Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

My Daughter’s Initiation Into African Hair Braiding


Just before the New Year, my brother spotted my car in the parking of our local shopping centre. He called to find out where I was and as I was at the hairdressers, he popped in to say hello. My daughter (aged 3 years and 8 months) was sat perched on a couple of cushions in the seat next to mine. She had already been sitting perfectly still for over an hour. My brother exclaimed, “What, no portable dvd for her to watch?” I shook my head. To be honest the thought had not even crossed my mind. When we were growing up, I didn’t have such options. It was an initiation, a rite of passage, to learn how to sit that long (as one got older up to eight hours) to get your hair braided. It was simply what we did. You didn’t question it or even think about it too much, it meant you were now a big girl.


It was also one of the few things that even as a young child you had total autonomy over. You would be presented with a photo album of hair styles and you would get to chose exactly what you wanted your hair to look like. Hairstyles have always had the most wonderful names too. My daughter wanted double strand twists. She liked these because she can shake her head and her hair bounces around and when the ends get wet, the twists terminate in the most gorgeous curls. As I chatted with my brother, I was reminded of my daughter’s birth.


My daughter was born looking completely like her father and nothing at all like me. That is to say she was pink with blue eyes (that lasted 48 hours before her eyes turned brown). In fact, their baby photos are identical. There is a wonderful photo her father took of us looking at each other experiencing the “intimate stranger” moment shortly after her birth—our skin contrasting and our wonder equal. So this is who the other we know so well but had not yet met is.


Thankfully, my daughter knew what to do and latched on with no problems. As I watched her feeding amongst the rush of feelings that new mothers have, there was one thing bothering me. I didn’t care what hue her skin took or whatever enchanting shade her eyes turned but what if she inherited her father’s hair? What would I do then? Again it wasn’t the colour that was the issue. I’d often joked with my friends that I would love her to have a ginger afro. It was all about texture. Should it turn out to be straight or without a single kink, I would be at a total loss.


African hair is extremely versatile. Before settling on the dreadlocks that I have worn for the last eight years, I have had my hair every which way you can imagine. Natural, braided, weaved, super weaved, permed, relaxed, blown out, totally shaved (or with patterns designed onto my exposed scalp) and with every possible shade of colour in the range of copper to burgundy red. Hair is also a central part of African culture whether on the continent or elsewhere in the world where people of African origin are found. Names of good hairdressers are exchanged like gold dust. Women (and men to some degree) will literally drive miles (sometimes across countries in the case of Africans in Europe) to get their hair done well.


The hairdresser you go to becomes a part of your life. My daughter’s first experience at the hairdressers was actually in London at the salon where I started my dreadlocks. I had promised the owner that would be the case. We were visiting the UK and my daughter was just a few months past her third birthday. Up until that point, we had only done her hair at home in the trademark matutas (small plaits) that are customary for a child her age in Kenya.


I was a bit nervous that she wasn’t ready to start sitting but she had been asking me for months to have her hair done like me “at a hairdressers.” I had prepared her as much as I could but we had no idea how the day would turn out. We were all amazed. She loved having her hair washed and blow dried and sat perfectly still for the hour and a half it took to get her hair twisted. Gazing into the mirror, she sat mesmerised as she watched the quick hand movements of the woman doing her hair. We didn’t need to exchange any words; I knew exactly how she felt. There is nothing like watching the transformation of your hair and consequently face. One of the other women getting their hair done asked, “Is it her first time?” The owner of the salon answered for me as I nodded and smiled. “And doesn’t she sit so well.”


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JC Niala is a mother, writer and creative who enjoys exploring the differences that thankfully still exist between various cultures around the world. She was born in Kenya and grew up in Kenya, Cote d'Ivoire and the UK. She has worked and lived on three continents and has visited at least one new country every year since she was 12 years old. Her favorite travel companions are her mother and daughter whose stories and interest in others bring her to engage with the world in ways she would have never imagined. She is the author of Beyond Motherhood: A guide to being a great working mother while living your dream.

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