I had work colleagues who had never seen me without my usual straight hair.

But then I found myself in a situation where I could not straighten it. I was terrified of facing my natural hair. But after a few months of learning and unlearning all I have known, I was happy to find that my hair was as unique and untamable as the African soul. I felt reconnected with an identity I had long put aside.

Some would be eager to argue that those with “nice” hair can afford to look natural while others cannot while facts testify otherwise. We need to build bridges with our true identity. We need to see our skin and hair as it is and love, accept and pamper it.

Our euro-centric fixation has gradually allowed whitening creams on to the shelves of our cosmetic shops. We have long stood and said fairer skin is best, while the best is the one we possess. Whether that skin is light or dark, it is yours, and that makes it the best.

Seventy-seven percent of women in Nigeria use bleaching products, followed by Togo with 59pc and South Africa with 35pc, according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) report of four years ago. In countries dealing with a new post-colonial era, there is a thriving pro-fair skin market profiting on the back of historical servitude. Even though times have changed, the beauty industry makes money off the beauty standards set in colonial times and reinforced today, subliminally or otherwise. As Africa’s population grows, the potential market for skin bleaching and hair altering products grows alongside it.

But we were never colonised by Europeans; thus we should not let our guards down now. We need to challenge any narrative that tells us our appearance needs to be supplemented with chemicals. We must not confuse modernity with the euro-centric tenets of physical appearance, lifestyle or anything in between.

I do straighten my hair approximately twice a year, just for a change of pace. But my signature look is my heavy natural curls. I have found the appearance that best suits me, just as others keep their curls short, braided or afro, as a staple look. While one must not judge a book by its cover, the cover also in some ways is a representation of the book. I am not about policing women’s bodies because as adults we are free to make those decisions.

But as adults, it is also essential to stop and reflect why we make the decisions we make. We should check-in with ourselves before we choose what society has prescribed for us.

Bob Marley said it best: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.”

By Hanna Haile
Hanna Haile ( is an Ethiopian writer, researcher and social worker who uses her writing to promote social and gender equality, identity and women’s rights. She is one of the organisers of Poetic Saturday at Fendika Cultural Centre where she performs spoken word poetry every first Saturday of the month.

Published on Nov 25,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 917]



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