On my way home the other night, I heard a young girl of about four screaming and crying in pain. When I went to investigate, my friend reassured me that the child was not being exorcised, as I had feared, but was having her hair braided. This is Burkina Faso, a small, poor, landlocked West African country, and no one I know here would deny that the child’s pain is necessary for the beautiful results it produces. If you have never had an African woman braid your hair, I can tell you that it is very painful, and takes hours. Sleeping that first night is difficult, and the headache can last for up to two days. Needless to say, it isn’t good for your hair either.
It is extremely rare to see a woman in Burkina Faso elect to wear her hair natural. From the age of a couple of months old a girl’s hair is either coiffed, in a state of being coiffed, or in the uncomfortable middle ground between coifs. By the time most Burkinabe girls hit 15, their hair line is already starting to recede. Even my hair dresser, who has been responsible for the fate of more heads than a guillotine, has no idea how to make use of the shea butter or coconut oil found in abundance here. Natural hair is neither desired nor encouraged to grow to its full potential.
So why did I come back from visiting my family in America fully natural? I am a biracial adopted child, and I grew up in a family of straight-haired women. My curls are nearly as tight as a West African’s and just as uncooperative. Dealing with my hair growing up was a steady battle; my weapons of choice the comb, bobby pins, relaxer and enough daily product to drown a small herd of wholly mammoth. Despite these tried and true methods, my efforts were sometimes inadequate against the thousands of tiny strands fighting guerrilla warfare all over my head. I have always struggled with my self-image because of my hair, even when it was relaxed, so cutting it was a big deal. You might expect Burkina Faso to be the perfect place for a lost child of the African diaspora to find her “roots,” but the reception I received upon my drastic cut was less that warm. Some scowled. Some gasped. Others laughed. I did my best to face down the negativity. I resisted constant offers have my curls braided and ducked women who offered to take a broken-toothed comb to my hair.
I am particularly interested in the question of hair because Burkina Faso is not unique in its hesitancy to embrace natural locks. Despite the recent trend in the United States for black women to cut off their treated hair, a quick look at popular culture will tell you the Americans aren’t loving natural black hair either. Look at Kerry Washington in Scandal, or Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek or even that paragon of black female power Beyoncé. Tyra Banks once did a show where she asked black girls as young as 5 what kind of hair they’d like to have, and without fail they all selected the straight blond wig from the array of hair styles that sat mounted before them on mannequins. Having been not-so-subtly bombarded with the idea that long straight or wavy hair is what makes a woman beautiful, it was no surprise to me when I consciously felt men’s eyes pass over me more readily when I went out to a bar after my cut.
The idea of “good hair” is not the only sickness colonialism left behind in Burkina Faso: lighter-skinned women are considered more beautiful than their darker sisters, and faux Western style jewelry is preferred to African-made accessories. But most importantly, coiffed hair seems to be a prerequisite to beauty. There is an aversion I have seen women exhibit to being too much their natural selves, and despite the fact that many aspects of beauty here are uniquely African, the distaste for natural hair is no more Burkinabe than French fries are French.
When I finally did relent to having my hair braided, I was immediately aware of the difference. Men looked at me more. Women gasped and complimented me when I approached saying, “Now you are well-coiffed!” One girl covered her open mouth with her hands and said “Elena, you have become beautiful…”
I don’t know what that means, I wanted to say to her. Your perfect black skin, dark eyes and the way you carry 70 lbs of water on your head and swing your hips is stunning. Your tight curls and perfect bone structure should be immortalized in marble. Your natural curls are beautiful, every last unruly one.