By Angela Okafor
My Beautiful African Hair: My Exotic Crown of Beauty
Growing up in Nigeria, the sight of ‘onye ocha’ (white man) was something to behold! Very few elites traveled to ‘obodo oyibo’ (overseas) and very few ‘onye ocha’ visited Nigeria in those years. People of African and Caribbean descent were as scarce in Northern Maine at that time as ‘onye ocha’ were in Nigeria. These days, ‘onye ocha’ in Nigeria has become as common as the sight of Africans is fast becoming in the ‘vanilla’ State of Maine – especially in northern Maine.
Starting my businesses, I hoped to provide a platform for bringing people, cultures, and issues together in a way that would collectively improve our community and economy – in my little way to empower and inspire women like myself. To help our universities and employers attract and retain ‘newcomers’. I wanted people like me to feel at home.
However, African hair care in Maine generally remained the Nigerian igbo (proverbial fly), perched on the scrotum. If you hit the fly to kill it, you hurt the scrotum – and if you leave the fly alone, it mercilessly stings the scrotum. The conclusion can only be that one needs do all one can to keep the fly away from the scrotum in the first place. Otherwise one is forced to live at the mercy of the fly, or choose between the devil and the deep blue sea.
In other words, the women in the first wave of Africans to move to Maine were forced to either make their heads resemble a shining light under the (barely shining) sun of Maine by getting their beautiful African hair ‘golimakpa ed’ (scraped off), or cut off an arm and a leg to travel to New York to get their hair done properly. Then, if they did get their hair braided, or styled, they needed to keep the same hair style for as long as they could – as long as their hands and fingers could take the scratching at the roots, or slapping at the head – to soothe an itchy scalp.
Access to proper hair care is no laughing matter for Africans. Coarse African hair is almost synonymous with being African; an indispensable part of having African blood, yet there is a serious shortage of salons that care for African hair in Maine. If African hair care keeps getting ignored as irrelevant, it will limit the numbers of Africans who move to Maine – and stay in Maine – and impact the state’s economy at a very significant level.
Maine’s population is getting older, and young Mainers are migrating away to other states with more opportunities and more services for a diverse population. Maine will be hit hard by this outward migration if it stays as ‘vanilla’ as it has been. My people say, that the water in the ‘eju’ (bowl) waits for the dog – no matter how long the dog procrastinates drinking the water, the water will remain in the bowl. In other words, what needs be done, just keeps needing to be done – until it finally is done. So, until the environment is made as welcoming as possible, most black non-native Mainers will not move to Maine, and those who do brave it – and come for a while – will move away again for lack of, among other things, diverse services like African hair care.
To an African woman, an Afro is part of her African identity, the essence of her African queen-ness, her pride, her crown, her culture, her lifestyle, her wealth, her art ….her own statement to make. That unflinching, unmistakably melanin-popping chocolatey (light or dark) skin, crowned with a safari forest-like exotic head of thick hair, is the physical description of an African Queen.Whether long, short, braided, left as an afro, cornrowed, twisted, barbed, or even locked – hair is an uncompromisingly integral part of an African woman’s identity. Deeply rooted in African culture, it is a thing of pride.
In some parts of Africa, in times gone by, hair told almost everything about a person: her tribe, family background, even state of mind – a mourning wife in the Nigerian Igbo culture usually wore her hair shaved. Age and marital status were revealed by hair style. In the Nigerian Igbo culture, hair care reflected age, health, vitality, wisdom, youthful vigor, beauty and pride – an ‘ada’ (igbo maiden) was differentiable from a ‘oliaku’ (wife) not just by her clothing but also by her hair style and decoration. Affluence, social status, or royal status was also reflected in hair. African hair care is not just fashion, but a deep part of African culture and identity. It is said that a wife is the pride of her husband, but a woman’s hair is her pride, her glory.
African hair is fragile, and needful of attention, constant care and management, the lack of which does a lot of damage. African hair is different from White people’s hair. White parents raising black kids have a hard time learning how to take care of their hair. Think of damage to an African’s hair as damage to one’s identity.
Many ladies still travel as far as New York – and pay as much as $600 – for just a ‘simple braid’ – but this can change now, because licensing has recently been eased in Maine. Now hair braiding can be done by people without a cosmetology license. Many people, however, don’t know this, as the change has not been well-publicized. This means that Maine’s economy is not yet benefiting from making hair braiding a profession available to many more potential braiders in the State of Maine.
Imagine the business possibilities, employment opportunities, and taxes that could be generated. Competition would bring down the cost of braiding, which would mean that styles could be changed more frequently, which would generate more taxes. Imagine the benefits to local universities and employers, as Maine became more attractive as a place to live for women with African hair. Refugees, even those with limited English, could work at braiding, and earn an income, and would need to rely less on social welfare during the early years of their arrival in Maine.
The University of Maine Black Students Union just held its second annual hair care fair on the Orono campus for students. The event was held in collaboration with Tropical Tastes and Styles of Bangor, to bring hair care services to the students. This was a huge leap towards the much-needed integration of this cultural need, which really cannot be emphasized too much. I hope that more groups and campuses will try walking the walk – like starting events such as an African hair care fair.
One major obstacle remains to making hair care available to women with African hair – not a single place in Maine currently officially teaches this art. I personally empowered a few women to participate as stylists in both last year’s and this year’s hair care event. This is my widow’s might empowering other women … my community. You too can empower other women. Like we say, a single tree does not make a forest, but a collection of trees sure does.
Angela Okafor Esq. is a Nigerian-American immigration attorney, entrepreneur, fashion designer, African hair braider, and jeweler. She is also a writer, humanist, public speaker, mentor, community-builder, daughter, sister, wife, and mother. She loves fashion and good food.