#263 ~ Ithemba Projects: Day 28

Why do you have Zulu hair?

When I first travelled to South Africa to work with Ithemba Projects, a young girl asked me that question. She had assumed, that if I came from the UK, I could afford weave, extensions, hair accessories, and was perplexed when I chose to wear my hair short and natural. Having Zulu hair obviously had negative, or financial connotations in her still-forming mind. I explained that I loved my hair the way it was, and she nodded in a non-committed fashion. Ok crazy westerner.

Walking into a Mega-Store in downtown Pietermaritzburg last week,  I was driven to a spontaneous bark of laughter, when I saw the sign ‘ethnic hair care’ over black hair products. In my experience the term ethnic often implies ethnic minorities, something, whether it is art, fashion or jewelry that is not indigenous to the land it is being sold in. As much as the term irritates me; in my opinion all produce is ethnic, even the dominant white culture is itself ethnic, it is a term I must accept in the context of the UK. Hair oil, cow-bone earrings, printed cloth are all ethnic items to the UK, and those who wear or utilize such produce are either part of or sympathetic to that ethnic minority.

Yet in South Africa where blacks are the majority, to use the term ethnic in relation to their, for example hair produce, seems highly incongruous to me. What should be seen as ethnic are the white, or indian produce, clothing, art and hair care. Why do I make this point?

I remember, when I was a primary school student, desperately wanting to be white. I believed a fairer  complexion automatically meant beauty. Wherever I went white models peered back at me, smiled from billboards, engaged in romantic relationship in films and shows, graced the stage and album covers. One had to struggle to see a black face in a positive light, and with the same quality of professional editing as mainstream media.

The image that was compounded into my mind stated, flowing locks that could be tied into a pony tail or swept into a fringe were not only normal, but a sign of beauty. Braids were an unfortunate hairstyle only utilized until a weave could be found. And that premise, is often one ‘ethnic minorities’ are still under. The black celebrities that now grace our television screens still, in my opinion, emphasize the image. That’s not to say they aren’t ‘black’ or proud of their ethnicity. Far from it, but it seems to me, that there is still a subtle allusion that there is something ugly, or unattractive to natural kinks.

To hear a young child in ‘deepest darkest Africa’ (though SA is one of if not the most westernised country), surprised to see a ‘wealthy westerner’ with natural hair is saddening. That one easily elides wealth with the necessity to transform natural beauty, to me has deeper connotations and implications.

So it has been encouraging and warming to see, over my five weeks here, the initial surprise and the final, perhaps pride, or gratitude even, in the young students i’ve been teaching in Sweetwaters. To hear whispers of ‘she’s pretty,’ ‘I love the way you do your hair,’ demonstrates to me, that if i’ve done nothing else here, i’ve worked at dispelling the lie that once someone has emigrated to the West, once someone has become wealthy, they must deny their natural beauty. Perhaps it has even empowered some of the young girls in Sweetwaters, to remind them that, just the way they are, with their shaved heads, or short afro’s, they are beautiful. And that having ‘Zulu hair’ categorically  does not mean you’r epoor, and has none of the negative connotations they might associate with it.

Prayer for Day 28: That young girls the world over, especially in Sweetwaters, would be empowered in their own natural beauty. They would understand that their own complexions, hair styles or body figures have no relation to social or financial positions, and they would be liberated in that understanding.

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