When the white man first landed on the shores of the East African coastline in the sunset years of the 19th century, he seemingly came to look for trade opportunities as well as to convert the native heathens into Bible-thumping Christian converts. Well, in the famous words of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s founding President, when the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible.
They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed, Jomo said, when we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible. Somewhere along the way, the native heathen was also made aware of how backward their culture and traditions were so that converting into Christianity required the shedding off of a number of these traditions. Some, of course, were barbaric such as female circumcision.
But there is a very thin line between what is viewed as culturally backward and what is personal opinion driven in large part by one’s individual historical narrative and value system.
I write this because of the recent cases in court relating to high school students and their right to keep their natural, God given hair in a preferred state.
Let’s take a step back. At the point of creation, whether by evolution or by a supreme deity, the human being was allocated a head of hair ostensibly to protect the scalp from weather elements. The human being of African extraction was given a very curly, very tough and very wiry version for whatever reason that supreme deity or nature saw fit.
Ours is not to question, ours is to execute. And execute we have, by keeping the hair extremely short for men or extremely chemicalised, heat straightened to the point of flame-grilling or simply short for women who can’t deal with either the chemicals or the heat.
This is because in high school we were socialised that the African curly, tough and wiry type of hair must be tamed for good order to prevail otherwise there would be chaos and anarchy followed by sheer despondency if the African native was allowed to let their hair take its natural curly, touch and wiry direction of onwards, upwards and outwards.
So I stood and clapped when I saw the ruling allowing the schoolgirl with dreadlocks to keep her hair. My joy was not because of the rationale given which was that it was her religious right, but because — for the love of God and country — it is the most natural way to maintain our very curly, very tough and very wiry locks.
We are skirting on a dangerous ledge here. Our workplaces are filling up with a younger generation that were not necessarily exposed to the value system that demonised dreadlocks due to an association with Mau Mau fighters and all things rebellious.
This generation does not understand why keeping their hair in its most natural form would be offensive to anyone who subscribes to being an authentic African. If you look at pictures of Maasai morans you will see dreadlocked young men, with neat locks tinged in the deep ochre colours that have come to signify the Maa culture. Because that was how they kept their hair in its most natural state. The same attitude that demonises a natural, African hair culture is the same that will demonise cultural changes in the work place and refuse to embrace diversity in its purest form. It is the same attitude that will make students believe that their African identity is one that should be dictated by a historical narrative and not by what they interpret as their own narrative in an ever evolving cultural dynamic.
It is also the same attitude that demonises a girl’s right to cover her head for religious reasons where such religion is deemed to be unacceptable in certain areas. It is said by some that to colonise people’s minds you must first demonise their culture and then their traditions.
We are still being colonised here when the fact is that our African hair is ungovernable. It can be tamed for purposes of the good order so ordained by our colonial historical narrative. African men keep their hair closely cropped to govern it. African women have harder hair governance choices to make. It would be impossible not to link those difficult choices with the need for diversity in schools and workplaces. Diversity fosters strong and tolerant communities. Diversity fosters boundless creativity.