Friday 9 June 2023


"When colonial education started in Kenya, most schools were run by Christian missionaries who constructed a singular narrative about black hair: that it was unsightly, ungodly and untamable. They demanded that girls/boys who attended their “godly” schools cut their hair to the scalp.

Cutting girls’ hair somehow minimized evidence of their womanhood. It was a covert move to reduce their desirability to African men, who were constructed as primal beasts with no sense of sexual control. Artistic hairstyles were banned or criminalized in school and in church. By enforcing these rules, the missionaries were able to successfully sexualize hair and use it as a tool of control and punishment in a way that Africans had never done. Such historical understandings expose the political significance hair carries.

The meaning of hair to Africans extends beyond looks and sexuality. For example, in the Maasai community, hairstyles and braid patterns can be a signifier for marital status, class, age and other social roles in the community. 

In the Marvel movie Black Panther, natural hair is used as a social identifier that defines characters. The queen and the older women wear elaborate dreadlocks, the warriors are bald and bold. Nakia, a secret agent and a love interest of the king, wears Bantu knots, an artistic African hairstyle. Shuri, a young tech genius, wears braids, which are popular among younger black women. The film also uses black hair symbolically to show the rejection of both patriarchal and racial expectations shaping the standards of beauty.

Black hair is personal, but it is also political. It shows how black consciousness and identities of race, gender and sexuality are constructed, reinforced and represented. The ’fro is particularly interpreted as a statement of resistance to white supremacism due to its association with the US-based Black Panther political movement."

More clearly, when Koigi wa Wamwere of Kenya and co. were detained, the prison management denied them combs, nor were they shaved. The ultimate plan was to make them look like terrorists (as is the common stereotype about kinky afro/dreadlocks). Later, his hair became political, and even swore to shave only after KANU was out of government. Which he did in 2003.

As a matter of fact, a random Google search of “unprofessional hair styles” is dominated by black women‘s kinky and “nappy” hair. A search for “professional hair styles” is populated by white women’s straight hair. Social and cultural messaging about hair and beauty has been clear: to be presentable, attractive, professional, black women need to tame their hair.

While at Mombasa, I was constantly warned how the police service would shave the young men with long, even unkempt, natural hair. Sometimes, they would even arrest them. Why? Because of the colonial interpretation of black hair as a threatening symbol or an exotic mark of difference. It irks me!

Policing and prohibiting black hair, especially at workplaces and in learning institutions in Kenya is a way of enforcing and perpetuating conformity with white beauty standards.

Partly adapted from Kathomi Gatwiri

Nana Muigai

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