Once upon a time, back when I was a little girl, my parents would buy me Barbie dolls with flaxen hair, slender limbs and big blue eyes.
Every time, I would dismember them limb by limb and toss each part into the flames of our three-stoned cooking fire. I always saved the head for last because I loved how the “hair” would crackle and spit as it burnt before ultimately melting away with the rest of the plastic head.
You can say what you are thinking: I was a weird child.
The reason I so loved to watch the hair burn away was I hated my own hair. I had a long, unruly mass of curls that would cause me untold anguish every time I went to the salon.
I would bawl my eyes out every time I had to have my hair blow-dried or plaited or touched in any way, and I wanted nothing more than to shave it all off but my mother would hear none of it.
She told me the pain was “the price of being beautiful” and that I was just a child who could not be trusted to make decisions as important as what to do with the hair that grew on my own head.
LEGACY CARRIED ON
She would often lament how thick and long her hair had been in her youth and now that she had lost it all in adulthood, the least she could do was ensure that her daughter would carry on her hair legacy.
In retrospect, I understand my mother’s motivations. First, I was the first girl in a family of four boys, born after my mother had given up all hope of ever having a daughter. Second, she truly loved my hair.
She would always tell visitors that I was born with the most beautiful head of hair she had ever seen on an infant, proudly showing it off in the family album.
I did not have patches of it on the crown, a distressing gap in the middle then another patch on the back of my head, as did all my siblings at birth. Mine was curls upon curls of thick black hair.
So she would not let me cut it, no matter how much I begged, my tear-soaked little face scrunched up in pain.
PARTNER IN CRIME
And so it was that one Sunday morning, my father, fed up with my wailing, conspired with me to chop off my hair behind my mother’s back.
We planned to do it after she went to church. Suffice it to say that it is true that women have a sixth sense and that our plan was thwarted even before I could locate the scissors.
My father would, however, get his way with my younger sister, who was born eight years after me. Determined to not have another ridiculously unhappy child in his house, he took total
control of her hair until the time she was around 10.
Once a month, he would take her to the kinyozi for a box cut. She only started growing her hair when she was sure she absolutely wanted to.
My childhood experience with my hair shaped my adult relationship with it. I revered and hated it in equal measure. I got a straight perm when in Class Three to make the hair easier to
manage and I spotted that same hairstyle until my third year in college because I dared not experiment. I had found a relatively pain-free formula that worked and I was determined to stick
Then I discovered dreadlocks, which required even less maintenance than permed hair. Gone were the weekly treatments that would often involve blow-drying - the horror! With dreadlocks, all I needed to do was get a relatively painless retouch every month and I would be good to go.
I loved that I no longer needed to comb my hair in the morning, and that I could get away with not setting foot in a salon for several weeks.
It has been a fantastic four years with dreadlocks and these are some of the life gems that came unannounced with the dreadlocks:
1. I will always be “Sista Dread” or “Mnati” or “Ras” or whatever variation of Ras Tafari to touts and hawkers and I have made my peace with it. It beats “Mrembo” or “Madam” or “Mathe” hands down.
I wish, though, that these terms of “endearment” did not so often come accompanied with requests to touch my hair or offers of weed (I am serious) or the assumption that I only listen to reggae.
2. I have, on three occasions, had complete strangers walk up to me and ask to do my hair. Incidentally, they were all men.
One handed me his card, which gave his details as a “dread lock specialist” at a salon in the city, one tried to give me his number (I refused to write it down and told him I did not have to because I have an eidetic memory), the third insulted me after I told him to get lost. Listen, this is a very rude way to try to get new business.
3. Random strangers ask to touch my hair. I always refuse. I think it is creepy, and incredibly unhygienic. I don’t know where your hands have been, you don’t know where my hair has been. Ew.
4. My favourite thing about my hair is that it is low maintenance, and cheap. All I need is one visit per month, which costs me, depending on the salon, between 600 and 1000 shillings. Before, I would spend up to Sh3000 a month on hair.
5. My favourite hair dressers are men. I have a particularly sensitive scalp (remember that I only stopped crying at the salon when I was very old) so I appreciate gentleness and patience. My current hair dresser is both those things and thorough to boot. I would follow him to the very fiery bowels of hell if he asked. I am his slave.
6. Dreadlocks always look better or “more authentic” when they are a little ragged. Yay for bad hair days.
7. No, I am not an activist. No, I have never demonstrated against anything in my entire life. Please stop asking. Thanks.
8. Am I artsy because I sport dreadlocks? Yes, I am artsy. I write, don’t I? And I find great joy in messiness.
9. Dreadlock fetishists exist. I will not explain this here.