Letter from Africa: Fighting ‘uniform hairstyles’ in Kenya

Some Kenyan TV presenters have been banned from having hairstyles like Kenyan actor Lupita Nyong’o

In our series of letters from African journalists, media and communication trainer Joseph Warungu looks at the state of Kenyan hair, amid a court case about discrimination on the basis of a hairstyle.

You could hear the screams of agony from the car park. My heart was racing as I walked into the hair salon that hot Saturday afternoon, not knowing what to expect.

Propped up on a giant barber’s chair was a girl of about three.

One strong woman held her down to prevent her wriggling free, while another methodically worked a blow drier through her hair.

Unable to bear the screaming any longer, I asked: “Where’s her mum?” One of the hairdressers pointed to a woman with her head buried under a hair drier.

She and the girl’s father were quietly flicking through faded copies of lifestyle magazines, seemingly oblivious to the child crying herself hoarse.

As I waited for my own daughter’s appointment with the hairdresser, I was deeply disturbed by the screams.

Olympic High School in Nairobi does not allow pupils to have dreadlocks

Almost three hours later, the little girl – whom I shall call “Baby Warrior” – walked out with red eyes, a distraught face and a new head of straightened hair.

She had lost the battle to keep her chunky, kinky hair.

This is the kind of experience that many, especially young girls and women, go through regularly in Kenya to conform to uniformity.

The Kiswahili proverb “akili ni nywele, kila mtu ana zake” meaning “hair is like brains, each person has their own” speaks to diversity – that everyone’s hair is different.

But in Kenya we have been tearing our hair out trying to have a uniform hairstyle.

‘Conditioned to mirror the white colonialists’

For one Kenyan teenager, the freedom to wear dreadlocks nearly cost her education.

Olympic High School in Nairobi sent new student Makeda Ndinda home in January for wearing dreadlocks, which are a symbol of her Rastafarian faith.

A Nairobi court has since ordered that she can attend classes with her hair covered in a black turban until her case is decided in May. The school wants her to shave off her locks.

Kenya’s Supreme Court ruled that schools can decide on dress codes

Days before, in a separate case about headscarves worn by Muslims, the Supreme Court – whose justices, ironically, cover their heads with artificial hair – overturned an earlier decision by the Court of Appeal that allowed Muslim students to wear a hijab in non-Muslim schools.

The court ruled that every school has the right to determine its own dress code.

So what’s going on with our heads? A lot.

First of all I need to own up. I don’t have any hair on my head – but I do have some hairy views about freedom of expression.

And hair is part of our identity and cultural expression.

“I think Kenya is increasingly becoming a moralist state,” says Kevin Mwachiro, a writer and civil liberties activist. He blames this on “the growth of evangelism from the Christian right”.

Mwachiro believes the debate about hair is part of Kenya’s struggle with its national identity.

“We tend to think we are an African nation, but we realise that we’re very Westernised. We don’t appreciate diversity. I’ve had these natural dreadlocks for many years, but people still ask me why I don’t comb my hair.”

The kinky v straight hair battles that “Baby Warrior” fought at the salon came from our colonial experience. The African was conditioned to mirror the white colonialists in speech, look and behaviour.

‘Braiding was banned’

African women pioneers at university went through systematic training on how to dress and how to use knives and forks. They were even taught how to curtsy beautifully in case the British monarch came to visit.

Rose Lukalo, a media producer, had a direct encounter with that colonial experience that spilled over into independent Kenya.

“I was raised in Nairobi in post-colonial Kenya and most teachers were still white. We were not allowed to braid our hair. We were told we should tie it with blue or red ribbons and that we should brush our hair.”

The hair industry in Kenya is estimated to generate $40m each year

But kinky African hair struggled to comply with these foreign concepts.

“Our hair can’t do the things they wanted. They want it to lie flat, they want it to stay in position; they want you to tie it. But it doesn’t respond to any of those things,” she says.

And so in came the hot comb, perm and the hot iron to try to tame the African hair. This was all done at home with a charcoal stove because very few people could afford the salon.

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