When Rita Kamau was born on the 17th of December 2001 to a sea of eager female eyes (some old, most middle-aged, a few under the age of ten), she was a soft caramel colour and almost completely bald.
‘All babies come out that way. She’ll grow hair eventually.’ The nurse told her mother, Susan.
Susan had undergone eight hours of labour, asked, sorry, demanded more pain meds every thirty minutes but refused the epidural because she’s heard horror stories about women who became paralyzed for life after the spinal injection. She had not gone through that, and more—the father was not in the room, in fact, nobody knew where he was that late afternoon in Nairobi—for this shit.
‘Only one person is allowed in the delivery room.’ The Doctor told Susan, suspiciously eyeing the seven or eight women clad in celebratory African dress, each of whom, it seemed to him, expected to be in the passenger seat on this delivery journey. He’d been doing this work for over twenty years and believed the hospital rule that permitted only one other person in the delivery room was there for good reason. He preferred when it was a spouse, typically a husband who didn’t want anything to do with the actual delivery and abided by his role of supporter, hand holder and pain reliever, taking courageously the tight, nail pinching grips and slaps of their heroic, but suffering, birth-giving partners.
But today, there was no spouse, no father, no man here with Susan (which, in Nairobi, was not uncommon). There was a group of largely overweight women, most of whom he could tell had already had children because of the breadth in their hips, the wrinkles on their foreheads or the little girls attached to them by hand.
‘One of you can come in. No more than one. It’s hospital policy.’ He said.
The doctor was smart enough to avoid eye contact with Susan and her posse. Susan was already gasping for air and he methodically put his tools in order, leaving the women at the delivery room door to argue amongst themselves about who would be in the room for the birth of the baby girl. Susan squealed when she saw him place a scalpel shaped object on the metal plate at the foot of the bed.
‘I want Gina. Bring Gina in.’ Susan said.
Halfway through labour, Susan was asking for death. She said she would rather die than have this child who was causing her body so much pain. She told Gina, her best friend who she had prioritized over her own mother and sisters and cousins outside, that should she not survive the birth she should be the child’s guardian and name her Rita.
Gina was relieved when she looked over at the doctor who slightly rolled his eyes and gently patted his palms in the air and gave a reassuring shake of the head. Susan was being dramatic, as always. She wasn’t going to die and was just experiencing the life-draining agony of releasing a whole other being into this devastating world. Gina herself knew, having had two daughters already.
‘Everything will be fine Suzie.’ Gina said. ‘Just think about how beautiful her hair will be.’
When the bundle finally arrived, amidst a final, bellowing gust from Susan, Gina excitedly and prematurely opened the delivery room door where outside the six other women and three youngsters were still standing, as energetic as they’d been eight hours ago when Susan first went into labour. She’s here! The baby girl is here!
The doctor was hardly prepared for the stampede but he had tired, not so much because of the long hours, he was used to that, but because Susan had been one of the more gratingly melodramatic patients he’d had in his tenure as an OBGYN and he’d seen a lot of Kenyan women in his time, and a good number of Nigerian women too.
Gina was the only non-relative in the room, and you could tell this because she was the only one who needed to wear a wig to cover her head. It was really a shame, Susan had always said about her best friends’ pitiful flattened and thinned hair. Might as well call them strands.
Susan, on the other hand, was blessed by God (not the white one, but the woman of colour goddess with thick hips, full lips and ‘fro the size of the Amazon). Susan had grown up with hair that flowed halfway down her back, with shrinkage. She never needed a flat iron for her Number 2 coloured (that is, the darkest black) bush of hair for extra extension. In fact, she had to cut her hair almost monthly because it was growing faster than the Indian girls’ at school.
It was her superpower, the one thing she could flaunt over the girls who were naturally prettier (lighter), and smarter (that is, tried harder) than her. Some days she would do flat twists into two or four long thick cornrows for a neater, sultry look (no piece necessary), other times she would do a soft twist overnight after a deep condition that would leave her hair springy without too much coil for at least a week. Boys in class would complain that they couldn’t see the board when she sat in front of them and she would say there was nothing she could do about it, she was just naturally blessed by a higher Black Girl Magic power.
When she reached an age where taking up with the other sex was all right, she always checked for the genealogy of hair amongst the boy’s mother and sisters (if he had any). Sometimes she’d be as diligent as corroborating with his grandmothers and cousins. She didn’t expect any of them to have the hair she and her sisters had. The only explanation for their hair was that it was a mutation, a special miracle in their genes that could not be expected to exist in other purely bred Africans. She just wanted to make sure there wasn’t anything to be too concerned about. Like fragile edges or exceptionally procrastinated growth. Oh, and patchy roots.
If there was a boy whom she liked and his DNA was not to her standard, she still dabbled, just with extra protection and the clarity that there would be no long term future between them. No marriage.
It’s why she never took up with Gina’s brother even if he truly loved her and was fresh to death. Instead, she picked Jackson, whose mother, at eighty-five years old, still had edges that she could gel.
The other women who had come to witness the birth of Rita were similarly endowed, although not quite like Susan. These were the Kamau women, a family from an elite tribe and class in Nairobi, who were known more for their hair than for the magnanimous inheritances they’d each managed to squander.
What’s a little bit of cash when you’ve got locks that 99% of black women IN THE WORLD would die for?
There was the grandmother, Shiku, eighty-nine now with type 4A Kinky curls, which were originally deep black but were now greying although not thinning. She didn’t have long hair anymore but she had a neatly trimmed bush that was as healthy as Karura Forest back in her days.
Shiku’s three other daughters: Kathleen (type 4A as well, colour 2B, 40cm when straightened with only 10cm of shrinkage upon contact with water); Alice (type 4C curls, colour 4C, length 25cm straightened AND shrunken); and Janine (the only one with type 4B curls, although currently not visible under the twisted tresses, with an extension only for the addition of a hazelnut colour at the tips) were always whispered on the lips of women (and men) at church parties and events used to celebrate The Dictator. In fact, in one of his speeches, a last ditch attempt to preserve the single-party rule, he made a reference to the sisters, saying that Kenya’s economic growth was as steady as that of the Kamau Sisters’ hair. Shiku is still proud of this speech and tells anyone who visits that they alone were responsible for The Dictator’s re-election.
And then there were the cousins, the pair of twins, still at the University of Nairobi, who both kept their hair in faux locs during the school term and let their ‘fros out for the holidays. They had both just finished exams and celebrated with matching blowouts: straight, down the middle of their backs but with volume that made them look Middle Eastern or Somali. They were also yellow-yellow because their mother had married a white man.
The three little ones were also blessed, if not more blessed than the adults, and their manes were exhibiting the potential to surpass even Susan’s. These days, YouTube could teach all sorts of things the older generations would have never realized without risky experimentation that was typically self-sabotaging. The youngins never went to school before a toothbrush had been laid to their edges and were never without a bow-tied headband, pink or yellow or Kente.
For a family with such a glorious benediction above their heads, it was a wonder if not a mortifying curiosity to see that Susan’s newborn baby, who was actually very cute with pink cheeks and hollow black eyes, was completely bald. The nurse’s words that this was normal was no comfort to a cohort of women who had each waltzed out of the womb with coconut oil, enriched scalps and a full head of hair.
It seemed that even if Susan’s baby would eventually grow hair, it would be nothing like the splendid, dictator-compliment-worthy hair of the Kamau sisters and their offspring. Perhaps it was a ghastly realization on the surface (everyone, except Gina, although even she was a little perturbed, gasped at the sight of baby Rita’s bald head) but it surely inspired a hint of joy (nothing too malicious, just the little heartful glimmer that happens when the human conscious senses Karma) in the sisters who had always felt inferior to their forever-fro-flaunting younger sister. She was going to have a baby with her like Gina’s! A few strands at best that she’d forever have to cover in head wraps, braids or, if she’s lucky, crotched beneath a well harvested Indian Hair weave.
The Dictator heard news of a new Kamau girl. It didn’t take long for the whispers to travel from the hospital nurses to the hospital security guards, to the drivers that lingered outside, to the local police, to the temporary bodyguards that worked on a casual basis for different members of parliament, to the permanent bodyguards that worked at State House and up the ladder from there until it reached the main office.
The Dictator wasn’t doing much that day. He’d arrived the afternoon before from a long trip around the world, visiting countries in every continent except Australia. When he landed, in his press conference on the steps of the plane, he said: ‘Watu weusi wanachukiwa kila mahali ulimwenguni’. Black people are hated everywhere in the world. He didn’t say anything else in the conference and since then had been sitting in his office, pondering. No meetings, no visitors, he just wanted to sit. Not normal behaviour for a man who had spent almost every day of his so far twenty-something year long presidency craving the fawning company of others.
When his head of security walked in with a message, he spat at him and asked him to leave his office but, undeterred, the man said: ‘Your excellency, the youngest Kamau daughter has delivered a new baby girl.’ The Dictator smiled for the first time since he came back from who knows where exactly.
The Kamau Sisters, led by their mother Shiku, dressed in their most formal African gowns. They matched their colours, choosing red and black for patriotism but varied their styling. It had been a while since The Dictator had called them for a visit, and Shiku, to be frank, was starting to worry that they were no longer useful to him.
‘You didn’t tell me that you had been blessed with a new girl! How many weeks has it been?’ He asked over the phone.
‘Only twelve weeks. We know you are very busy, your excellency.’
‘Oh do not be ridiculous. There is always time for my girls! Please, you must come and visit. Bring the baby.’ He said and hung up.
And while Shiku was happy to know that The Dictator had not forgotten them, and a visit to State House would renew her bragging rights that had just about expired, she couldn’t help but feel skittish, sick and absolutely scared that this visit would not be like the ones they usually had. What would he say when he saw Rita, the bald baby? He wasn’t a fully evil man. He would surely understand that sometimes babies just didn’t have hair at birth and that, given the strength of their genes, she would grow a shock of hair that would, surely, see him in office for another term.
But Susan did not see it that way. Even if Rita’s head was making progress, it was not dictator-ready and she could not withstand the humiliation. She cried in her pillow the whole night and swore to her mother that she would rather die than make the visit the next morning. She was going to chain herself to her bed and swallow the key.
‘Susan, we are wearing the red-and-black dresses that Kinuthia made for us. Be ready at ten and we will pick you up.’ Shiku said, sternly but empathetically.
At ten the next morning, despite Susan’s proclamations of dying before making the visit, she and Rita were prompt and dressed, waiting outside their gate for Shiku’s pick up. She had tied Rita’s few strands with a flag of Kenya bow tie.
It wasn’t so much that Susan was going against her word, or that she was feeling any better than the night before. It was just a known thing between Shiku, Susan, her sisters, and pretty much the rest of the country.
When The Dictator says come, the only thing to say is, how fast?
The Dictator didn’t kill them, or any of the messengers. He thought about it, but didn’t. What would be the point of it? Everything was coming to an end anyway.
But the disappointment on The Dictator’s face was palpable and felt worse than death. She wished he would get angry, like Jackson her ex-husband would, or say anything at all. But from the moment The Dictator set eyes on the baby, his face was sullen and he went quiet. Shiku tried to distract him with her own hair, with her daughters’ hair, but the man slumped back into his chair and shooed them away with the flick of a wrist. The meeting lasted less than fifteen minutes. Susan was not feeling Black Girl Magic at all and the Kamau sister’s made it worse when they refused to associate themselves with her after The Dictator lost the re-election.
Gina kept telling Susan that many other factors had made him lose. The human rights abuse, the poor economy, the corruption, the international outcry for democracy. But Susan could not be consoled. From that day on Susan took shit seriously.
She started applying all combinations of coconut oil, Shea butter, jojoba, 100% Jamaican Castor Oil and T444Z. She had a morning routine, a lunchtime routine and an evening routine; Rita was the only baby to be seen going to bed with black sheer stockings wrapped around her little head protecting the little pouch of hair that was, to Susan’s great satisfaction, growing healthily in the centre of her head, always adorned with a colourful bow and dangling ornament, like the hand-carved wooden giraffe that Susan took off a keychain she bought at Maasai Market.
By the time Rita was three years old, she had a fro the size of an adequate sand castle atop her round, puffy face that made her the most ogled child in plush suburbs of Nairobi, namely Lavington. Susan’s sisters also started making a comeback when they heard the rumours. ‘Have you seen baby Rita’s hair? She’s like a whole simba now!’ One of her sister’s told Gina.
They came back because of the tingling fear that one day Rita’s hair would surpass theirs. And because, after all, they were family and seeing Rita’s now heavenly head of hair, reminded them of that. In fact, all the sisters even employed Susan’s hair routine for Rita on their own heads. It is amazing how hair could bring people together.
Gina was amazed at her best friend’s efforts. She too saw an improvement in her own hair, having taken Susan’s advice to watch YouTube videos for natural hair preservation and committing to applying jojoba oil at least once a day.
‘Imagine if you put the same effort into your work as you did into Rita’s hair Suze. You’d be a boss by now.’ Gina said to Susan.
Susan kept diligently separating into quarters and then oiling Rita’s scalp, whose daily head massages had made her the most peaceful baby alive. Not a peep from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
‘Make sure you sleep with your head net on Gina, your corners are starting to look scarce again.’
By the time Rita was eighteen, her hair was more effervescent than Susan’s had been at that age. She’d cultivated a cult following on Instagram with a page called Natural Spirit that was earning her more money per month than her mother earned (not inherited) per year.
Every morning, Susan would wake up and tend to her daughter’s hair before school and feel fulfilled, as if she’d achieved her life’s purpose, even before it was eight in the morning. When it was time for Rita to think about college, she said: ‘I want to go to college in Berlin. There’s no place for me to be an artist here.’
Susan was sad but she felt like it was time to let Rita and her hair soar into the big leagues. With The Dictator gone, hair had to take on a new meaning. What would those white people do when they saw the fountain of magic that poured out of Rita’s roots?
Plus, with Instagram and FaceTime and all that, it would be like Rita hadn’t gone anywhere at all.
But soon after Rita settled into Berlin, her activity on the social declined. Her daily ‘Live Natural Challenge’, which garnered at least 60K views per day, also stopped. Rita said it was because she was busy with school but Susan was worried.
‘I should never have let her go to Berlin.’ Susan told Gina.
‘You’ve got to let her grow up.’ Gina said.
And when Rita altogether deleted her Instagram, Gina had to do everything she could to stop Susan from getting onto a flight to Berlin the very next morning.
‘Susan, you don’t have a visa, you’ll get deported immediately.’
Oh, right. That. It had taken Rita almost three months to get hers.
‘Stop worrying about the child and do your own thing.’ Gina said.
And what was her own thing? She couldn’t possibly dwell.
Rita came home for the holidays and Susan realized (quite instantly, before Rita had barely turned the corner at JKIA arrivals) why Rita had gone quiet and refused video calls. She wasn’t pregnant with the child of a sixty-year-old German man (like the ones who came to Mombasa for dalliances, inspired by the copious hips of black womanhood). Nor was she failing out of school, nor had she joined the underground Techno Scene of the city (which Susan had read online were riddled with drugs, many of which, she also read, curtailed nail & hair growth).
No. Rita had gone and undermined all her mother’s efforts by getting a perm. Her hair was still as long, actually, it was longer and shinier, but it was flat and straight, looking not quite Indian but maybe like a freshly blow-dried updo of a .75 white, .25 black offspring.
‘You know if you ever want to go natural again you’re going to have to cut ALL your hair off?’ Susan said.
‘Mum, stop freaking out. It’s just easier to maintain and white people don’t get edgy about me now.’
Edgy about her? If by edgy she meant had her edges that stayed, that, for heaven’s sake, had the wherewithal to survive a short term Senegalese twist, then whyever would she go and do such a terrible thing?
Susan survived the suffering period of shame by exaggerating the 12cm of length that Rita had gained with the perm and wrote on her own Instagram post: #LongestBlackHairInTheWorld with a selfie of Rita and her atop a Land Rover in Nairobi National Park. It wasn’t natural hair, but it was still beautiful hair and well worth inducing envy.
There were a few hundred likes but only one comment. It was from a stranger, an unknown profile called Obama Ya Real which wrote Yo, hiyo ni camel huko nyuma? Yo, is that a camel in the background? No, idiot, Susan thought, there are no camels in the National Park.
But upon further inspection, looking closely at what she thought was a giraffe behind a thicket of wild trees, she thought maybe the Real Obama was right. The animal was brown and she couldn’t make out any shades or spots and it’s neck seemed to extend outward and not upward. Maybe there was a camel hanging out in the national park. Weird.
Rita never went back onto Instagram but at least she FaceTimed Susan regularly, always showing her how far down her back her hair reached knowing that it would give comfort from the anxiety her mother had accumulated en masse since her birth twenty years ago.
‘What does that say?’ Susan asked once on FaceTime about a badge written in German pinned to Rita’s chest.
‘Oh, it’s just for a student group that I’ve joined.’ Rita said, shiftily. Susan knew that she was lying but didn’t want to press on the matter. Her hair looked healthy, despite the chemicals (maybe perms were okay for the super robust fro) and she accepted that her daughter and her hair deserved a little bit of freedom.
Techno wurde in Detroit gestartet. Von schwarzen Leuten.
Techno was Started in Detroit. By Black People.
Gina was working in the Nairobi Securities Exchange when she got the call. It was the first day at her new job as assistant to the regional manager, an office job she had dreamed of since she was twenty-one and realized that she could not afford rent as a hairdresser, nor inspire sufficient clientele with the strands on her head.
She wore a black pantsuit, with black pumps that had a little two-inch stiletto heel, carried a black bag from DKNY that her parents had bought her years ago from their trip to the UK and picked out a Number 2 coloured wig with bangs that covered the destruction of her edges (she hadn’t kept up with Susan’s hair routine) and wore minimal makeup.
Her cell phone rang once and she saw Susan’s face appear on her screen. Ai, her hair is just too much, Gina thought. She was only just setting up her desktop when the phone rang, hadn’t even greeted her boss yet. She’d gone into work early at 7 a.m. to make a good impression on the man. She wondered why Susan would possibly be awake at seven in the morning, without a job or Rita around to fuss over. She ignored it. But then Susan’s face (and deliciously flow-y hair) kept appearing on her screen, along with the rhythmic vibration of her phone on silent mode. The “Can’t talk now, I’ll call you later” automatic messages didn’t work. Susan kept calling until, finally, Gina felt guilty. Susan knew it was her first day at work and imagined that something really terrible must have happened. What if poor little Rita was hurt or worse…she couldn’t let herself think it. She answered the call.
Susan was in tears. She sobbed. She cried more than she had when she realized that Jackson would be running away with a .5 ex-model from Eritrea. Rita has died, Gina thought. Or her mother, although Susan wouldn’t cry this much for her mother. She could barely speak!
‘Susan! Calm down, tell me what’s happening.’ Gina said in a whisper, keeping her eyes at the office door in case her boss walked in.
Finally, between the heavy breathing palpitations and exasperated bawling, Susan managed: ‘It’s gone! It’s all gone!’
Rita had, so callously, in the nonchalant lilt of the new age millennials, said to her mother: ‘Everyone’s doing it now.’ All the while checking herself out in the selfie cam of FaceTime, ignoring the horror-stricken look on her mother’s face. Rita had her own face on full screen and her mother, poor devastated soul, was frozen somewhere in a little square on the bottom left corner of her screen. ‘Haven’t you seen the new research Mama? Black women are getting breast cancer because of chemicals in their hair. I want that shit gone.’ And then she hung up and left her mother on the other side of the phone in a state of paralysis, unwilling to consider her entire existence without Rita’s hair to make sense of it.
Susan forwarded the selfie Rita had sent her on a WhatsApp group of the six Kamau women, plus Gina; the same group of women that had been there when the twenty-two-year-old, now discovering her radical self in Berlin, was born. The replies came fast.
God! What a nightmare. So sorry sweetie.
Praying for you all at this time.
She looks cute! At least your hair is still Glorious Suze! (That was Gina, of course.)
Dunno what I would do if Mikayla chopped her hair off. Bless you Susan.
Kids will be kids. (Except, Rita wasn’t a kid anymore and her capacity to grow hair back was now on a steady decline.)
Check out Wambui’s hair – it’s grown four cms since October! Praying for Little R.
The only solace to be found was that Rita’s hair was still growing and, at its roots, seemed to be quite soft and quite curly, and looked quite unlike any texture Susan had known it to be. Maybe after a few years it would look something like a Somali’s and then she could add some extensions for length and volume. She would affirm to her friends and sisters that it was actually growing quite fast and: ‘If you pulled it as far is it could go, it’s actually probably around neck-length.’
Just be happy she isn’t doing drugs, Gina would always say. Her own daughters were somewhere in North America, hadn’t come back since they first left and, rumour had it, were exclusively dating white men. Susan tried to find comfort in that.
Susan’s inheritance had run out, Rita wasn’t on Instagram, had no hair for that Instagram, and Susan’s own hair had started falling out because of the stress.
‘Susan, you’ve got to find something to do.’ Gina told her after recounting yet another exciting day at work. But Susan lay in bed (she was, thank God for Gina and the rest, a homeowner with a house that came with a maid to look after it), staring into space trying, with the help Gin and Lime, to forget Rita’s newly cut hair. If not on Rita and her hair, then her mind went to Jackson and how he left her stranded the second she mentioned she was pregnant and how he very conveniently had, at that moment, realized he still needed to find himself and on his search, found Olive, Clementine, Tammy and Marian; all lovely, nusu-nusu girls with fairer skin and plusher hair than hers (which was not a fair contest, given the fact that they had mixed blood, while she was black through and through and her bloodline had not deviated since the great bones of Lucy). Jackson himself was a little paler than she was, and had, to be fair to him, said he had a penchant for Caramel, but how could he resist a Nubian Queen with hair that could only have been a blessing from none other than the Sahara desert herself?
That’s what he had said to get between her legs. And, because her hair had gotten her through life thus far, why shouldn’t she have believed that it would be enough to get her through marriage? Through motherhood?
Rita went from a short boy-cut to fully bald, taking selfies in the sun where her scalp shone like black diamond and made her mother think only of bloodshed.
And despite the long, agonizing phone calls where Susan pleaded and cried (on her knees, over FaceTime), begging Rita to stop the nonsense, Rita liked her head bald and kept shaving it off whenever it reached two centimetres long. And then she revived her Instagram and renamed it: BaldiesInLove, and the profile picture included her and a short, bald German man with no hair anywhere (literally anywhere; Susan saw the posts of him in speedos somewhere in Italy, or Greece or whatever) except for a little moustache patch above his thin lips. This was her new dude.
‘I got promoted, Suze.’ Gina said.
She was now assistant regional manager, as opposed to assistant to the regional manager.
She told this to Susan as she lay in bed, for the fourth day in a row, staring at the ceiling.
‘You?’ Susan said with malice. ‘With your strands, barely able to cling on for dear life?’
The anxiety and depression had dragged Susan down, below the marshes and into a swamp of bitterness and regret. Gina and Shiku admitted her into a hospital and Jackson was thoughtful enough to come and visit even though they hadn’t spoken since month five of her pregnancy with Rita.
She felt an electric shock, a zap go through her when she saw him walk into the luxury hospital suite. He had aged immensely, had also gone bald (good Lord, if only she had known) and grown a football-sized belly pot where there was once a six-pack.
‘Oh Suze.’ He said when he saw her, his voice full of pity. ‘Are you really going to go and die because of a little bit of hair?’
‘It wasn’t a little bit, Jackson. It was a helluva lot of it and it’s never coming back.’ She replied.
He talked at her while she lay quietly in the cot, unable to find the energy to pull his face and smack him in the head. Or punch him in the mouth, the source of all his venom. He was giving her life lessons, the things he’d come to learn about women from his past (his past which should be noted didn’t include Susan). He’d seen how insecure women were because of men and felt badly for them, if only they knew how little men cared about the superficial and how his favourite things about her had nothing to do with her hair at all. He went on and on and on, and though she had never contemplated actually dying, he was making her mind wander to quite a deadly place.
‘Jackson, would you have given me the time of day if I didn’t have this hair? If, let’s say, I had hair like Gina’s?’ Suzie finally managed to say.
He sat for a moment. Thought. Shrugged.
‘Maybe. Maybe not. Would you have given me the time of day had you not assumed, albeit quite incorrectly, that my genetics would have served your ambitions perfectly?’
She lay for a moment. Thought. Shrugged.
‘And say,’ he added, gesturing and pursing his lips to signify a hypothetical (his arms held up defensively in advance) “say you did have hair like Gina’s. Where would you be now?’
Arwa Michelle Mboya is a writer and interdisciplinary researcher at the MIT Media Lab. She loves telling stories and developing new technologies to tell them. Arwa is from Nairobi, Kenya.
Illustration by Anita Kavochy.