Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Natural Hair: The Trend That Isn’t

‘Can I touch it? ...It’s a little soft,’ the young woman concluded after a brief inspection of my hair with her fingers. The inquisitive lady, by the way, was Nigerian.

When I chose to wean my hair and scalp off relaxers and heat almost three years ago, little did I know this little afro of mine would yield a barrage of questions, some curious glances and a truckload of admiration. The questions, though varied, followed a particular sequence: How long have you kept your hair this way? How do you manage it? Isn’t it stressful? Do you comb it?

Such questions are always met with a whiff of amusement, especially when the interrogator is female and happens to share the same hair characteristic as mine. The questions stem from a constant diet of relaxers and Brazilian weaves, which is why a woman spotting an afro is something of a curio; a rare specimen that warrants a visible reaction. As it is, black women’s memory of what their natural hair feels like is spotty, and their knowledge of how to care for it has long been cast off and forgotten in the darkest recesses of her mind.

Still going strong two and half years later
Photo: Shayera
Several months after chopping off my hair, I was accused of following the natural hair trend. Natural hair trend? The comment struck me as odd. How does letting my hair grow from my scalp undisturbed qualify as a trend? If it is, then what about unpainted nails and going make-up free?

Another interesting comment I heard was something about my hair not matching my personality.  I hadn’t dyed my hair or done anything remotely gaga to warrant such a remark.  All I had done was pin the sides of my hair. My interpretation of the comment was that afros are not suitable for reserved people, but rather are the preserve of artistes, attention seekers and extroverts.

Comments like these reveal the faulty attitudes and reservations black people have about black hair, which is partly the reason natural hair is uncommon in the corporate world.

Dreadlocks and haloed afros are aggressively frowned upon and branded unprofessional and unconventional for work. Yet, images of black women swinging their bleach-blonde wigs or sitting on their 28 inch bone-straight weaves qualify as natural enough to border on being blasé in corporate settings. That necks would suffer whiplash injuries from what is natural is a sad and strange reality.

Furthermore, the paucity of pictures of natural haired women on black hair products or even in adverts feeds the narrative that straight hair is desirable and kinky isn’t. Essentially, black women are constantly told—subtly and overtly—that sleek and straight are conventional; natural hair is outré. Black hair is unruly and untidy; non-black hair is reserved and in control—and being conventional and reserved is just how they intend for us to be.

While the discomfort aroused by black hair in America, though irrational, is explainable and rooted in her history, the same can’t be said for Africa. Here, we have learned and conditioned ourselves to become uncomfortable with our hair. Can we chalk our discomfort up to colonialism or an iteration of the Stockholm syndrome? Or could it a symptom of the copy and paste disease, characterized by replicating certain foreign habits without much thought—like the jarring sight of dark-skinned lawyers donning cream-colored wigs?

Indeed, we can’t claim to be enlightened when we don’t appreciate or take pride in our natural hair, but rather treat it as a burden to be quickly rid of. The excuse that managing natural hair is onerous has become tripe and feeble, especially in light of the smorgasbord of natural hair tips and coiffures the internet has to offer. Consequently, let’s acknowledge that the surge in black women embracing their natural hair isn’t a trend, because it’s not. For the decision to go natural over the ‘comfort’ of weaves and bone straight hair is a conscious one—one that represents an intimate journey towards accepting black hair for what it is.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

This Is What Fuels the Refugee Crisis

Syrian Refugees at Keleti Railway Station in Budapest, Hungary
Photo: Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons
The recent mass exodus of refugees from the Middle East and Africa to the West is likely to continue until arms and armies become obsolete.

While some might argue that weapons of destruction don’t kill people—that people who do— there’s no ignoring the fact that life would be much better without them; that diplomacy and dialogue would be encouraged as solutions to differing views; and that Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy washed ashore, and others like him would probably still be alive and at home.

ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram and oppressive regimes like the Syrian government survive because they are continuously fed a steady diet of weapons made by countries that spend billions of dollars on their own defense industry. Case in point: The US and the former Soviet Union’s military interference in Afghanistan gave birth to the Taliban and a wave of Afghan refugees. Similarly, the power vacuum and sectarian violence created by the fiasco that was the Iraq war yielded ISIS. What’s more, the subsequent flood of displaced Iraqis would never have been if the US hadn’t been looking for an avenue to display and test its new weaponry.

To be sure, Syrian refugees would still be in Syria if Russia, the Gulf countries and the West didn’t exacerbate the civil war by interfering militarily.

Arguably, the last war in recent memory that may have made any sense to the staunchest pacifist was World War II, which historians claim could have been avoided. Since then, wars have been nothing short of senseless, ignoble military campaigns, and a means to satisfy the defense industry’s parasitic existence and insatiable appetite for conflict and death.

I like to think that kings in the Middle Ages exercised more caution and forethought than present-day leaders, as thoughts of losing their best soldiers—or worse, their very own lives in the battlefield—weighted heavily on their minds.

These days, however, presidents heedlessly charge into wars with no long term plan or contingencies to deal with surprises. Modern warfare has made it all too easy to settle old scores and personal vendettas with drones and faceless soldiers, without having to make personal sacrifices.

Perhaps if citizens demanded their president’s physical presence in every war their country wages, and by presence I mean riding a horse, lance in hand, at full speed towards the enemy, then the world would boast less conflicts, as leaders begin to ask themselves if the war is worth their life.

Another way to stop wars from yielding a stream of refugees would be for the UN to designate a mass of land, somewhere in Antarctica, as the world’s battlefield, where belligerents and mercenaries can fight to the death. That way, populations who want no part in the madness can live in peace.

But of course such suggestions are pie in the sky.

The closest thing to solving the refugee crisis would be to force countries that wage war to absorb refugees resulting from the fall-out, and also insist that countries aiding their ‘allies in distress’ through military means open their borders up for refugees.

Such an arrangement would make countries think long and hard about the economic consequences of fueling wars, by having them choose between profiting immensely from weapons sold and dealing with a horde of refugees.