My first memory of my hair is a borrowed one. My mum loves to tell the tale of how long and luscious my hair was when I was small. According to her, I was born with a full head of hair that even the doctors marvelled at. Very soon my mother was playing around with it and finding new ways to style it. Imagine the horror and surprise when she took me for my first checkup at two weeks old with my hair already braided… In her defense, I was her first child so how would she have known any better?
As I grew older, my hair grew longer. I probably had the kind that people, known and strangers alike, just felt compelled to touch and run their fingers through. It was certainly a pleasure for my grandmother whose creativity came up with amazing hairstyles for me every single week, sometimes daily if she got bored. I loved the attention, though maybe even then I wondered what the big deal was. I mean, it was just hair.
Then I started going to school and it came with some hair raising concerns, pun intended. To put it simply, my hair was falling off. It had stopped growing at this time and what little was left of it could barely stay attached to my scalp. My mother was convinced it was witchcraft. Surely, some of those that loved to touch my hair had gotten jealous and used some dark forces to make sure my hair was no longer my crowning glory. It was the only explanation that made sense to her, and so the solution was to shave it all off so that my hair would grow back longer and stronger.
I can’t say if the quality of my hair was better than before when it grew back, but now I had a bald spot at the back of my head. It wasn’t so noticeable, until I had to have cornrows plaited for school. What used to happen was that three rows in the middle would split towards the end after a few days, so it would sort of look like reverse bangs. Mama wa nywele tried her best, but even I could tell she just didn’t know what to do about hair that just refused to stick together.
I’ve never been the type of person who was overly concerned about her hair. In fact, I was all for simple styles and doing the bare minimum to maintain it, much to the chagrin of my mum and various friends. This is why I decided to shave it all off again in high school, so that my time could be better used on other things. By the time I was done, it had grown back to a size where I could start plaiting it again. Oh, and the bald spot had disappeared!
Living in her house, my mother had several rules when it came to hair. No crazy styles and no flashy colours. She wanted us to look respectable and not like a bunch of drug-sniffing, rapping miscreants. So when I decided I was all grown up in campus and got some white uzi braids, she was quick to set me straight. No child of hers would walk around like that, she told me as I unplaited them one by one. I mean, what would people think? I didn’t get what the big deal was, it was just hair, but there was definitely something in the way people looked at it first and how it shaped our interactions after.
Then I started working and making my own money and figured I could do what I wanted with my hair. Oh, how wrong I was! Even though I worked in the creative industry where things were a bit lax, there still seemed to be some unspoken hair rules in place. Don’t be too loud with your hair. Don’t get too crazy with your hair. Keep your bad hair days to yourself. I heard these and more, and decided fuck it.
I shaved it all off again and then coloured what remained yellow blonde. After all, it was just hair. That’s when I started to realise that it was much more to the people around me. For my mother, it was a betrayal of her faith and everything she stood for as she was forced to endure questions of what had possessed me to do it. For my work mates, it was a shock to the system as they came face-to-face with my previously unknown depths. To my friends, it seemed like a not-so-silent cry for help coupled with the stirring of an identity crisis. For a random person in a matatu, it was edgy, wild and insane. To me, it was just hair I had played with because I was bored, but you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief when I went back to black again.
As I watched Dolapo Is Fine, these were the thoughts running through my head, how my hair has shaped who I am and what people think of me over the years. Up or down, long or short, it never really mattered to me as long as I was happy. Then I realised that I don’t exist in a vacuum, and sometimes my hair had to be fixed according to what other people would find acceptable. However, this need decreased as I grew older and more sure of myself and my place in the world. I continuously found that I no longer had to hide parts of myself anymore, and I trusted that the people in my life can be accepting of whatever I threw at them.
It is said that you should fear a woman who cuts off her hair because she’s making some big changes in her life, and now every morning as I look in the mirror at my almost clean-shaven head, I can finally say my hair is exactly as it needs to be at this moment in time.