That creamy crack…

Some of my earlier posts on this blog were stories I shared about my experiences going natural aka cutting off my relaxed hair,  aka coming off the creamy crack .

I haven’t shared much on my hair in recent posts but after many ups and downs, my hair has reached that awkward length where it’s too short to tie up and too long to look cute. I’ve found myself getting frustrated and considering relaxing my hair so, I decided to read the post below which I wrote (and never published) after a disastrous creamy crack relapse. Hopefully this will encourage me and those of you in a similar place to keep going. I’m not promising anything though…

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For now anyway…

– OCTOBER 2014 –

I messed up.

I was 7 months into my natural hair journey, when I noticed that my hair had developed a bad attitude problem. We were getting along just fine when one day I woke up, the honeymoon period was well and truly over and my hair had turned into a jerk! It was coarse, dry, brittle and rude. The only way that I could manipulate it (temporarily), was by massaging it with water and olive oil.

It no longer looked cute and short but rather like a mean looking tangled hedge. Lately, I’d noticed people no longer looked at me when they spoke to me but rather, at the attention seeking little hedge growing out of my head.
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So, after a particularly bad hair week,  I decided enough was enough and found myself at the hairdresser who used to look after my relaxed hair (schoolboy error no. 1).

“Oh wow, you cut your hair!” Dawn exclaimed a little too forced. I smiled politely. She ran her hand over my hair (over not through) and for a spilt second, I saw a flicker of panic on her face. But, she quickly composed herself. I chose to ignore this observation (error no. 2).

“So, what will you be having done today?”, Dawn asked.
Feeling a bit defeated, I explained that I was having a tough time managing my hair and that I wanted to condition it and make it more manageable. Immediately, she recommended a perm. She explained how a perm was a gentler treatment which would make my hair more manageable whilst also allowing it remain somewhat natural. Now, normally before I try a new product on my hair, I would research it to death. But on this rainy autumn morning, I didn’t feel like asking too many questions. I shrugged for her to go ahead (error no. 3). As soon as she started lacquering the cold paste onto my hair, I regretted it.

I felt the Ammonium Hydroxide, Ammonium Thioglycolate, Amodimethicone, Colorants, Fragrance, Polyquaternium-11, Styrene/Acrylates Copolymer and Water (apparently) eating away at my hair like an acid. The smell burnt through my nostrils. It smelt like a strong concentration of hair remover.

Had I done my research, I would have found out that Perm aka “PERManent” contains 2 of the key ingredients found in hair removal creams. The thing is, I wasn’t actually trying to remove my hair!

Over the next 2 hours, my hair tossed and turned as it was stripped and tortured. My scalp tingled and my head started to spin until I felt dizzy and unwell – sympathy pains perhaps. It felt like my whole body had joined the protest. Eventually the riot subsided and my hair emerged broken down to a more docile version of its former self.

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Example Natural hair before and after relaxer

I touched my softer “more manageable” hair  which looked more ridiculous than before and the 1st wave of regret hit me. I realised my hair had been a metaphorical child – perhaps a toddler going through his terrible twos and I’d given up on it (OK, a little dramatic – but I was upset lol!).

The 2nd wave hit as it occurred to me that although it seemed the whole “perm thing” had “happened” to me, subconsciously I’d orchestrated it on account of the upcoming conference which 300 of my colleagues would be attending. I guess on some level, I wanted to conform and look “normal”.

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It’s funny because for me, cutting my hair was never about going “natural”  in the technical term or proving a point to anyone. It was more about me experimenting with my God given afro hair and hopefully feeling comfortable in it. It was not something I had intended to do forever but on that Saturday morning, I knew I hadn’t done it long enough to reach whatever earth shattering objective I was trying to achieve.

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The next morning, I made a call to get my hair braided. At the 2014 October Conference, I had long wavy braids. I got a couple of lovely compliments in contrast to the curious stares. Sadly it felt good.

4 months later, I cut off all the permed hair. Back to square one.

Behind the scenes

It had already been predestined that on my 30th birthday (the eve of my party), I would spend 5 hours sitting in a chair, getting my hair braided, occasionally, switching bum cheeks to thaw the numbness. Although I would have preferred to watch something mind-numbing on E4, I would end up being “bullied” by my equally bored hairdresser to switch the channel to BET or the Nollywood movie channel. All these things were certain for me… and in fact, for some of the guests attending my party the next day.
I had however afforded myself a small degree of control by asking Bintu, my hairdresser to do my hair at my house. It had been years since I had had my hair braided at any hairdresser’s house. I had been burnt too many times to count.
Everything would start reasonably well. However, as soon as it felt like we were nearing the half way mark, she would ask to be excused for 5 minutes while she made a “quick” meal for a small collection of irritable and mildly restless children. Half an hour later, she would return, closely trailed by perhaps one of the aforementioned restless children. Said child would linger around demanding the attention of his mother, my hairdresser.
Eventually, he would find his way into my handbag and in one swift move, expertly retrieve the chocolate bar I had packed as a snack. The mother would lazily tell her cheeky little monkey not to touch auntie’s bag. The twinkle in his eye would tell me that he was in the habit of finding similar delights in handbags belonging to other “aunties”. Like me, the other aunties would eventually surrender the tasty treat in exchange for a little peace and quiet.
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On this particular “trip to the hairdresser”, I had decided to use my time in the chair to do all the last minute preparations for my party. I made lists, called guests and was having a rather efficient time. However, Bintu was in a particularly chatty mood… well, more than usual.
She was having another crisis in her life and wanted to explain all the details to me… I passively listened to her tell about some trouble with her husband back home as though I was listening to a radio show, catching enough details to sigh and gasp at the right moments. After pausing for the appropriate amount of time, my mind would wander back to the party.
“Do I have enough food?” “I must remember to text Kuda” I thought, as I added to my growing list.
I tuned back in to hear her voice rise further still, now bordering on hysterical. Hers was a pain that had been slowly stewed and garnished with a generous dose of resentment.
“Well, that’s not very good”, I added, not quite sure if that had been the most relevant response to whatever she had just said.
This carried on for a few minutes. However, like white noise demands attention, so her anguish had become so loud, I could no longer hear myself think. I tensed up.
“Bintu, can I pray for you?”, I finally asked.
The noise stopped. For the first time in about half an hour, she was quiet.
“Yes please”, she answered in a small voice. 
I invited her to sit next to me and held her hands. “Dear Heavenly Father…”
Over the next 10 mins, I prayed the best prayer I knew, asking God to give her His peace, which surpasses all understanding. I felt her pain in my own heart, which caused me to weep with her.
When I finished, my Muslim hairdresser and I said Amen and opened our eyes, both moist and teary. She looked at me and smiled weakly “thank you,” she said. I smiled back.
The peace settled with us for the rest of the afternoon while we chatted about life, birthdays, God and men.
5 hours later, I emerged looking like a cup full of super hot stuff. I dropped Bintu off in town and went to give her her £50 payment. “Make it £45”, she said smiling. “It’s my birthday present to you”.
I smiled, touched by her sweet gesture. “Thank you Bintu”.
That’s the thing about black hairdressing – we all wish we could peel off our hair, drop it off and pick it up later when it’s all done and pretty. In our rush, it’s easy to miss some of society’s most beautiful moments of sisterhood, with the incredible humans who make our hair happen.
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We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”
Gwendolyn Brooks

5 things I did not expect…

Cutting my hair has been a bitter sweet experience. I love observing the way people react to my hair. Many of my black family and friends still don’t get why I felt I had to do it but yet, I notice this strange fascination. They like it… they admire it… but no, it’s too much! Still, every so often, I catch them staring. It’s like their mind is working, perhaps reprogramming… well, at least I hope.
I have pulled together a list of my top 5 observations since I cut my hair. As always, there is a fine line between humour and stark reality – I hope you find it interesting.

No. 1 I think I look like a boy
Despite the overflow of well-wishing comments about how I would “totally rock a little fro” or “how I have the face to carry off short hair”, I think I look like a boy. I think most women who cut their hair feel the same way. According to me and my 2 friends, the only exception to this rule applies to the 0.5% of women who look like Halle Berry. Outside of this, there is a strong chance if you cut your hair, you will look in the mirror and think “Mmmm. A nice African boy”.
No. 2 It feels soooo good.
You know that feeling after a night out when you get home, take off your 6 inch heels, unclasp your bra [insert ahhhhh] and slip into your cosy pyjamas? Imagine that feeling everyday. Technically, you have no need to wear a head scarf, no need for straightners, no bad hair days. You just wake up in the morning, wet your hair, comb it out, pat it down and you are good to go in 4 minutes flat… EVERYDAY
No. 3 Short hair does care
Contrary to popular belief, I think short hair does care. In an attempt compensate for my new boyish looks, I find I wear more make up. Leaving the house without earrings has now become a crisis equivalent to forgetting my mobile phone at home. It’s that naked feeling which forces you to go back in the house even though you are already sat in the car, seat belt buckled, engine revving to go. My conclusion, short hair definitely does care.
"Be honest, do my earrings look small in this?"
“Be honest, do my earrings look small in this?”
No. 4 Its a cold world out there!
Since I cut my hair, I’ve found the world just that little bit less helpful. I can’t decide whether my short afro hair makes me look like some kind of stereotype society doesn’t welcome around here or quite simply, I just don’t suit my new hair! I find the female shop assistant is not as warm and quick to help me find aisle number 26.
Fewer people seem to notice me struggling up the stairs with that heavy bag. Male colleagues are not as willing to help me with my small favour. My advise in short, prepare to do more heavy lifting!
No. 5 I feel BEAUTIFUL
OK, I concede may no longer be society’s bog standard definition of beautiful but, there is something gratifying about knowing that the way I look first thing in the morning is more or less the way I look everyday. I no longer go from 26inches of flowing tresses to a 6inch bob and back again to 26inches overnight. So, no false advertising to potential suitors – what you see is what you get. 100% non Brazilian, definitely African hot stuff 😉
Although beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder ;-)!!!
Although beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder ;-)!!!

The road less travelled

She casually walked into my room and stood by the door “My hair has started falling” she said smiling as though she had just told me that dinner was ready or some other mundane household update.
My heart plummeted into my stomach. I knew this day was coming but it had still caught me off guard. In the summer of 2007, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and started her chemotherapy treatment shortly after.
The first day of chemo had been like the first day at school. There were nerves and preparation the night before. We arrived at the Oncology unit unusually early as though our good time keeping would ingratiate us with cancer. When her turn came, my mother sat in the armchair whilst the nurse fitted her cannula.
“Have you had a chance to think about whether you want to try the cold cap Emma?” the nurse asked.
The cold cap is a method of minimizing hair loss during chemo. By cooling the head, the cap reduces blood flow and in turn the amount of chemo medication that reaches the scalp. We had previously discussed the merits of using cold cap and I had felt she was more inclined to try it. That summer morning, I watched my mother consider the nurse’s question whilst sthe scanned the room. Her eyes rested briefly on the only other woman wearing a cold cap. For whatever reason, she decided not to use the cap.
My mother was strong. She had always been strong. My earliest memory of her incredible hair journey went back 23 years. It was 1991, my father had just been offered a job stationed in Ghana. So, off he went with his wife and 5 children to start a life in the little sleepy town of Koforidua.
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My mother got herself an apprenticeship working at Tina’s hair salon – a small shack in the local market square. So, while we were at school, she would spend hours learning how to perm, relax, roll and dye hair through a variety of hand gestures, some English but mostly in Twi, a language she didn’t understand.
An example of Tina's salon
An example of Tina’s salon
In the meantime, she had started ordering equipment and products – a hair dryer, dyes, rollers, and giant tubs of Blue Magic hair food, to name a few. I remember there was a lot of Blue Magic, which ironically, also came in green. A year or so later, certificate in hand, the whole family headed back to Zimbabwe where my mum poised herself to launch her fabulous new hair salon…. in the storeroom next to our garage.
The Salon was roughly the size of a small double bedroom. It consisted of one hair dryer, several kitchen chairs (slightly damaged), a white and gold “bedroom style” dressing table, no assistants and one sink which only ran unforgettably icy cold water.
My mother’s salon took the neighbourhood by storm! The rumour was, Emma had returned from Ghana and opened a salon using products from America! Neighbours, church friends and eventually word of mouth customers flocked to our little storeroom to try Dark & Lovely, Blue Magic, Crazy Colour and Lusters – brands which were still scarcely available in Harare.
The hairdryer was the first to feel the heat, or rather, the lack of it. It turned out the hairdryer was not designed to cope with professional use. So on any given day, my mother would offer her customers the choice between waiting for the dryer to emerge from its lull or sitting on the patch of grass outside the storeroom while the African sun did the finishing touches on their roller sets.
Over the months, there were amazing transformations, smelly perms, an unfortunate incident with a woman whose relaxer had been left on too long, and one time, my mother had even had a full complement of bridesmaids – bride also included.
My mother loved people and had enjoyed her salon. She would animatedly tell her captivated customers stories of what she had seen in Ghana, often regaling tales of her experience working in Tina’s salon. Naturally the details of its shack-like quality were omitted. All the while, my mother and father as a team made sure all 5 children were fed, watered and in school.
She took a step into my room, “Tate please can you cut my hair?”
“Mum.” I choked, my eyes brimming with tears.
“It’s only going to fall off anyway” she reassured me, still smiling.
I stood behind my mother and cut her hair. Although the scissors I held were the instrument, her hair gave away too easily – the effect of the chemo. As her hair fell onto the towel resting on her shoulders, I wept. I wept for the hair. I wept for this new uncertain season we were entering as a family. I wept for things I did not yet understand.
She starred at her reflection in the mirror, running her hand over her freshly exposed head. She looked over at me and noticed I had been crying. “Why are you crying??” she asked smiling bravely “It’s only hair.”
Not too long after, my mother and sister came home one afternoon with a new wig which my mum affectionately called her hat.
In the months that followed I watched my mother swing between anxiety to insecurity to indifference and back again. When we went out, she would wear her hat. This generally meant lots of scratching and adjusting, as it was warm and would irritate her exposed scalp. I guess it must be like wearing an itchy woollen hat throughout the highs and lows of the summer. On hat days, my sister and I would take it in turns to tweak, fluff and sometimes spin her hat a full 90 degrees back into its correct position.
Some days she wore a scarf to protect her head from the cold. Other days she was just too cancered out to care and wore her battle wounds in plain sight for all to see.
3 years later, we lost our mother after an incredible Chimurenga war. Come to think of it, she had always claimed to be related to Ambuya Nehanda.
– END –    
Afterword
October is breast cancer awareness month. Cancer is pretty tough business – I speak as a mere observer.  I would like to encourage you/myself to look around our communities – people are living it everyday. Make a meal for an affected neighbour and/or his family, pray for the people going through it, visit, call, do a sponsored walk, listen, be patient, encourage but ultimately, give them the greatest gift, that is LOVE.

 

This is my single story.
All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Chimamanda Achidie

The Awkward Silence

So, 2 weeks ago I decided to cut off my relaxed hair off. It wasn’t breaking. I wasn’t going through some kind of mid life crisis. I just decided I wanted to experience life in my natural hair. After over 20 years of either relaxing my hair or wearing it with a variety of wild and wonderful attachments, it felt long overdue!
The feedback I have have had has been phenomenal! Phenomenally mute that is. I have had comments like:
“You look like a plain Zimbo girl” to “It will take some getting used to…”
Then of course, I’ve had my refreshingly enthusiastic “team natural” girls telling me, “You’re still killing it!” or a favourite of mine, “Short hair don’t care “…. Outside of these few comments, its been almost uncomfortably quiet…
Somehow, I had expected the reception Lupita N’yongo has received. But, it seems off the Oscars stage, our natural God given hair is still a little too… unconventional.
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I have walked into so many rooms and felt like there is a rainbow coloured elephant in the room, complete with bows and whistles that no one is willing to acknowledge.
On the whole, most people don’t say anything. Occasionally, one person will say “new hair?” – something I have now come to understand to be a rhetorical statement, uttered purely to take the edge off how uncomfortable they feel about not positively acknowledging my new hair. So much for my most dramatic hairstyle to date!
Today however, was different. A male colleague I hadn’t seen for a few weeks walked into the office and commented “oh, new hair?”. I gave my standard response about “trying something different” and to my surprise, he started walking towards me to engage further in this conversation. I wasn’t prepared for this…
He wanted to know why my hair had changed so drastically and then, in an open plan office full of people (OK 3 people, but still) he asked me “so have you been wearing a wig all this time???”. After I regained my composure, I went on to nonchalantly try and explain the structure of afro hair and the process involved in relaxing it. I think he sort of understood because he took a moment to consider what I had said and thoughtfully replied “So you’ve gone natural!”.
At this point, I was beaming! I felt completely satisfied that in my own small way, I was part of the movement. The movement to unashamedly educate people about being black without westernising myself “to make you feel more comfortable working with me”. I felt pleased.
However, nothing could have prepared me for what happened next. Without any warning, my male colleague with whom I have a VERY professional relationship asked “Can I feel it?”. Without waiting for my response, he reached over and touched my hair… at work… by my desk… like he was stroking a rare African antelope or some other wildlife.
“Mmm. It’s soft”, he lied.
And that ladies and gentlemen is a summary of my first two weeks as part of “team natural”. Many people have asked me how I feel since my big chop. “Is it weird?”, “you must be feeling liberated?” So far, its been all of the above!