Before we started high school together, my best friend's mum made a deal with her. She could get her ears pierced if she cut her hair off. All of it. Not a choppy little bob or a small fluffy 'fro, I'm talking three millimetres short of being monk-level bald. For a few years, Langa was also the only vegetarian in a family of carnivores, so you can imagine that must have been a delightful time. She also went to a boarding school in the mountains. One might think she was going through some sort of eastern spiritual phase at the time, but she definitely played far too many video games for someone on a path to inner peace. Her mum had simply grown tired of the screaming and tears involved whenever Langa's hair was combed, so she decided that she'd very much like to shave it all off.
I think my mum got the idea from them. If Langa could make a deal with her mum, perhaps I would too. I wouldn't shave my head, of course. I had no intention of having a zuda* again (because for some reason I once asked my dad to cut it all off when I was a kid). There was absolutely no way I would give up the long and straight hair I worked so hard to get. I had it relaxed and treated regularly so that it was always straight and shiny and pretty just like my mum's hair (although my mum had it a bit easier, her hair is quite cooperative whereas I was born with curls thicker than a wire-scrubber).
Now, you have to understand that for most black woman, the idea of shaving one's hair off is ranked only slightly above 'pulling your fingernails off with a rusty tweezer.' Thanks to a history of oppression that I have neither the time nor the strength to get into right now, our short natural hair has long been seen as uncivilised and masculine. In order to prove our femininity and refinement, women had to abuse their hair with frightening looking chemicals and appliances that were better suited for house of horrors or a nuclear plant than for someone's head. Sadly, many of them are still used today.
Keeping it natural or cutting it off were not viable options if you wanted to get a job, stay out of jail, or even just be treated as a human being. Our hair also tends to grow slower, so it's hard to make a swift comeback from a big chop. Langa was understandably horrified by the idea of losing her hair, even though it caused her unbearable amounts of pain. (Imagine trying to slice frozen bread with a blunt plastic knife. Now imagine that your hair is the bread.) To someone else, a grave fixation on hair might seem trivial and unnecessary, but to a black woman, her hair is both her crown and her shackles. It means everything to her.
My hair was my crowning glory for a while, until it started to break. The years of acrid-smelling relaxer that made my scalp sting had taken their toll, and you'd think Chinua Achebe was my hairdresser with the way my hair was falling apart. I needed a change and I needed it fast. I was terrified of becoming one of the aunties whose hairline started behind their ears, so I tearfully conceded defeat. I would go natural and get braids on top, I thought. My mother thought otherwise. She suggested I get locs (although with African mothers it's never really a suggestion, is it?). I was affronted - nay, appalled - by her suggestion. Me? Get locs? And walk around with stubby porcupines on my head? No thank you, medem.*
But my mum was as wily as she is wise, so she brokered a deal with me: I could get my ears pierced if I got locs, and I could wear braids over my locs until they were long enough to appear in public. Ooh, she had me and she knew it.
I wanted earrings more than anything, but I'd never been allowed to have them. We went to a Seventh Day Adventist church, so we weren't allowed to wear jewellery basically because of how the Israelites lost their collective minds when Moses went up the mountain to talk to God. The SDA faith is a lot like Judaism, if Jewish people believed in Jesus, ate unleavened bread and mixed dairy with meat. You know, regular goyim stuff. My grandfather is so thoroughly religious that he'd convince you he'd founded Seventh Day Adventism. However, he was also obsessed with Jewish customs and traditions, and at one point attempted to convert his entire SDA church. They, understandably, did not comply.
I think we were most nervous to get them because of my grandfather, actually. Grandpa is a staunch but lovely man who lives out in a farm near Gweru, Zimabwe, and would probably be a perfect cat-lady if he weren't such a flirt. He believes that jewellery is evil, and that one cannot get into the Kingdom of Heaven with such evil in our lives. It's quite extreme, but looking back I think grandpa was really excited about Heaven - he's been threatening to die for as long as I can remember. "Eish, my child, maybe this will be the last time you see grandpa, neh? Next year you will come back and you will only find mushrooms." He says this every year we visit, but without fail every year he's still there. Quite frankly, I think he'll outlive us all.
Mum disagreed with grandpa, because there's obviously no checklist to salvation. Although if there were, on grandpa's list I'd probably have two counts against me - he thought locs were even more abhorrent than jewellery. He was in for a big surprise the next holiday when I came over toting both.
After much debate, and a fair amount of sulking on my part, I agreed to get my hair loc'd in exchange for a shiny pair of studs. I remember feeling nervous as we made our way into a dark building along one of the back streets in Mbabane*. I don't know what it is about locs, but I have a theory that the best hairdressers are always found in the dodgiest of places.
This time I was actually getting it re-loc'd because the first time around my hair was still too straight from all the chemicals left in it, so the locs didn't catch. They kept unravelling, which made me look like I'd escaped from a mad house. The first time they'd been done in a much classier-looking establishment with wooden floors and pot plants and Days of Our Lives on TV, which fits my above theory because the new place had five different layers of peeling paint, linoleum floors and an endless stream of Nollywood.
I had to start all over, and despite my initial reservations about the tiny turquoise salon, I was thrilled afterwards with how neat my locs looked the second time around. Obviously, I still wouldn't wear them out because they were too short, making me feel equal parts masculine and mad-hatter. I cried several times over the years, because I had convinced myself that I was ugly and undesirable with my locs, glasses, braces and big African nose. Looking back, I can laugh at how terrible I looked as a teenager, but at the time I sometimes looked in the mirror and absolutely hated what I saw.
zuda: closely-cropped hair
medem: madame pronounced with a 'Bantu accent.'
Gweru: a town in Zimbabwe
Mbabane: the capital city of Swaziland, where I was living at the time