I Am My Hair

From the age of five to about thirteen, just before I left for boarding school, every Saturday or Sunday, mostly Sunday because I am the last minute child, I would go to the market with my sisters to get my hair done for school the coming week. Braided or threaded, it was a weekly ritual, and most every week was a mission because I hated getting my hair done. I still do and I would waste so much time, dallying before heading to the market to get on and for two days I would walk around like a pigeon, neck stiff and aching until the tension eased. Even more memorable, good or bad, was the process of getting my hair done- our heads would be tucked between the legs of an older woman in a community of other women, pushing and pulling as she gossiped with her other onidiris about who was getting married, leaving whom, cheating on whose husband, whose son was mad and daughter knocked up. It wasn’t a pleasant experience but that was my first encounter at a beauty salon, so to speak, and it was a right of passage for most every young woman growing up in Lagos.

A lot of the styles have filtered down to the West, fashion editors try work them like they are brand new, with new names and silly gimmicks to go along with them, but nothing can change the stories that accompany them. The Valentino SS16 collection had models in Shuku and some publications went as far as calling this the new topknot. Errr no, we call it Shuku or Šuku. From West Africa. Fashion, the conversation always comes back to fashion, the greatest appropriator of cultures and identity, fashion can break barriers and enlighten people in a way most other industries cannot because it transcends the imagination. Being inspired by a culture is not all together a bad thing if it also accompanies an acknowledgement of that culture, an inclusion, not just parts that fit a particular narrative at the time. Valentino SS’16 caused a stir because of the hairstyles and very few black models, models with roots in the culture the hairstyle are from. Some say its no big deal, its just hair, but not too long ago, our hair, those hair styles, were deemed unworthy as the Europeans tried to erase our culture and identity in the name of colonisation.

Shuku– cornrows going from the forehead and nape to merge at the crown of your head, like a topknot, it is imitates the Shēkērē a musical instrument. Shuku was typically reserved for the wife of the Oba, (King), I don’t remember it being a hairstyle girls my age were necessarily endeared by. It was a little more sophisticated for our heads, although we simply thought it wasn’t cool.

Koroba- translates to bucket, is another hairstyle that like Shuku we didn’t care much for, here the cornrows got in the opposite direction to Shuku so that it frames the face and looks like an empty bucket turned upside down.

Ikpakö-ëlëdë- I think the worst hairstyle back in those days was ipako elede- the back head of a pig, the cornrows go from the back of the head to the front, and the extension can be wound in knots like the ears of a pig.

Kolęsę- is the opposite of Ipako elede, and it is most popularly knowns as cornrows, it means “without legs”, its simply plaited as cornrows all to the back. More popular today, and what they call “box braids” whatever. This hairstyle was initially for the newly married woman.

Kpanumo- shut your mouth is a when the cornrows merge at the side of the left or right ear. I think that was reserved for children, especially when adults are talking.

Kpatęwō- a favourite of mine and several young girls my age, at the time. It means clap your hands, the hair goes from the sides of the head and meets in the middle, sometimes it can have some to the front and a few as kolese at the back. Another hairstyle used to indicate a woman was married way back when.

Two step- is the when you have half and half, half braids and half cornrows to the back.

Besides weaving, thread was also a common form of hairstyle, threading was better for the hair because it stretches it out to help it grown, so when you loosen it, it has that flat ironed effect for about a day. It also does not pick from the hairline so there is little risk of breakage.

Onilē-gogoro- When I was younger we’d go to the village in Asaba to visit my grandma, she was a tall statuesque woman who dressed up everyday, complete with George, blouse and a gėlė but whenever she took off her gėlė she’s has this crowning hairstyle, made of thread that gave her even more grace and elegance, and I remember looking at old pictures of my mother when she was growing up, with the same hairstyle. It translates to tall house.

Puff-Puff– little threaded balls, this was the most popular for growing out your hair at the time, man the relentless teasing of anyone with this hairstyle in primary school… we were pretty terrible children. lol. Once the hair is long enough then it moved on to pineapple, small threaded sections.

There are countless styles that harken back to our culture, that mean something much more than simply intertwining hair strands into cornrows. Whatever they call them today, box braids, fishtail braids, french plaits (actually called Didi an old yoruba braiding style, of which there are two kinds, Ädimolë and Ölogëdë another yoruba tradition, but we cannot get into the nitty gritty of that), they have an origin and most times stories attached to them. Sometimes we put beads to adorn them, other times we wear different forms of headpieces depending on the occasion. These hairstyles represent freedom; freedom from colonial rule, freedom from western ideas but most important its an celebration of our culture and traditions.

As a woman now living in Britain, things haven’t much changed with my hair, there were questionable years in between, but I have come full circle to where I began, although now I have to sit eight hours to get my hair braided, but my head is not between some old woman’s legs. Eight hours, a whole work day and I still walk around like a pigeon for forty-eight hours afterwards until the tension eases because my braids are always wound up too tight, they have to be to last eight weeks. Besides braids, I wear my hair out in my natural fro. It has taken me a while to get used to my afro, another part of me, one of the many strands in the story of my heritage. Growing out my natural hair took some getting used to but this a part of my identity and a nod to my past, the girl I was, and more important, the woman I am. It reminds me of where I come from and the road I took to get to where I am. For much of my teenage years, I hated my natural hair and I couldn’t wait to get it relaxed and straightened like I’d seen in the European magazines and TV shows. Whenever people talked about good hair, it wasn’t with hair like mine in mind, good hair was sleek and tamed and could form a nice neat ponytail. My natural hair is unruly and wild and thick, relaxing it did not only tame it and make it sleeker and finer, but it helped me fit in to a certain ideal we’d seen projected on our TV screens. Never mind that the process was just as tedious, scalp burns from the acidity of the relaxers, hair breakage, thinning and the complete damage to the elasticity of my natural hair. I had to endure this every six to eight week, or as soon as my natural roots start poking through.

At eighteen, fresh out of secondary school and into college, I was finally allowed to get my weave-on but just as quickly I fell out of love with that, the whole head patting thing to scratch my scalp for starters, but I am much too lazy to follow the rules of keeping a weave so I returned to relaxing my hair every six weeks and steam treatment. When I was twenty-three, I was in a relationship with a guy who loved my sleek long relaxed hair, placed too much emphasis on it for me to be comfortable. So one day I left the house with his credit card and got the most expensive haircut I have ever gotten at Errol Douglas in Knightsbridge, needless to say, that relationship did not go anywhere. Apart from wanting to suck it to him, I’d had enough of relaxers and the agony of getting my hair straightened. Having short hair was liberating but man it was such hard work to maintain, talk about karma. Hair; what comes naturally, what grows naturally, shouldn’t be this tasking. I spent too many hours in front of the mirror, trying to work with it, all traces of the hair that took me back to those Sundays at the market place, gone. My next move was to grow my hair back, my natural hair. Not an easy task for anyone who knows anything about growing out their natural hair, but with the help of braids I was able to grow it out without much of the pain. Every eight weeks I’d take out my braids, steam treat my hair and let it sit for ten days, before putting it back in braids again. My hair dresser and I often exchange stories growing up in Africa, she is from Sierra Leone, down the road from Nigeria my grandmother had roots in Sierra Leone, she is a Saro woman, her mother was a freed slave who migrated to Nigeria, so our stories intertwine. Much like the stories of the many women whose hands have run through my hair over the years, shaping me, moulding me into the woman I am, and hope to be.

But beyond my heritage, my hair is a point of beauty, beauty we don’t always see but we live with everyday, beauty not represented on the runway or pages of fashion magazines, beauty seen as other, as a trend. When I think back to the little girl who would hate going to the market to get her hair done, I realise the gift that was being handed down to me. A reflection of my culture, a dialogue with those who wonder as I walk down the streets, it tells them who I am, where I am from, and why I am here. It is a connection to the person I am within, and in that way I am my hair but so much more.