Esmeralda. That was what Sally decided to call my hair six years ago, when we first discovered that there was definitely something wrong with it. It was her way, I guess, of telling me that despite the fact that mine wasn’t as long and thick and altogether glorious as hers, it was still beautiful. And when I tell you that her hair was thick, I mean untameably, awe-inspiringly, ridiculously thick. You could lose a chicken wing in there. The lady who used to come to school fortnightly to blowdry our hair lived in fear of the days that Sally would show up with a towel on her head and her shirt untucked and a bitch look on her face. And we didn’t blame her. In fact, we all resented Sally a little whenever she decided to get her hair blowdried because she was one of those girls who would be on that chair for a full forty minutes, because the blow dry, at maximum heat, couldn’t get through her hair. And if the good lady tried to force issues, the thing would come apart, with the comb end flying off onto the grass, where we sat, waiting our turns, fast losing hope of getting our hair straightened that week. One time ‘mama wa blowdry’ as we so fondly and respectfully called her, couldn’t show for like a full term and there was a group of us that was fully convinced that she broke her arm on Sally’s head, trying to tame a wild beast. Sally herself understood that hers was no ordinary hair and by the end of the year she had discovered ways of staying weeks and weeks and weeks without having to wash and blowdry it. The result was that by the end of the term, her head looked like it housed some weird species of bird, and as we shuttled back home when school closed, and I happened to sit next to her, I kept glancing at it because I felt like it was looking at me.
Mine? Mine was thin and sad-looking and only shiny when I put pink lotion in it. And hard and crinkly and stunted. It just didn’t grow. Or it did, and I just didn’t notice because the ends broke off faster than I could walk to Leila’s cube to demand said pink lotion. And when Sally realized the extent of my hair insecurities, she decided that Esmeralda was a fitting name. I wasn’t sure whether she was mocking me but I let her go ahead. I even wrote a poem about it…which I would share here but for two reasons. One, I would like to maintain the level of dignity I currently have, and two, I no longer have it anyway. But it was a weird poem about how years of blowdry and braiding and being slathered and suffocated in Venus or Dax had made it weak and anything but a crowning glory. I was in Form Two, guys. Be kind.
And the naturalista bug hadn’t even hit Nairobi yet.
Sometime in Form Two Esmeralda began to show signs of life. For the first time in my life my hair went up to the base of my neck when fully straightened. My joy was short lived, however. Soon after, I realized that what was at neck-length were actually just split ends, which I had to trim off. Then about a term later I woke up one morning and discovered, as I was combing my pink-lotioned hair before rushing off to breakfast, that a part of my hair seemed to have been cut. Right around the back of my head. A section was obviously shorter than the rest of the hair, and in such a straight line that I could only imagine that some malicious person had decided to hover over me with a pair of scissors as I slept.
It never fully recovered and I have never really discovered what happened to the hair at the back of my head. Finally in Form Four, when we went home during the election break, I woke up and went to the salon, accompanied by my sister, who was thoroughly scandalized that I was going to cut off my hair. I watched as the nice lady cut it off to just a couple of inches long on the top of my head and much less at the back. I didn’t know what to feel. The look on Melissa’s face didn’t help and I put on a brave face even though she didn’t have the courtesy to say that it looked nice, even though she really thought it made me look like a ten year old boy and all that was missing was the flaky white knees and feet and elbows because I guess somebody just tells boys from a very young age that mafuta ni ya sura pekee, and even that, only when absolutely necessary.
That was in 2013. Three years later and the only change is that my hair is now a little bit softer. Deep conditioning, you see. Esmeralda doesn’t care that I have read and followed every natural hair blog I could find on the internet. She doesn’t care that I spend thousands on hair products that promise to make look like those girls on Pinterest with phenomenally clear skin and waist length hair, and then fail to deliver and instead just dry up on my hair after two hours and leave it with this crunchy sound, like someone munching on crisps. Esmeralda doesn’t care that my mother cannot be made to understand what is so wrong now about Blue Magic and Miadi when I used them all the time when I was younger. And she sure doesn’t give a damn that it frustrates me to no end when I see Chirie change her Whatsapp photo to this pic of her flaunting her incredible afro, yet Chirie cut off her hair two years after I cut mine. I mean what kind of injustice is that??
My braids have been in for three weeks now. Apparently people can keep their braids for 8 weeks and still look like the ideal Black Queen. Meanwhile, by the time mine are a month old they cover only half of my head because the rest of them fell out right about the second week. I walk around town with near-hairless patches on my head because for some reason I have no hair on my crown and the extensions only hang on for a week before they give up. On my edges too.
Don’t even get me started on my edges.
Kwanza this thing of tying my head every single night with the damn satin scarf, it’s almost as frustrating as the lack of hair on my crown. Every single night? No off days? God. Do you think I have the rest of my life so together that a satin scarf is the first thing on my mind after a long ass day? No. My life is absolutely not together. I’m not sure that I will ever have it together. I do know that after tedious classes, traipsing up and down in the Nairobi sun, wearing shoes that never fit quite right and trying to keep track of what I’m eating because of the damn lifestyle changes we are all tripping over ourselves to make… I am not thinking about a satin scarf.
And while we’re on this, the way guys are always tripping about girls tying their hair at night, I don’t get it. They want long flowing hair all over the pillow case, despite their apparent abhorrence for weaves. Dude, you’d best look elsewhere. Our hair doesn’t flow; it fights. Plus you probably know zilch about how much work goes into caring for black hair; just appreciate the efforts, okay?
Remove the kinks from your mind, not your hair.
My sister ended up cutting her hair also. Because when I told her not to relax it, that relaxed hair is a nightmare when you’re in a school that has no time for your hair care routine, she decided she wanted to have an attractive start in high school, and had Beautiful Beginnings slathered across her scalp. She now makes a point of asking me which black hair tutorials to watch on YouTube, and regularly joins me as I stare at pretty black girls on Pinterest and their manes, and we both say ‘goals’. And when she goes back to school, she trims her hair till it’s really short because her teachers think that black hair in its natural state is untidy and unbecoming of a lady. Such nonsense. To them I say, Leave our hair alone. I stay home and listen to Leila and Sally preach to me about the gift that are crotchet braids, check my crown (I have taken to calling it Neverland because growth here is an unheard of concept), read articles on how black hair is a political issue, and tie a satin scarf before bed. These efforts had better pay off or I swear to God I will start wearing weaves. And not the good kind. Uh-uh. The ones your high school dorm matron used to wear. And I’m not even joking.
Okay. Maybe I am. I’m not trying to get invited to my neighborhood chama. But seriously, hatutaishi hivi.