The hair as a symbol of our excellence and pride

Nyiramandwa walks with support of two sticks. Here, she's was photographed at her home in the small village of Ndiryi in Gasaka Sector, Nyamagabe District. File.

The World Afro Day (WAD) observed for the second time last Saturday appears not to have received much attention around the region.

The Day was founded in 2017 in Britain and is celebrated globally on 15 September to extol “change, education and celebration” of natural hairstyles amongst black and mixed-race women.

Perhaps it is not surprising it should be about hair. It is perhaps also to be expected the WAD was conceived in the Diaspora, where racial prejudices persist against people of African descent amid socio-cultural constraints many must face to conform, often compromising their idea of identity and beauty.

We also know this is not a diaspora thing. Here on the continent we know of the chemically treated and other means of straightening hair, including use of weaves and the like anywhere one looks in our streets and offices.

This is not to judge. And it is not to say it should be anyone’s business how one should choose to look or wear, of which hair and skin can be part of dress; but that the World Afro Day presents an opportunity to celebrate our roots and the aesthetic in our cultures.

Aside from those in the Diaspora, I am willing to bet that not many of our children anywhere in Africa, especially in the urban areas, have seen or know about our traditional hairstyles.

In Rwanda, the Amasunzu traditional hairstyle stands among some of the most impressive and imaginative on the continent.

The hairstyle, as I have previously attempted to describe it, features a broad range of uniquely shaped styles in tapering and whorl-like designs that traditionally signified social status, as well as roles and stages in life among men and women (see the “Sum of the African Hairstyle”, The New Times, September 30, 2018).

“African hairstyles constitute a whole genre of study. Historically, tribal hairstyles not only distinguished different communities but also defined status with regard to age, marital status, fertility, wealth, social rank, religion and spirituality, including death.”

This goes to show that hair and how Africans traditionally wore it was a matter of general pride that, in a sense, the WAD aims to reclaim. It aims to “spotlight Afro excellence, raise awareness and create normalisation and aspiration relating to Afro hair.”

The Day is also aimed as an “education programme for young people [that] teaches about Afro hair and society.”

It is expected that it will benefit children of all backgrounds, through empathy, equality and empowerment.

We may summon the place of role models to emphasise this empowerment with a familiar example. Many will recall the Oscar-winning Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o’s outrage in November 2017 when Grazia magazine featured her on the cover of one of its issues with part of her hair edited out to “fit a more Eurocentric notion of what beautiful hair looks like.”

In a span of just a few days after the release of the issue with the offending cover, her tweet expressing disappointment had generated more than 34,000 likes and 19,000 retweets. A longer post on Instagram had attracted more than 170,000 likes.

This is what Lupita wrote in the Instagram post and internationally quoted at length as much for its content as for its statement of pride: “As I have made clear so often in the past with every fiber of my being, I embrace my natural heritage and despite having grown up thinking light skin and straight, silky hair were the standards of beauty, I now know that my dark skin and kinky, coily hair are beautiful too,” she said.

“Being featured on the cover of a magazine fulfils me as it is an opportunity to show other dark, kinky-haired people, and particularly our children, that they are beautiful just the way they are. I am disappointed that Grazia UK invited me to be on their cover and then edited out and smoothed my hair to fit their notion of what beautiful hair looks like.

“Had I been consulted, I would have explained that I cannot support or condone the omission of what is my native heritage with the intention that they appreciate that there is still a very long way to go to combat the unconscious prejudice against black women’s complexion, hairstyle and texture.”

The prejudice Lupita speaks about, it may be added, manifests into pressure to conform, whether consciously or unconsciously as was shown in this year’s WAD awareness campaign.

Drawing from research findings, the rallying cry for the WAD 2018 was the catchy “Change the facts, Not the Fro”.

The findings indicate that, at least in the Diaspora, one in five Black women feel social pressure to straighten their hair for work. Another 78 per cent of Black people instinctively prefer smooth hair.

Only 37 per cent of the women feel comfortable wearing an Afro or dreads to a professional event. 27 per cent don’t feel comfortable wearing dreads to such an event.

This is relatable here on the continent which makes for one of the reasons we should look forward to celebrating WAD 2019.

Twitter: @gituram

The views expressed in this article are of the author.