Why the corporate world has not accepted dreadlocks


What you need to know:

  • The jury is still out on whether men who sport locks should hold high corporate offices
  • A section of the Kenyan society associates dreadlocks with reggae, marijuana and rebellion, except where they are worn as custom by the Maasai
  • Some people argue that to wear or not to wear an ethnic hairstyle should be a personal choice. Nonetheless, one needs to evaluate what is important

Bobby Mkangi was hopeful when he applied for a job in the Committee of Experts, the team that drafted the Kenya Constitution. But he says he was surprised when he made it to the final shortlist.

Mr Mkangi, a lawyer, had the right credentials but there was the small matter of his hair – dreadlocks. In a conservative society where wearers of dreadlocks are considered rebels, outlaws or outright drug users, he thought his hair might be a hindrance.

But he kept the hope.

The Public Service Commission went right ahead and placed him in the team that drafted the country’s supreme law. Mr Mkangi, who says he will not shave for the world, leave alone a job, concedes that it is not every day that a dreadlocked man sits in what society has defined as a formal office doing a formal job.

Locally, dreadlocks are more or less left to such people as singers, fashionistas, civil society operatives, rastafarians, Maasai warriors and matatu touts.

Dreadlocked chief executives, bankers, lawyers, auditors, teachers or pastors are rare, if they exist.

Musician Eric Wainaina is one of the most prominent musicians in Kenya, who has done business with leading corporates such a Safaricom. Wainaina, also a theatre producer, once landed a Sh12 million deal from Safaricom to promote the musical Mo Faya which he took all the way to New York, US.

Other dreadlocked artistes who are prominent in corporate circles are Nameless and gospel sensation Juliani.

Is conspicuous

Mr Mkangi says a dreadlocked man is usually conspicuous.

“People would act surprised and focus on me because of stereotypes bound in our society,” he told Lifestyle.

His initial fears that he would not land a job in the CoE were not unfounded but he says he knew he would not shave.

“I started growing my dreadlocks after Form Four and shaved them after law school. I have had them now for about three years. I love dreadlocks and it is something I have grown up with. It is my preference,” he said.

According to the lawyer, some people in Kenya are still holding on to old conservative beliefs that make no sense and can be termed as biased; if a person is denied work because of his looks.

“This is a position in the Jurassic stage. When you force someone to shave their hair, you get only 75 per cent of the person (and) that is a loss. These stereotypes hold us captive,” he said.

The situation is not unique to Kenya. In the US, although “ethnic” hairstyles seem to have been accepted by many, there are still some environments that consider them taboo.

Glamour magazine came under fire recently when one of its associate editors (a white female) labelled afros, cornrows and the like as unacceptable business hairstyles. According to the Suite101 site, this controversy became so heated that the editor eventually resigned.

Dreadlocks can be traced to the Rastafarians of Jamaica, and further, to Indian sages and yogis.

“Possessing nothing, renouncing the world and possessions (not even a comb) they eschewed even personal grooming, hence the inevitable dreadlocks. Dreadlocks get their name from Jamaican tradition,” says www.dreadlocks.org.

According to the site, dreadlocks were introduced to pop culture by reggae maestro Bob Marley.

Internet sources show that dreadlocks are associated most closely with the Rastafarian movement, but people from many ethnic groups in history before them have worn them.

They include many ancient Semitic and Indo-Aryan peoples of the Near East and Asia Minor, Sadhus of Nepal, India and the Sufi Rafaees, the Maori people of New Zealand, the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania and the Oromo of Ethiopia, and the Sufi malangs and fakirs of Pakistan, and medieval Irish warriors.

In the Bible the parents of Samson, the famous Jewish warrior, were instructed not to cut his hair.

“All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head: until the days be fulfilled, in which he separateth himself unto the Lord, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow,” says Numbers 6:5.

Yet locks are still associated with rebellion.

Derek Bbanga of Public Image says a big section of the Kenyan society associates dreadlocks with reggae, marijuana and rebellion, except where they are worn as custom by Maasai warriors. He says women who wear dreadlocks are more accepted in conservative professions than men.

“Women are allowed a variety, and people will view a lady with dreadlocks as having a fashionable hairstyle. For a man it will not be the same, it is sometimes viewed as anti-social behaviour,” he said.

“The perception of dreadlocks as a bad thing is innate, we cannot control it. If you have them and want to keep them, go into an industry that fits you and accepts them,” he added.

And psychologist Mbutu Kariuki says people should make meaning out of issues before drawing conclusions and understand the genesis of a lifestyle before emulating it.

“Before we judge a society, we interrogate it. Dreadlocks are very natural, cultural and religious,” he said.

Moi University anthropologist Harrison Maithya said the genesis of the hairstyle is unclear, with attributions to Ethiopia, other parts of Africa and some Indian countries.

He added that rastafarians – largely associated with popularising dreadlocks – were African slaves shipped off to the Caribbean and adopted the hairstyle as a signature of their identity and quest for freedom. The slaves’ descendants identified Emperor Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian leader who was overthrown in 1974, as their spiritual leader.

“Dreadlocks were associated with anti-establishment. It was a religious, very spiritual state,” Mr Maithya said.

Mr Mkangi said he uses his dreadlocks to show rebellion against social injustices and inequality, adding that those who fail to conform to societal expectations pose a threat to those that manipulate conformists.

But there are many young people who have been forced to shave their locks in the quest for employment.

University of Nairobi graduate George Muite shaved his to get internship in the corporate world. He argues that society must not judge people by their hair.

“Even people without dreads are unruly. They (corporates) should take some time to know the strength and skill level of an individual before they reject them. Some organisations lose skilled persons because they are holding on to backward mentalities about dreadlocks,” he said.

Rodger Shehi, 25, also a University of Nairobi graduate, says he missed out on four employment opportunities because of his locks.

“I was interviewed to be an administrator, an accountant assistant, a public relations officer and a data entry supervisor. All these organisations wanted my head clean,” Mr Shehi said.

Public relations practitioner Lynda Koskey said that men who wear dreadlocks think it is fine and it defines one’s personal sense of style. But she concedes that not all organisations think the same way.

So the style is left to the professions where there is no strict fashion code.

Fredrick Rorigi, a dreadlocked hairdresser who specialises in locks, says for him it’s just a form of fashion. Most of his male clients are people who run their own businesses or work in the media and entertainment sectors.

His peer Raphael Wakesho says it is wrong to see dreadlocked people as shabby or unkempt as locks are not easy to maintain.

“Only 28 per cent of my customers are men. If a man can keep his hair so clean, imagine what he can do with a home,” Mr Wakesho said.

Moses Wainaina, 30, another hairdresser, has worn his for six years. He said he ventured into hairdressing and fashion because it accommodated his look.

“I earn at least Sh1,000 from one customer,” he said. Most of his male clients work in NGOs.

Strict dress codes

Catholic, Strathmore and Daystar universities have strict dress codes and have banned dreadlocks. Their thinking is that they are preparing their students for the corporate world.

In the US, controversy has dogged Hampton University about their 11-year-old ban on dreadlocks and cornrows for students.

According to http://www.wvec.com, Hampton University’s business school male students enrolled in the school’s five-year MBA programme cannot wear dreadlocks or cornrows in class.

The Dean Sid Credle believes that the ban has been effective in helping his students land corporate jobs.

“We’ve been very successful. We’ve placed more than 99 per cent of the students who have graduated from this school,” Mr Credle is quoted as saying on their university website.

He added that it’s important for students to look the part when looking for a job.

Some people argue that to wear or not to wear an ethnic hairstyle should be a personal choice. Nonetheless, one needs to evaluate what is important.

It is clear that some corporations believe that certain ethnic hairstyles, especially afros, cornrows and dreadlocks, will adversely affect their corporate image. According to Suite101, choosing to wear an ethnic hairstyle could potentially have a negative effect on one’s success in the corporate world.

Mr Mkangi cautions society against discrimination and says that if one is rejected on account of a hairstyle, they could seek legal redress.

“Nothing will be forced upon me by anyone, even an employer. Society should allow room for self expression.”