A court case about discrimination on the basis of a hairstyle looks is still pending in Kenya court
The Kiswahili proverb “akili ni nywele, kila mtu ana zake” meaning “hair is like brains, each person has their own” speaks to diversity – that everyone’s hair is different.
But in Kenya we have been tearing our hair out trying to have a uniform hairstyle.
‘Conditioned to mirror the white colonialists’ for one Kenyan teenager, the freedom to wear dreadlocks nearly cost her education.
Olympic High School in Nairobi sent new student Makeda Ndinda home in January for wearing dreadlocks, which are a symbol of her Rastafarian faith.
A Nairobi court has since ordered that she can attend classes with her hair covered in a black turban until her case is decided in May. The school wants her to shave off her locks.
Days before, in a separate case about headscarves worn by Muslims, the Supreme Court – whose justices, ironically, cover their heads with artificial hair – overturned an earlier decision by the Court of Appeal that allowed Muslim students to wear a hijab in non-Muslim schools.
The court ruled that every school has the right to determine its own dress code.
First of all, I need to own up. I don’t have any hair on my head – but I do have some hairy views about freedom of expression. And hair is part of our identity and cultural expression.
“I think Kenya is increasingly becoming a moralist state,” says Kevin Mwachiro, a writer and civil liberties activist. He blames this on “the growth of evangelism from the Christian right”.
I’ve had these natural dreadlocks for many years, but people still ask me why I don’t comb my hair”
Mwachiro believes the debate about hair is part of Kenya’s struggle with its national identity.
“We tend to think we are an African nation, but we realize that we’re very Westernized. We don’t appreciate diversity. I’ve had these natural dreadlocks for many years, but people still ask me why I don’t comb my hair.”
African women pioneer at university went through systematic training on how to dress and how to use knives and forks. They were even taught how to curtsy beautifully in case the British monarch came to visit.
Rose Lukalo, a media producer, had a direct encounter with that colonial experience that spilled over into independent Kenya.
“I was raised in Nairobi in post-colonial Kenya and most teachers were still white. We were not allowed to braid our hair. We were told we should tie it with blue or red ribbons and that we should brush our hair.”
But kinky African hair struggled to comply with these foreign concepts. “Our hair can’t do the things they wanted. They want it to lie flat, they want it to stay in position; they want you to tie it. But it doesn’t respond to any of those things,” she says.
And so in came the hot comb, perm and the hot iron to try to tame the African hair. This was all done at home with a charcoal stove because very few people could afford the salon.