Note to reader
After a Twitter exchange where I commented on the plaiting of natural African-American hair, I was invited to write about the childhood memories I shared, memories from about 40 years ago where somehow I might have confused names and descriptions of the styles.
I penned a piece for the Natural Ever After site where the full blog with pictures appears, and you are free to post your comments there too.
The main article at Natural Ever After - Childhood Memories of Natural Hair Care
I know what Afro is
Walking down a street in Antwerp, I was happened upon a large shop front sign – Afro Hair Centre – the shop window was pasted with pictures of beautiful African American ladies but I was at pains to notice any that anything remotely natural for hair.
The pictures regaled me with relaxed curls of fanciful design and the amazing reality of globalisation where rural Indian and Brazilian women had travelled the world by reason of their long hair cut to serve an industry of hair extensions – I have felt like I have entered a haunted house each time disembodied lots of hair formed the merchandise of any outfit.
Many evolutions of hair design
It reminded me of when as a young boy hair was natural and the embodiment of amazing beauty, long before combing irons were heated on kerosene stoves and the hair laden with Vaseline was singed to straighten it for a new kind of look.
My aunt after secondary school became a hairdresser and with that came relaxers and all sorts of chemicals and sprays that the African woman punished her hair with to give it an unnaturally synthetic look, but that had become the new look.
Cornrows a plenty
As big brother when we lived in Jos, I had two sisters much younger than I and every fortnight I knew my play time will be usurped for a new kind of duty.
My mother sat on a chair with my sisters on a footstool just between her legs had their hair washed, combed, parted and designed for braided cornrows or plaits.
The cornrows had names, Shuku (bunched up in the middle), Ipako elede (A pig’s nape – with the ends to the nape of the neck), koroba (bucket, designed as a whirl from edges to the centre), kolese (Without legs – with the ends to the front just above the forehead) amongst other designs that did not particularly have names but provided artistic licence, in some cases the cornrows ended up in plaits, it was left to what was fancied at that time.
Threading the clumps
In the case of plaits, my job was to string the black thread from finger to big toe probably about 20 times and then cut the loop at one end to produce lengths of thread.
3 lengths of thread were then knotted at one end, the hair was parted into sectors and then manageable polygonal shapes, each section of hair was then plaited with thread from the base until the hair ends, the threads were then knotted to prevent the threads and hair from coming loose.
Sometimes each plait was left alone kinked into an L-shape a third way up the length, in other cases they were joined up in wigwam fashion or linked together with one popular design being called Eko Bridge – this was named after the new bridges linking the Lagos mainland to Lagos Island over the lagoon. Onile gogoro suggested a tall house, the plaits were bent to different sides of the head to give a different look, the options limitless depending on taste and aesthetics.
Changes to hair fashion
The plaits could also be coiled on a pencil to look like twirls, this was all natural and beautiful. After a while cotton threads were abandoned for synthetic tubular threads called colloquially called rubber but those plaits were fire hazards even if for a while they were fashionable.
As we moved into the 80s, plaits became unfashionable and most what you would find in rural settings as relaxers became the stock in trade of hairdressers, much as it seemed to make hair more manageable the cost of maintenance was high and where unprofessional services were used lots of women suffered 1st, 2nd or even 3rd degree burns to their scalp.
The relaxers themselves have the most revolving and pungent odours, in some cases people were prone to emesis but after this foray into the unnatural and synthetic, some ladies are returning to appreciating the beauty of low-cuts or naturally braided or plaited hair without extensions or chemicals, and I think that is a good thing.