The changing faces of women’s hair

“I SHAVED my hair. Well, not entirely but I left just enough to pass a small-toothed comb through. I hate having to sit in a salon for ages with people pulling at my head. It’s ridiculous!” says 34-year-old Edith Mbabazi, a resident of Kacyiru. The ways to tame and maintain African hair have evolved over the years. Back in the day, there were hot combs for natural hair that did not agree with a mere comb. For those who didn’t agree with hot combs, well, there were cornrows or “toots” (hair tied in small knots), and for the ones who wanted neither, a razor would do the trick. Eventually, prayers of desperation were answered and we were introduced to softeners and relaxers; hair chemicals designed to make combing less hectic, and styling bearable. We were also introduced to hair extensions and wigs we can throw on and off as we please.
Women should try to stick to one good hairdresser as that will ensure better service and results.  The New Times/ T. Kisambira
Women should try to stick to one good hairdresser as that will ensure better service and results. The New Times/ T. Kisambira

“I SHAVED my hair. Well, not entirely but I left just enough to pass a small-toothed comb through. I hate having to sit in a salon for ages with people pulling at my head. It’s ridiculous!” says 34-year-old Edith Mbabazi, a resident of Kacyiru.

The ways to tame and maintain African hair have evolved over the years. Back in the day, there were hot combs for natural hair that did not agree with a mere comb. For those who didn’t agree with hot combs, well, there were cornrows or “toots” (hair tied in small knots), and for the ones who wanted neither, a razor would do the trick.

Eventually, prayers of desperation were answered and we were introduced to softeners and relaxers; hair chemicals designed to make combing less hectic, and styling bearable. We were also introduced to hair extensions and wigs we can throw on and off as we please.

We mildly phased out the cornrows and “toots” done with our own hair and replaced them with ‘pencil’ (small cornrows plaited with hair extensions that are petite at the tip and expand as they go), weaves, dreadlocks and so much more. 

The hot comb, because not everyone knows it, is exactly that – a hot comb. Also known as a straightening comb, it is a metal comb that is used to straighten moderate or crude hair to create a smoother hair texture. It is heated and used to straighten the hair from the roots. It can be placed directly on the source of heat (which back then was sometimes a charcoal stove) or it may be electrically heated.

Every time the hot comb was pulled through the hair from the roots, it felt like it had taken bits of your scalp with it. And when you heard your hair sizzle, you squirmed and imagined that your head was on fire. 

“I remember when I was kid, my mum would insist on using a hot comb because cutting it was not an option. She felt it odd for girls to have no hair. I dreaded it because it was painful. We were living abroad at the time and I was in an international school. In my class, there were white girls with flawless hair,” explains Mbabazi. 

She adds: “On reaching school, after all my mum’s efforts to straighten my hair and make it easier to deal with, it was back to its uncouth ways because of the wind mostly. I remember so well the white girl who would run her fingers through her hair every five seconds with ease while I sat there looking like I had been electrocuted.” 

Mbabazi says that even though the difference in skin colour confused her at first, she got over it surprisingly fast. What she dwelled on, however, was the fact that the white girls (even more annoyingly some boys) had hair swaying effortlessly across their backs. 

After her secondary education in Uganda, Mbabazi decided she was not going to stress about hair anymore. “In my third year at university, I decided to cut it. Nobody understood why; I just told them I was tired of growing it. And it has been short ever since. I shampoo it every morning and it dries in no time.”

Anyone who’s been around long enough will remember ‘leisure curl’ which was also branded ‘wet look’. It was simple and easy to maintain because all you had to do was apply the gel generously to your hair daily to keep it ‘leisurely curly’.  However, this is one style that won’t be making a comeback anytime soon.

If you are familiar with the movie Coming to America starring Eddie Murphy as a wealthy African prince who goes to America in search of his bride, leisure curl was Soul Glo, the product owned by another wealthy young man, also the boyfriend of Murphy’s dream girl. 

“My mum used to have leisure curl, it wasn’t a chemical or anything, just grease that curled the hair and made it look wet 24/7. I guess that is where it got the ‘wet look’ name. I never understood it,” says 29-year-old Caroline Umurerwa.

“I have always had natural hair though,” she adds. “ I was never allowed to grow it in any of the schools I went to, neither primary nor secondary so when I went to university, I decided it was all I was used to and didn’t wish to look different,”. 

On why she chose to go natural, public relations assistant at Uganda Management Institute and mother of one, Phionah Kintu, says, “My skin doesn’t do well with chemicals so for me, it’s the healthiest and cutest option ever. I have been growing it for four years now and it’s quite easy to maintain.” 

Like Kintu, Heather Mutoni has reasons for deciding to keep it natural. “I keep my hair short and natural because my skin is sensitive to relaxers. However when I want a different look, I wear a wig,” she adds.

What are women doing wrong?

Vedaste Murenzi, a hairdresser at Sisters Salon at Kisementi, Remera, says that over braiding can lead to hair loss. 

“My advice to most of my clients is to re-touch their hair at least after six weeks. If I had a way, I would convince them not to braid their hair at all. The hair and the scalp are so delicate it is not wise to have them pulled all the time. Over braiding breaks the hair,” Murenzi explains.  

Murenzi, who styles an average of 15 women a day excluding weekends, adds that re-touching the hair helps soften the hair texture but again doing it more often than necessary can cause problems. 

“Re-touched hair is easy to comb and it does not break. If there is growth in the hair, it becomes difficult for women to comb the hair from the root which is why they feel the need to do it all the time. However, with treatment at least once a week, the growth isn’t that hard to deal with,” Murenzi advises. 

Beautician and former owner of a beauty salon, Jackie Ingabire, also warns against too many trips to the salon.  “Some women have the bad habit of re-touching their hair every time they feel it has some growth. In my opinion, hair should be taken for a re-touch every 6-12 weeks depending on the needs of that individual’s hair. Relaxing it too often causes damage,” says the 36-year-old who now sells weaves, hair products and other cosmetics.  

Ingabire adds, “It is wise to shampoo your hair once or twice a week and set it with treatment to give it ‘body’ or thickness to be precise. Chemically-treated hair must always be treated with a leave-in conditioner after every wash to strengthen it and also give it that full look.” 

When it comes to braiding, Ingabire advises women to braid twice a year if they have to as that will give their hair some time to breathe. 

When it comes to relaxed hair, some women might not be using the right chemicals for their hair, says Martin Malito, another hairdresser at Sister’s Salon at Kisementi. He cannot stress enough his frustration with women who seek their friend’s help with matters concerning hair because “what works for one woman might be a disaster for another”.

“Women need to be consistent with the products they use for their hair. I don’t know why some women seek the advice of their friends about hair products; they forget their friends are not experts in that area. I recommend that women stick to one hairdresser for sometime because it gives the dresser ample time to master the hair and the products that suit the hair texture,” Malito says.

Malito says that sticking to one hairdresser is good because they will get comfortable enough to advise you on the right time to apply treatment or relaxer, which are the two most important aspects in having great hair. He also says that an individual’s hair needs a specific kind of hair treatment that only the dresser can figure out. 

Doing away with the comb 

Contrary to popular belief, not all women love to stand in the mirror for hours playing around with their hair and combing it every which way till they finally decide to hold it back. In fact, a couple of women on social media platforms have made their grievances with hair so clear, it’s shocking they have not gone bold yet. 

If it’s not hair that doesn’t seem to grow longer, its hair that is so thin one can be confused for a cancer patient. In Rwanda, women are known for the luscious hair, a rare thing in African women. 

“I was at the salon one time looking on in utter disgust as the dresser tried to make sense of my hair and a little girl who couldn’t be more than six years old sat on the next chair, with rollers the size of truck tires being put in her hair. Even though I was done by the time the girl was taken to the drier, I decided to have my nails done just so I could see her hair after it had been combed out. You can imagine my frustration when huge chucks of hair rolled out,” says Jasmine Atukunda. 

She adds: “I now only do weaves as they are way quicker to have done than braids. But they too need as much care as your own hair because if not looked after well, they can look and smell like rubbish.” 

Even though weaves need a brush here and there, they do not get growth, therefore it is only impossible to comb or brush them if you rarely do. 

For Doreen Umwali, a business lady, authentic weaves are what most women can afford.  Then there is ‘human hair’ which is for those in between and for the ones who won’t hesitate to part with a dime no matter how outrageous; there are Brazilian, Peruvian and Indian pieces.  

Asked about what method is best for weaves, actually weaving it on or using hair glue like some ladies do, Umwali says, “With a weave that you won’t be using again, glue might be best. However, glue is known to break hair.” 

Sunny Honoline, a public relations intern at the Ministry of Justice, says she prefers dreadlocks because it’s the trend and she loves the hairstyle. 

“When I had just completed high school, dreadlocks were trendy so I decided to jump on the bandwagon. Honestly speaking, even before making the decision to have dreadlocks I was not the kind of person who used to enjoy combing hair every morning,” Honoline says. 

The soft-spoken Honoline adds that she hates relaxed hair because the products burn her scalp. 

“It’s not just about my scalp and its dislike for hair chemicals; I also can’t stand the frequent trips to the salon or having to wear the same hairstyle as another woman which isn’t the case with dreadlocks. With dreadlocks, you just wash, apply hair food and are good to go,” Honoline says. 

Dreadlocks look nice but if not taken care of, they send a reckless, messy and not-to-be-dealt-with vibe. According to www.ebony.com, there are a few things to consider when going for dreadlocks, like finding a good locktician for starters. 

A ‘locktician’ is the person who actually locks the dreads. A woman might choose to go to the first person who convinces her that they can do the job and then leave looking like a poorly fed Rastafarian. 

You want a locktician that can give you great advice and recommend healthy products. If you’re cutting off the last of your relaxed hair and going natural so that you can start locking, or if you are twisting your already natural hair, please have a real conversation about your hair objectives and your desired look with your potential new stylist prior to them twisting your hair, the website says. Make sure you feel comfortable with her/him, and get a sense of how knowledgeable they really are about dreadlocks. 

“It’s been nine years and seven months since I started growing mine. I didn’t want to relax my hair and wanted to stay natural. After a while I noticed they make my life convenient,” says model Alexia Mupende, whose dreadlocks are the envy of those who love the trend. 

Like relaxed hair, try not to twist it too often as it can create breakage and thinning at the root. Locks tend to shed a lot and protecting your edges and your scalp is crucial. 

Whether you choose to go bald, braided, natural or locked – perhaps even rock the wet look or the amasunzu (the elaborately sculptured traditional Rwandan hairstyle) while you are at it – one thing’s for sure, you can never run out of what to do with your hair. 

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