It’s been a hairy couple of weeks in South Africa — and not just for the country’s finance minister, who’s been under threat of arrest by investigators in a seemingly factional battle in the ruling party.
The issue of hair has been in the news as a result of stringent, old-fashioned colonial thinking and regulations that basically ban Afros in various South African schools. That this is the prevailing situation in the country that gave the world Steve Biko and Black Consciousness is, to my mind, quite appalling.
But it reminded me of the tale of Afro Kipara bin Matuta. Afro was born in Nairobi and grew up in a multicultural environment.
As a child, he had thick, coarse curly hair, but envied some of his friends and neighbours from Europe and Asia, who had straight, supposedly easy-to-manage hair. To Afro, all these people had to do when they woke up was run their fingers through their hair, and shake it like the model in the Timotei TV advert, and off they went.
His hair, on the other hand, needed to be coerced with the help of Vaseline Hair Tonic or Brylcreem before it could be combed. In the morning, and as the concept of bad hair days or even baby dreads had not yet arrived in his world, he had no choice in the matter other than to go bald, which was unheard of for young boys.
Afro yearned to have Eurasian “get up and go” hair, and eventually achieved it at some cost by using harsh chemicals. But this came with its own challenges, including having to buy lots of extra ‘product’ to apply on the hair and complicated routines, including wearing a shower cap to bed to maintain the wet look.
In later years, he found that this snazzy wet look was an impediment to getting a job, as nobody would take him seriously until his hair was cut into a small, neat afro. Did I mention that at about this time, Afro was reading the autobiography of Malcolm X?
Malcolm said that when black people chemically straighten their hair, they are implying that in order to be presentable, they must abandon their natural hair and do their best to resemble white people. Therefore, to achieve Mobutu Sese Seko style authenticity and conform to Kenyan conservativeness, he changed his style yet again.
As luck would have it, shortly after he dispensed with the hair chemicals, genetics set in and his hair began to thin on top rather rapidly, forcing him to shave his entire head clean in a style reminiscent of Isaac Hayes, thus also living up to his middle name, Kipara.
These days, he looks back on his youthful hair adventures with a wry smile and wonders what the heck he was thinking. Does he have the answers? I doubt it, but he’s glad there is a conversation around the issue.