“I like to say I found myself in the natural hair community. Sometimes I think this is good, other times, I wish that, like for many other things in my life, that this too would have a conviction.
When I used to think about an ideal naturalista (if such exists), I had a certain profile of myself. My name would be Atieno Otieno (which it already happens to be on Facebook) and I would wear my hair natural all the time, be an ardent feminist studying political science and full time activist of women’s rights in the world. Having natural hair would not only have set me free from the chemicals that supress my coils but also from a world image that supresses my identity and presence.
But truth be told, I am the furthest thing from that.
I did not wake up one day and decide it was time to reclaim my identity as a black African woman. I did not choose to say that I too am beautiful, in fact, it just so happened that I was simply trying to wear my hair curly avisit to the hairdressers. And what ended up happening was that I left the place with much shorter hair than I had imagined. My folks said it made me look younger. Deep down, I felt like it made me look uglier. What followed was two weeks of an attempt at baby locks which further added to my loss of identity as family and friends commented on the new radical Val. This so-called woman I had stumbled upon becoming with no idea of how I got there. I was amazed at how a switch of hairstyle had transformed me, or rather other people’s perception of me.
I was not ready to deal with this new imposed identity that stemmed from my change in appearance
Going back to study in South Africa, I knew I was not ready to deal with this new imposed identity that stemmed from my change in appearance I because of this, chose to do what I knew best to do, postpone the process. I styled my hair in braids and did so for over a year before the day came when I looked in the mirror and realised that my choice hairstyle had depleted my hairline. I remember that day specifically ; I was in a math class, bored and playing with my hair, when I started undoing a plait at a time, trying not to stir the attention of my math teacher (who by the way is a thorough naturalista) but for some reason, dead sure I could not last another moment with those braids on my head.
What started off as a really bad experience ended up transforming not only my hair but my personality as well. I swore off braids and purposed to learn all I could about my hair. Truth be told, it was not easy being in a boarding school, in a foreign country, with my kind of hair and stay keen on not having extensions as a maintenance option. I began to feel that because I was leaving my hair to if its own devices, I looked like this problematic idea of what I believed a girl who did not care about herself yet the truth is I cared more than I had ever before.
My hair gave me the opportunity to be brave and this is what I am most grateful for. My hair was my teacher for it taught me to emrace patience in the slow growth and the rapid shrinkage. It was my pillar of strength as it gave me something to look forward to at the end of very stressful weeks. (Is it me or are wash days just the best! Especially when you make concoctions using crazy ingredients, put a hat on and step our but only you are aware of the process under the hood :-p).It was my glue as it brought me very close to friends who shared this journey with me and let us not forget an eye-opener to opportunities that lay in our community such as platforms like these and many more new enterprises dedicated to telling our stories. Simply put, my natural hair has given me a chance: a chance to love and live, a chance to play and dream.
Indeed, I am by far very raw in this journey but I am grateful to have started it. I am excited for my gap year because it will give me an opportunity to learn what works and doesn’t for me. I want to learn what products fit me. I want to learn how to braid my hair before I step into the daunting phase of life alone for the first time as a student in another foreign country. I never thought that I would be setting hair goals but this is what natural hair sometimes does to you. It makes you a student of yourself.
There have been many days that I used to, and sometimes still do, awe at the amazing crowns of glory that many naturalistas bear, and long for the day that my hair would look that way. I have however learnt to love my hair, not for what it will look like in the future but for what it is in the present. I still remember the very day someone told me I look pretty with in my natural hair. I doubted that then, but not anymore. I am beautiful in whatever way I choose to wear on my hair because I am beautiful. And yes it took an accidental haircut and excessive hair loss to make that clear to make me realise this but then again, better late than never, right?”
– Valery Atieno
Valery Otieno is a guest contributor at AJANI Handmade and is a student at the Africa Leadership Academy, South Africa. She is passionate about business design, youth driven projects and campaigns. Valery also manages a Facebook group: “CONNECTING YOUTH, CONNECTING AFRICA” (CYCA) that aims to share articles on different African stories to promote a balanced image of African youth.