As some of you may know, my first trip to Kenya was a two week stay, last month. It was my first time in an African country other than Nigeria where I was born, so I was eager to experience something new and different from the typical island and beach vacations that I usually take. My boyfriend is from Nairobi, the capital city, so he showed me the country’s scenic parks and landscapes, its protected exotic animal species, and the beautiful artisanal craftsmanship of its people. Since I didn’t want to worry about washing, moisturizing, and twisting my hair, I put it in a protective style that would be safe in various weather conditions as well as in the ocean.
While it was intended to be a vacation, I took the opportunity to learn more about the natural hair community in Nairobi. I linked up with Mary and Nyachomba, the two natural hair enthusiasts behind the Kenyan natural hair blog, Kurly Kichana. We organized a small meetup at an outdoor garden/patio restaurant called Le Rustique for an intimate conversational exchange about natural hair in both Kenya and the US. Some attendees were members of the popular Kenyan naturals Facebook community, Tricia’s Naturals. We covered a wide variety of topics, which I’ve tried to summarize below.
What inspired the shift to natural hair and what are our hair goals?
The large majority of attendees were fairly new naturals, having big chopped a year ago or more recently. There were a few lifetime naturals in the mix, as well as a woman who went natural in 2008 and then relaxed again last year. To my surprise, there was a great deal of variety of hair textures and types; although many women like me were sporting protective styles in the form of braids or weaves, people’s hair descriptions varied from kinky to curly, fine to coarse, and thin to dense.
Several attendees described the decision to embrace their natural hair being driven by damaged hair, a greater concern for the health of their bodies, or being inspired by a friend. Contrary to length goals more common among US naturals, the overwhelming desire amongst these Kenyan naturals was a “big ass fro” a la Erykah Badu (some people’s dreams were shattered once I told them it was a wig!)
Product junkeeism, product availability and curl envy
In light of recent conversations about product junkeeism on the site, I was curious to see if product junkeeism was a concern amongst Kenyan naturals. This question brought up the larger issue of product availability, as brands that some of us consider staples–such as Shea Moisture or Carol’s Daughter–are not widely accessible even in Nairobi. Naturals tend to rely on whatever products they can find (which tend not to be completely natural, for those who would like to practice that hair habit), although widespread YouTube use makes them very aware of all the new products we rant and rave about each week. There was a consensus that natural hair product companies, particularly large ones, should invest more (or at least start with a few) resources in burgeoning African markets. Although product junkeeism is not a concern, curl envy is; on the Tricia’s Naturals Facebook group where members are encouraged to post their hair selfies, women with looser or curlier hair textures receive more likes and questions than those of the kinkier textures. We all agreed that we could individually make progress in loving our own hair every single day.
Natural hair in the workplace, home, and in relationships
One last topic that we spent some time discussing was the reception of natural hair in different sectors of life in Kenya. One surprising discovery was a Swahili word used to describe kinky hair: sisal, which is a plant/fiber used to make rope. This already gives you a sense of the negative perception of kinky textured hair in the country. While natural hair is becoming increasingly accepted, there seemed to be much room for improvement in terms of workplace discussions about hair. Some women told stories of being singled out publicly or privately for their hair choices, and others were asked to straighten their hair before important client meetings. However advertisements by Barclays featuring a woman with natural hair was a source of hope for many that companies may be ready for afros. For those still living at home, parental opinions of natural hair were largely negative, as the older generation still perceives natural hair as an impediment to marriage, an extremely important cultural and social convention in Kenya. However, when it comes to relationships, most attendees cited neutral or positive reactions to their natural hair transition by their significant others and other interested parties, and we concluded that men are largely oblivious to our hair crises and debates, and we as women put way more pressure on each other to maintain a certain standard of beauty than our parents, our jobs, or our male counterparts do.
It is always interesting to compare and contrast hair practices and beliefs in various cultures, and I was very grateful to have the opportunity to learn more about the growing natural hair community in Nairobi, Kenya. Much thanks to Nyachomba (who wasn’t able to make it) and Mary (pictured below) for the opportunity to work together. I hope we can continue this cross-cultural conversation!