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I remember sitting between my mother’s knees, feeling my 5inch/6inch hair pulled and prodded with love, just so; hairpins stuck in the back, left, right and center to hold that little short mass of hair into a ‘puff'(bun).

My face scrunched and wincing with each pull of the brush, and an occasional “ouch” when the comb’s teeth bit and stuck in my knotted hair.

And then Mummy would say”All done,”and I would sit proudly and look at myself in a little mirror and smile and marvel at what my mother’s magic hands had wrought in my wiry, short, kinky locks.

I remember my aunt (any aunt) taking hotcomb from charcoal stove, passing it lightly over a wet towel to cool it off (just a little), and then bringing it to my hair with only a thin wooden comb lying between my scalp and that very hot hotcomb.

My nostrils suffused with the smell of heated, pressed, oiled hair, as every strand was combed and pressed out. My ears held down and away by my ten year old hands, a towel at my neck, holding my breath, worried that at any moment my loving aunt would accidentally touch comb to skin; she rarely did, but every now and then a tiny hot sear could be felt at my neck or my ear, and I would hear a regretful “sorry” muttered from my aunt’s lips followed by a firm “keep still.”

And then eventually the miracle of straight hair and me feeling so “pretty”; and my sisters and cousins waiting nervously, yet eagerly, in line for their turn under the hotcomb. The heat, we knew, was worth it for that soft fine hair that lasted well into the party (birthday, Eid, Christmas, etc…) and the night; before it was washed out by a female who understood the loss of that fine hotcombed hair.

But now, 30-something me, having lived on foreign shores where I have spent days, and even months looking for that elusive hair stylist who will ‘know’ my hair, in towns where nobody has ‘my’ hair, I have come to the knowledge that “I am NOT my hair”.

When I sit in saloons in my home city (Kampala) both expensive and somewhat dingy, having taken friends’ recommendations: “shop no#54 in that plaza near the bus park, ask for Harriet she does the best weaves” or “try that saloon near the meat packer, ask for Jamila…her micro-braiding is great, she’s fast and doesn’t pull”, I remember: I am NOT my hair.

When I sit on the stool and two braiders pull at my short hair, this one left, this one right, getting those braids in tight, while I wince and press down at the point at which braid meets hair, while the braiders talk of man and money troubles, blithely braiding and pulling away, I remember: I am NOT my hair.

Later, much later, when I finally sit in a barber shop and tell the barber: “Cut it off”, and he, startled, asks: “All of it?” I say, “Yes, all of it”.

And when he tries his best to persuade me not to cut it all off, I cast aside the insidious doubts and remind myself: I am NOT my hair.

When at last I walk out of the barber shop with my hair freshly cut, I can feel every cool breeze and the warm sun fully and rich on my scalp and skin. And I feel something else as well, a sense of being free and gratitude for my hard won knowledge. When I swim and the water gently hits my scalp, and I lift my head in full fresh wetness and delight, I know that I can face the censorious looks of men on the street, and my mother’s and aunts’ looks of concern at my very ‘masculine’ shaven head, at last secure in the knowledge that, I am NOT my hair.



Post image by Louis Delsarte via Manufactoriel

About the Author:

Portrait - BagalaaliwoFarida Bagalaaliwo is a Ugandan freelance writer, women’s rights activist and entrepreneur with a love of the arts. She works as a women’s rights and arts consultant.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

One Response to “I am Not my Hair | by Farida Bagalaaliwo | An African Essay” Subscribe

  1. Bola August 28, 2015 at 5:01 am #

    ‘I AM MY HAIR’ my hair can never be separate from me it grows from my body and it speaks volume about what I consider renders me to be ‘beautiful’. My natural non chemically treated, weave wearing or straightened hair reflects my belief in my right to be close to my authentic self. It speaks of a kind of personal truth. Bald is a statement too, one which I applaud. May more women have the courage to find beauty within their authentic self.

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