By Winnie Kyomuhendo

I am not my hair

I am not this skin

I am a soul that lives within

India Arie

A woman’s hair has often been described as her crown, a symbol of her identity and sometimes a window into her personality. If you wear your hair pony-tailed without a single strand out of place you may be considered well-organised and meticulous. If you wear your hair loose and curly you may be taken to be fun and exciting. What about if you wear your crown in its natural state unaltered by chemical treatments?

Many of us have grown accustomed to having our hair relaxed to rid ourselves of our kinky “African” hair in favour of straight hair that can be blown about by the wind. Until recently, those that carried their kinky hair from their childhood into their adulthood were normally considered unattractive especially if their hair appeared rough and difficult to manage. It was even worse if their hair colour was anything but jet black.

Today, it appears that African women as well as women around the world with African roots have claimed back their right to keep their hair kinky. Hair care products and salons dedicated specifically to handling kinky hair have developed over the years. It is almost impossible to look at pictures of women with kinky hair that is twisted into elaborate and beautiful styles without running to the nearest barber for the “big chop”. Increasingly, one’s African identity is tagged to one’s hair texture. So am I not African enough if my hair is relaxed?

I happened to overhear a conversation about hair between two young ladies at a restaurant a few months ago (in the good old days before the coronavirus robbed us of our freedom to lounge about at our favourite restaurants). They both had “natural” hair (this is what most Ugandans call hair that is not chemically straightened) and were happy to announce to each other (and to the entire restaurant, to the least of their knowledge I assumed) that they were proper African women on account of their hair.

So who is a proper African woman, I asked myself. Is she merely someone who rejects social pressure to relax her hair, choosing instead to wear her crown in its natural state? Is that all there is to being a proper African? I had always thought that the essence of the natural hair movement was to redefine beauty by giving us the option of proudly maintaining our kinky hair if we so choose, but not necessarily to define our African identity by our hair. Or was I wrong? What defines the African identity?

I sometimes struggle to understand why “natural” hair is considered such a strong African trait by fellow Africans, when they still adorn themselves with garments and accessories that are made outside Africa. Am I a true African woman if I wear my kinky hair along with Burberry sunglasses and a Fendi handbag? What about if I wear my kinky hair in beautiful cornrows as I travel across Europe for pleasure without having visited even half of the leisure sights in my own country? Would I be considered less African if I relaxed my hair but continued to live, breath and advocate for everything African? Does it even matter that not all Africans are born with the same hair texture and cannot all be expected to have the classic kinky hair?

I do not at all doubt that hair can be used to make a bold statement especially where defining one’s identity is concerned. However, there seems to be a subtle hypocrisy that accompanies such a statement, as is the case with most things that are subjective. Our identity must first and foremost come from within us. Anyone that interacts with us should have no doubt that we are African as shown by our words and deeds irrespective of our physical appearance. When we support local African businesses, promote African music, sport, film, fashion and cuisine, and advocate for the inclusion of African ideas in global discussions, our identity as Africans shines through. When we are united in all these endeavours, we are seen as true Africans irrespective of our appearance.

A good question to ask oneself would be – if I were to conceal my hair from the world for the rest of my life, would my words and actions still reveal my African identity?