Karnataka has scores of African students. And their exotic hairstyles draw both polite as well as impolite interest
Joy Bilha Wangani Maina: `Braiding is a timeless tradition.'
FOR PRACTICAL reasons or just the fun of it, people of African descent, particularly women, have been experimenting with their hair. Because it is kinky hair, they find it relatively easy to straighten or perm it. This has inspired myriad styles across the globe down the ages.
From rastas (Bob Marley) to locks (Whoopi Goldberg, Graca Mandela), perms (CNN's Femi Oke, Tumi Makhabo) to cornrows (Arsenals's Laurent), braids (Williams Sisters who can forget Venus's spectacular appearance on both grass and clay in the Nineties) to weaves (Oprah Winfrey). The options are plenty.
To begin with, there is the no-fuss hairstyle or weave (attaching natural or synthetic hair) and braids, which are nothing but hair extensions. In just a couple of hours, you can have a mane of long thick and luxurious locks. But let us not forget there are others with natural hair who are not enamoured of such extensions.
Susan Ndomba: `People are often startled by the length of our hair.'
So why do blacks, especially women, yearn to straighten their wonderfully kinky hair? Are they trying to fit into the so-called white cultural mainstream? "Certainly not!" insists Joy Bilha Wangari Maina, a Kenyan. "Braiding is a timeless tradition and its true character is largely dependent on the needs of the black race." She recalled that as a young girl, she wore tiny plaits and cornrows (made a fashion statement by Bo Derek's blonde tresses in 10). These needed no extensions and helped the hair grow, and the bead attached to them lent a touch of style and a dash of colour. She is amused that locals here are surprised by how one day her hair covers her back and the next it's all tiny, tight braids curled on top of the head.
"Braiding gives the looks, is low on maintenance and, saves time," explains Bilha. "I have not known any other style since, so where is the issue of trying to fit in?" She does admit that her hair attracts curious stares. Sometimes the stares can get a bit much. Zimbabwean Tina Sinzwi says the inquisitiveness of locals initially bothered her at first, but now she's used to it. Adds Aida from Tanzania: "The curiosity is just astounding. I generally don't mind it, but sometimes it can be an irritant."
According to Susan Ndomba, also a Tanzanian, the expressions of local hosts often begins with innocuous questions. "People are often startled by the length of our hair: it comes down the back and is entirely natural when blow-dried," she explains. Some perm their hair, only to elicit the question, `Is it real?' Mostly these are harmless queries or just inquisitiveness, but they can be a tad wearisome. "Not many non-blacks can distinguish between braids and natural hair. (So the questions are many.) It is pretty obvious that our hair texture is different from other ethnic groups," points out Tina.
Susan, who also doubles as a stylist, explains that the beauty of braids is in the different styles available. "The condition of the hair counts, though."
`We are different'
Juliana Zulu: as expressions of beauty and artistry, the Afro hair continues to fascinate
Happy, a Ugandan, confesses that too much of attention is embarrassing. "Sitting at a parlour in town, I was wondering why the hairdresser was taking long. I peeped and there she was in an animated discussion with her colleagues, discussing the texture of my hair. That was cheap! She could have told me she could not do it and I don't need to be reminded I am different," she fumes.
But it's not as if Indian stylists don't do African hair. "Most stylists are discovered by word of mouth," informs Bilha. "Style and competence of the stylist notwithstanding, you could be warming your seat for anything between two to 18 hours, before you can brandish your new hairdo," she warns. But it is worth the wait.
"Extensions have no chemicals that alter the hair structure; they match with the hair colour, are light, seal safely, and more importantly, allow hair growth," adds Susan.
But what about maintenance? "The usual hair care wash, shampoo and oil treatment are musts, and comfortably, they can be kept for anything between three to 12 weeks," informs Bilha.
Considering the beautiful expressions of weaving and artistry, the elegance and imagination, little wonder that Afro continues to fascinate.
JOHN PATRICK OJWANDO
Photos: K. Gopinathan
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