“Your hair is so beautiful; can you make mine like yours?” said the little Tibetan girl
In 2017, I was in Dharamshala, India with 27 other youth peacebuilders from some of the most conflict-ridden countries in the world for the “Youth Leaders Exchange with His Holiness the Dalai Lama”, a program by United States Institute of Peace . Dharamshala since 1960 has become home for Tibetans who followed the Dalai Lama after he went to exile after the 1959 Tibetan Uprising.
Our hotel was strategically located near a small shopping center so we took walks whenever we had some time to. It seemed to me that this area rarely saw black people come around, my braided hair was a conversation starter for some. People stared at me in what felt like amusement to me, a few courageous ones would walk up to me and say “you are beautiful, where are you from?”. I will admit, the staring was uncomfortable sometimes, but I never felt any hate, the stare wasn’t threatening, what I felt was rather curiosity. When we visited the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) School, the fascination on those little girls’ faces was just so beautiful to watch. “Your hair is so beautiful; can you make mine like yours?” said one little Tibetan girl
When I was younger, like many other things I never paid much attention to, hair was one of those. I spent most of my childhood between Yambio and Yei in the Southern part of the then Sudan. It was during the Sudan civil war and those where Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA) control areas, there were bigger things to worry about. It was when my family moved to Uganda where I started high school that I started noticing hair dynamics. In Uganda, it was more intentional, it wasn’t just about keeping your hair short but it was a particular kind of short, anything beyond that length was punishable.
I never made any connection with my natural hair growing up because it was constantly shaved off as soon as it grew
Extremely short hair for all girls with the kinky kind of African hair in most schools has become an unquestionable norm in most schools across Uganda. The first high school I joined had one white girl who was allowed to keep her hair. That was the same narrative with other schools we interacted with. While girls with kinky African hair were monitored and harassed to constantly shave their hair, white and mixed-race or girls of color were allowed to keep their long natural hair.
I never made any connection with my natural hair growing up because it was constantly shaved off as soon as it grew. At home, in the neighborhood and everywhere I went, all I saw were women wearing all kinds of weaves, braided hair and very few with their hair in its natural form or had dreadlocks. Those that wore their own hair had it relaxed. So when I had opportunities to do my hair especially during those slightly longer school holidays like Christmas, I would relax my short hair, braid or wear a weave.
Throughout my university I visited salons to remove a weave and put one right back even when I realised it was damaging my hairline
When I finished high school, one of the things I was most excited about was the fact that I would finally get to grow my own hair. The sad reality is, I was excited to freely grow it hidden in braids, relaxed or under weaves. Throughout my university I visited salons to remove a weave and put one right back even when I realised it was damaging my hairline. I graduated from “synthetic weaves to “natural weaves” even when it felt nothing naturally relatable to my natural hair. I spent a lot of my student upkeep trying to keep up with these “natural weaves” trends because it wasn’t just about wearing a weave, the kind of weave you wore articulated your “status and stylishness”.
For the longest time, I never embraced my own natural hair, it never felt good enough, it felt untidy and too burdensome in its natural form. There are unspoken standards of the quality of “admirable” natural kinky African hair one can wear proudly; it has to be of a certain texture, volume and color that I felt mine didn’t meet.
In 2015, I decided to cut my hair. I cut my hair because I was tired of weaves, my hairline was really getting damaged and keeping up with fancy weaves was just starting to feel like such an unnecessary expense. But even when I cut my hair, I didn’t leave it in its natural form, I relaxed and colored it, so I still frequented the salon to maintain it including braiding it here and there for two years. It wasn’t any less burdensome and neither was it cheaper either but I still committed to it. Those two years unconsciously made me slowly realize that there was actually nothing wrong with my hair, I started falling in love with my own hair. It was only then that I started seeing how beautiful my hair actually is. “I do have beautiful hair”, I started convincing myself in the mirror.
By the end of 2017, I had stopped relaxing the growing hair to match the already relaxed part so my natural hair, “growth” they refer to it in salons was now visible. When my growing natural hair was long enough for me to trim the relaxed hair on top, I started braiding it more and more. In April 2018 when it felt long enough, I locked my hair. That was the best decision I ever made. For the first time, I felt like I became my true self, I felt free.