The history of my hair
Just as I glance around to put the final touches on my house cleaning in the lounge, a ray of sunshine penetrates my black and white family portrait hanging on the plain creamy coloured wall next to the window. Great memories of me in it, my children make a point of pointing out to this picture to their friends whenever they visit. My daughter reckons I look like a boy, a carbon copy of my son regardless of the dress because my hair is about a half an inch long. In the picture I am standing next to my mother who has my brother as a baby wrapped in a white baby shawl sitting upright on her lap. He was born in July 1971 and that is how I know it was months after I started primary school.
As a baby my hair was always grown to a level of a single plait. I soon learnt that it was called munyerere; a soft textured type which grows rapidly, moderate in thickness, which makes it easy to comb through and has definite hair tips that enables it to hold a plait end. A contrast to kaweke; hard to maintain , slow to grow, rough texture and quite thin. Massade is thick, difficult to penetrate during combing and has difficult ends which don’t hold plaits easily. Like other children I usually had plaits, I liked the simplicity of plaits; hair divided into sections from the roots and then weaved into a rope to the end. They are not time consuming as it could take about half an hour to do them so I didn’t have to sit still in one spot for long and or lose play time. At times my Mother put colourful beads at the end of the hair rope or tied the ropes together in a bundle with a ribbon. I was always smiles looking at my self in the mirror afterwards. I also liked the fact that my Mother could do them herself and not get a stranger who would be paid. She often ‘bribed’ me with sweets or promised lots of play time so that I would ‘behave’ and sit still during plaiting. With a stranger I could not easily get a break from sitting or turn my head the way I wanted, it is uncomfortable tilting your head forward and bending your neck still to do the hair at the back of your head. It tests patience even for an adult, negotiating with a stranger for child is a mountain to climb. Tears were the only way to get attention for distress and therefore a break. Until the age of four, my hair was kept in various versions and sizes of plaits styled by Mother.
My other favourite style was cornrow, a hand weave of hair into rows just like rows of corn on a cob. It is commonly known as biswayiri or kiswayiri. A name which stems from the East African language Swahili or Kiswahili , spoken in slightly different dialects in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Swahili people are a result of the intermarriages between the Arabs who came from Persia to the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa, to trade in the 7th century, and the Bantu natives they found. They live along coastal areas. They developed a culture, a language and a hairstyle some of which has penetrated the interior. When I started nusery school and went to live with my Aunt Ida and Uncle Gasta at Magere I had to be away from home during the week. I usually had Biswayiri as they have a longer life span, and they stay neater for a longer period of time. It was easier to have it done at weekends when I came back to my parents. My mother couldn’t do cornrow so it was always paid for. At that age my toleration levels were a bit higher but still I had to learn very quickly to take the stress of sitting still as it is almost an hour’s job. Worse still Mother couldn’t say anything if I got distressed, that would be deemed as interference and a reflection on her parenting skills of an ‘attitude’ child, omwana owekyejo, as a result she would find it difficult to find hair dressers to do my hair even if paid. I had to put up with it and behave to enable her to attract the same hair dresser. I formed a relationship with Nakku, the girl who lived a few houses away from us and went around the neighbourhood doing young children’s hair for a living. She was my hair dresser for a very long time. She made my life easier by giving me flexibility in sitting positions and long breaks.
When I joined boarding primary school in 1971 the rule was; hair no longer than half an inch. There was no time or manpower to maintain long hair. I lost all my lovely hair styles, ribbons and beads. As every girl had very short hair and had gone through the same process, though, I initially felt sad but accepted it as part of attending boarding school. I only managed to grow my hair again at fourteen when I joined Gayaza High School, one of the few secondary schools that allowed long hair. In Uganda there is a belief about teenage girls in school having long hair and enjoying the images of hair styles. An untested theory of lack of concentration on education surrounds this widespread view. The irony is; Gayaza High School, a girls’ school which allows long hair and reasonable age related hair styles, is one of the top performing school of academic and social excellence in Uganda. On a family holiday to Uganda in 2001 I found myself defending the length and hair style of my daughter then aged ten. ”She lives in London that is why her hair is in long braids,” I repeatedly told strangers who came up to me and asked as we went about visiting sights.
Hair perm reached Uganda in the early 1980’s, since then my hair has shifted from straight perm to curly perm. Straight perm, sometimes called relax, is softening the texture of hair from its roots into an upright position with chemicals (hair relaxers),it makes it easier to comb through and style. You can plait it or cornrow, using hair braids after the perm. Straight perm is more suitable for long hair .Curly perm on the other hand is more suitable for short hair. It is a style gained by using perm rods and relaxers to create permanent hair curls which are kept in place by hair cream. Weave on is when separate hair pieces, synthetic or human, are either glued or sewn over cornrow for fuller western type hair styles.
Living in the UK means I have to keep it in weave-on sewn to conrow to protect it from the winter weather, to keep myself warm, and to protect it from damage under the harsh weather conditions. I have never dyed it to change colour. Until 2005 I always cut it down to one inch every five years and grew new hair for a curly perm initially and when I got fed up let it grow for a straight perm. I often had to plead with hair barbers, they are very reluctant to cut long hair short for no apparent reason as it can take years to grow at enormous cost.
In 2005 I was diagnosed with cancer and lost all my hair to the treatment. That experience made me value my hair more than I had done in the past. I shaved my head after it fell out like pieces of fibre. It was emotional and daunting to even contemplate a bald head let alone look at myself in the mirror. All the reassurances that it would grow back fell on deaf ears until it started growing again. I wasn’t the same person who used to cut it off voluntarily despite hair barbers not willing to. Having no hair was a symbol of my health and survival, an inner battle of fighting cancer and self esteem. Three months after the treatment it grew back to the original munyerere I had as a baby. This was a new beginning and felt like birth. So when it fell off again due to a second wave of chemotherapy, I refused to cut it off as I imagined it crying out loud and pleading to stay to boost my confidence. I just managed with patches until the treatment ended. Six years on, my hair has grown beyond the five year point but cutting it off is not on the cards, it is a treasure.
Published in Between The Lines, CityLit 2012