By EKENE ONU
Aunty come make I fix you.
Aunty come make I fix you.
I can hear them calling from Nigeria's Tejuosho Market.
No one sells African hair.
I have always had a love hate relationship with my hair. More hate than love. From the time I was young, the mamas who used to braid hair would argue over who would be forced to do my hair. “Isi mpulu ose,” our maid used to call me. Little balls of pepper. My hair broke many a comb. My parents bought a metal comb—bright imposing little thing. Sparks flew when they used it. I cried because I thought my hair would catch fire.
Whenever my mother traveled, my father, who had long since given up on taming my hair, would herd my sister and I to the barbershop and tell the man to cut it. “Gorimapa!” he would say. The barber, looking at our sad faces, would beg for him to change his mind. “My friend, I said shave it,” my father insisted. Resolute. So began the first of many schoolyard taunts. Other girls had ribbons and hair clips. I had only Vaseline.
I can laugh now, but it devastated me then, because even at that young age, we were told that our appearance was important. “Fine girl. Fine girl! Ye pa, why you allow your papa shave your head like that? See as your head just dey shine. Gori Gori!”
My hair has been tortured, never loved. Always looked upon with derision. My mothers taught me how. From Dark and Lovely relaxers to too hot straightening irons, it has been burnt in more ways than one. Damaged. Each cuticle cries out for affection. But like me, it is resilient. Takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Never a bald spot—chopped but grows back. It keeps coming back for more, hoping that one day I’ll do it right.
When I discovered weave, it was like my crack. Take it down, put it back in. I was always surprised to see my tight curly pattern underneath my long silky weave: “It is growing,” I would announce with glee., as if this should surprise me. I wore a weave when I took the pregnancy test that announced my Sina’s impending arrival. Did I wear a weave at her birth? From the moment I learned she was a girl, I prayed for her to be well.
I prayed for her to be perfect.
I prayed for her to have my husband’s hair.
He has softer hair that grows quickly. I envisioned pigtails that hung down and ribbons. God is on the throne and he smiled as he created her hair. As she grew from a practically bald baby to a toddler finally growing hair, I became aware of one fact: You can run but you cannot hide. You must deal with your issues one way or another.
My daughter has hair just like mine.
I look at it and I take it for the first time. “Your hair is beautiful,” I tell her as I struggle to plait it into presentable braids.
“It’s beautiful and she’s beautiful,” I tell her teacher when she asks if my daughter has had a haircut every time I wash her hair.
“I love her hair, it’s beautiful,” I growl to my sister when she makes a seemingly innocuous remark about whether or not to buy Sina ribbons.
I shout it to the rooftops. To anyone who will hear. “My Sina is beautiful, with her kinky, kinky hair!”
But for all my yelling, all the noise I make, I fear my wise and perceptive Sina hears a different message loud and clear. The other day she brought me a hairpiece, a long silky affair. She smiled and said, “I gave mummy her hair.” She watched as I covered up most of my own kinky hair. I wondered what impact this was having on her—how her two-year-old mind was processing that mummy has hair that grows out of her head, but somehow also has this hair. Wouldn’t it be easier for her to get hair too, instead of being forced to endure the pain of braiding or combing?
Finally I am forced to deal with this, because I won’t have her harmed. I won’t have her thinking that she is anything less than perfect. I won’t have her damaged, not in body or soul. How do I teach her to love herself when I struggle with this myself?
How do I teach her to love her hair, when I never let mine see the sun?
Ekene Onu is a 30-something writer who was raised in Nigeria and currently resides in Atlanta, GA. She is the founder and editor of Nouveau Africana, an online lifestyle magazine for African women in the diaspora. "The Mrs. Club" is her first novel. Ekene's beautiful daughter, Sina, is pictured above with Anuli, Ekene's sister. And MyBrownBaby thinks Sina's hair is beautiful, too.