“What hair style do you like the best Betty?” I asked my cleaning lady from Kawangware, one of the well-known slums in Nairobi。
“Long straight hair for sure! I’ve once had a weave like that, it makes me look so smart and beautiful.” she responded without hesitation.
In any conversations amongst Kenyan women, the conversation will most certainly drift to hair. In fact, hair care is amongst the top most priority on the list of monthly care list for Kenyan women. Looking good is big business in Africa. Indeed, hair-styles convey personality and in many cultures, it also defines status or identity. The style of afro-textured hair in particular remains politicized in contemporary society. Whether an African woman decides to wear her hair natural, bold, dreadlocks, braids or with a weave – all black hairstyles convey a message.
In Kenya, top beauty industry players are using long straight hair imagery in their marketing campaigns to drive sales. These advertisements not only give the impression that straight hair is charming, it is also perceived to be easier to manage. Whilst some Kenyan women are starting to embrace simpler natural hair styles, coiffed hair still appears to be a pre-requisite to beauty. According to certain market studies, natural hair is perceived to be a messy look. This causes many African women, who wear their hair natural, to feel inadequate and less desirable as their counterparts. Natural hair is as a result neither desired nor encouraged to grow to its full potential. Kenya is not unique in its hesitancy to embrace natural locks on the continent. Moreover,natural afro hair continues to be convicted by many to be un-neat and inappropriate. The recent election campaign was a case in point. Kenyan female politicians were not questioned on their political qualification nor vision for the country, rather they were criticized for an unprofessional look in wearing their hair natural.
No doubt, the identity debate over African hairstyles can be endless and its history is even more complex. Nor does a non-African have the right to condemn or complement on afro hair-styles and its effect on women empowerment. What is certain is a woman’s crowning glory is more than the type of hair they wear.