The One With The Afro (TOWTA)

A Narrative Essay

By Ndapewoshali Ndahafa Ashipala
© Orianne Lopes, extracted from the serie Les Mélanies, 2013

I am an African woman, born in Oshakati State Hospital in the Oshana region, Namibia, Southern Africa. I’m as African as one can be. My skin is dark, my hair is coarse, my lips are full and my nose is wide. My entire lineage is African. I was raised and educated in Africa. I live in Africa, and as much as I travel the world, I have no interest in leaving because this is my home. I’ll stay here. I’ll work here. I’ll fix here… So that it is better for the ones that follow me.

And yet, in the year 2019, I am referred to as “the one with the afro” or “the one with the natural hair”. Because in Windhoek, where I live, not having treated hair or a weave is out of the ordinary, so much so that we identify individuals by the lack thereof.

In January 2014, I cut most of my hair off, leaving just enough for a TWA (Teeny Weenie Afro). I’ve seen and heard people talk about the day they did “the big chop” like it was the day they were reborn. For me, it was unremarkable. I had to search through my photo archive to confirm when exactly I did it. It was during my summer vacation, a day that was very much like the day before it and very much like the day after it. When I got out of the shower that morning, I thought about what style to do that day and noticed that my growth (untreated roots) had become quite long, as I hadn’t relaxed my hair in a few months. “That would make a cute afro”, I thought to myself. And that was it. I looked around my room for the biggest pair of scissors I could find, and I began to chop it off, one handful at a time. 

I had long learned to handle my own hair, because even relaxed, it was coarse and thick. Salon visits were a nightmare. Hairdressers would call each other to feel my hair, as if they were petting a zoo animal, exclaiming as they asked me what I put in it to make it so hard. I found their comments more annoying than hurtful. I’ve never been a very social person, so I avoid hostile environments like the plague. Hair salons, I realized early on, were not safe spaces for me. I was still in primary school when I started doing all of my own washing, styling and braiding.

Although I never viewed weaves as superior to African hair, my hair had been relaxed regularly since I was a young child. My mom did not subscribe to Eurocentric ideas either, but her hair was much softer than mine. Faced with my thick, coarse hair, she simply didn’t have the time to manage this texture with which she had no prior experience.  For the 20 years between the first time my hair was relaxed, until the day I cut it all off and started over, I too had been convinced that I couldn’t “handle” my hair if it was not chemically treated. The truth was simply that I didn’t know how to, because I’d never tried.

The day of the big chop, when I looked at my hair lying on the floor, my first thought was “I need a broom”. I think my second thought was “hmmm it was quite long”. That was the full extent of my emotions with regards to the “big chop”. I did not see it as the day of my “rebirth”. I did not feel the weight of Eurocentric standards of beauty being lifted off my shoulders. I did not feel any more like a “daughter of the soil” than I did the day before or the day after. It was not a remarkable day. I had no emotional connection to my hair, relaxed or otherwise. It’s just hair, right?

But now that I’m the one with the afro/natural hair, I have come to understand that to most people, it’s not just hair.

I often find myself having to answer questions about why I “decided to go natural”. Responding by saying “One doesn’t go natural; I was just born this way” doesn’t garner any understanding. It actually puzzles people further, or makes them feel like you’re being deliberately difficult. Sometimes, I just don’t have the energy for the conversation so I smile and say “Well, you know”. It’s not an answer that means anything and I’m one hundred percent certain that that particular individual does not, in fact, “know”. However, I’ve learned that this response allows them to conclude that their assumption (whatever deep and extravagant reason they’ve concocted in their heads) is correct.

Questions about my hair are usually linked to conversations about my religious beliefs (have I decided that I no longer believe in God?), whether or not I smoke marijuana, if I take regular showers, can’t afford weaves and the occasional “Are you lesbian now?” – I know, I don’t understand either. When I say there was no significant life event that led me to stop relaxing my hair, no one believes me. 

Honestly, it’s insane that I, an African, in Africa, have to constantly explain why I do not have hair from an individual of European or Asian descent sewn into my head. Read that again!

I have absolutely nothing against women who choose to wear weaves. I don’t believe in the policing of women’s or anyone’s bodies. It’s not my business really, what people decide to wear, add on, remove, sew in or pluck out. I don’t think it makes a difference to anyone. I don’t think it’s anyone’s business. 

My only concern is that in 2019, the European standard of beauty is still considered not only superior, but the norm in African society, such that anyone who does not adopt it is required to justify that choice. There are so many conversations we need to have. They will be uncomfortable. But we’ll be better for it. 

With love, I’m the one with the afro.

With an Honors Degree in Finance Management, a Certificate in Accounting and Auditing and a Diploma in Labour and Employment Studies, Ndapewoshali is a Financial Manager and Namibian Labour Law specialist by qualification and a self-taught graphic designer, who has a passion for writing. She is a Namibian writer whose focus is on the social-economic development of her country. Her writing has a strong emphasis on the reformation of mindsets with regards to harmful societal norms and cultural practices, especially targeting mental health awareness and feminism.

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