The politics of black hair

Afros came with civil rights movements in the West in the 1970s and 1980s. Wearing an afro was a form of activism aimed at reclaiming roots. Now, it’s mostly a fashion statement.

What you need to know:

  • Transitioning from chemically straightened to natural hair is a learning curve for women.
  • The biggest mistake women wanting to keep their hair natural, according to Michelle, is assuming that it is easy and that keeping an afro is an easy 'wash and go' process.
  • In her words, it is a commitment.

When it comes to African hair, natural is the new black. Gone are the days when words like 'untidy' and 'unprofessional' were used to describe hair that hasn't been chemically straightened. Now afros, Bantu knots, twists outs are fashionable and women are flaunting them on the streets and social media. A quick YouTube search on natural hair tutorials turns up hundreds of videos of natural hair enthusiasts twisting hair, using rice water, and laying edges. They make it all look very easy.

This is what Anne Barasa, 34, thought when she chopped off all of her permed hair in January last year.

"I had just left a toxic relationship, got a new job, and moved houses. I was finally ready for that fresh start. Ready for a full, healthy afro," she recalls.

All this excitement lasted all of a month when she realised her hair couldn't quite do the things she wanted it to do.

"I had found this natural hairstylist and the first time I left her salon my mane looked glorious. But the very next day, it was looking like tufts of grass. The curling oil she had sold me wasn't helping much. And I had to go to my merchandising job where I interact with customers looking like I had a bad hair day," she says.

Thinking that maybe she hadn't done enough research, she began following natural hair bloggers and YouTubers online.

"Each would swear by this product or that regimen but none quite worked on my hair like they seemed to work on theirs. I bought dozens of expensive products then I realised it was going to be more expensive than my Sh 3000 bi-monthly perm retouch, I permed my hair back," she says.

More options

This frustration of trying to get that miracle combination of products is routine for naturalistas leaving thick natural hair feeling like a burden for some. The industry has changed over the last decade. For the longest time, the hair and beauty industry ignored natural hair. If you walked into a cosmetics shop a decade ago, if you were lucky, there would only be a shelf dedicated to products of maintaining natural hair textures. This range would mostly take care of the dreadlocks trend that was catching on then. Everything else would be chemicals that stripped away the tight curls in 'nappy' hair.

Then natural hair textures began becoming more acceptable and there was a gap in information which YouTubers and bloggers quickly stepped up to fill.

Michelle Anyango a Youtuber and a Natural hair enthusiast who began her natural hair journey in 2015 is one such resource. Thousands of naturalistas visit her YouTube Channel Nywele Chronicles every week for the hair care tips, styling videos, and product recommendations she shares.

"I started my journey in June 2015, my hair had thinned out so much because of heat damage and I just decided to cut it off and have a fresh start. I would love to inspire future generations especially the young girls to embrace their kinks and coils," she shares.

The biggest mistake women wanting to keep their hair natural, according to Michelle, is assuming that it is easy and that keeping an afro is an easy 'wash and go' process. In her words, it is a commitment.

"My typical wash day includes de-tangling the hair as I pre-poo, shampooing, conditioning, and deep-conditioning and finally I style my hair ensuring to use the L.C.O (Liquid, cream, Oil) so that the moisture is sealed in," she says. Depending on how she is feeling that day, it can take anything from half a day to the whole day.

The unregulated market

Therein lies the problem. "I don't have the whole day to do all these treatments. I am busy with work and family," Immah Njeri, who works in a government institution, and has a love-hate relationship with her natural hair, chimes.

Transitioning from chemically straightened to natural hair is a learning curve for women. The popularity of natural hair has also become a learning curve for giants in the hair care industry.

A hair care report from 2014 found that black women in the US were abandoning relaxers for natural hair care products. By 2015, natural hair care products made up 5 percent of black hair care sales, almost double from 2013 to reach sales of $946 million. That growth came at the expense of hair relaxers and straighteners, which saw sales drop by 19 percent during the same time. We have no local studies but the natural hair industry trends are similar.

This evolution has presented an opportunity for natural hair brands to enter the market and we have more locally manufactured natural hair care products available. Naturalistas now have some options.

"My problem is there is little research on our hair. We need standards and products that are certified to work," says Immah, who has had her fair share of troubles maintaining her natural mane. She transitioned six years ago, as the chemicals made her look like she was 'sick' and 'malnourished', but her natural journey has been trying.

"African hair is not all the same. It comes in diverse textures, shades, and variations. We need products that work for each hair type. My hair shrinks by the hour. It's glorious in the morning, but by afternoon, it shyly hugs my scalp. It’s refuses to love me back," she sobs.

The difference in hair types and the lack of enough research makes finding the right products and regimens a mirage. It's no wonder that most naturalists dressing tables are littered with all manner of products. "I had to throw most of them out. Now I make my own concoction," Immah says of the mixtures she makes from different oils.

Today, there are tens of women concocting hair products in their kitchens which they then push on natural hair support forums.

To be fair, some of the world's biggest beauty and hair care brands were started in the kitchen so this is a good initiative. The problem is that with so many people manufacturing informally, the natural hair market is largely unregulated meaning products that are not tested, that do not list all of their ingredients and some which are contaminated as they do not follow good manufacturing practices make it to our hairs.

Cecilia Bedan, a Nairobi based club promoter says that regulators ought to check the natural hair products market. she has a good reason.

"When I went natural, I wanted to go all-in so I looked for products with no chemicals in them. Most oils were mixed by women in their homes and they worked well. Problems began when I began looking to dye my hair," she says.

She got a recommendation online by a woman about a natural hair dye that she claimed was made from barks of trees and imported from Central Africa. Cecilia was happy to try it.

"It gave my hair a weird-looking tint. Then it dried it so much that it began cutting. It's been eight months and I have just recovered most of my volume," she says.

As she heals her damaged hair, she has resorted to branded products from local manufacturers which she laments are more expensive.

Beth Miriti's problem with the 'kitchen' hair care product is that most of what she has used still has the natural smell which often isn't pleasant.

"The oils do work but it's like I have to choose between going around smelling funky and my hair looking good. I can't have both. There was some butter mixture I used that smelled so bad I had to wash my hair in the middle of the night," she says. "We could do with cheaper, better-processed products," she says.

Another issue is the dearth of skill set available in local salons. "Most don't know how to handle it. They either apply high heat; insist you weave or suggest that you texturize it. I have to carry my products along," Immah says.

What is a woman to do?

Still, natural hair carries some stereotypes. So much so that when an African woman wears her natural hair, people assume she is strong-headed or that she is making a statement. Women have reported their men, giving them confused stares and begging them to go back to the 'polished' look.

Shee Kibugi a naturalista and the owner of Kinky Curls salon in Nairobi specialising in natural hair care thinks that this isn't necessarily the case.

"Most of it is usually just women trying to get comfortable with their natural hair. Then some find natural hairstyles more convenient and of course those who come aboard because this is what is trendy at this time," she says.

How then can a woman with natural hair have healthy hair without breaking the bank?

"Quality natural hair products are more expensive than straighteners," Shee who owns a brand of natural hair products christened Kinky Curly All Nature, offers.

"Natural hair requires commitment and investment of time. If however, you are willing to work on it and you ignore all these 'experts' telling you must have this or that product, and find what works for your hair, the process can be enjoyable," she says.

Only time will tell whether this natural hair phase is a mere fad or a lifestyle change for Kenyan women.