What getting African braids taught me about cultural sharing

Four months into my time in Uganda, I had become as local as I could get. I took a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) everywhere, bargained in Luganda, ate my daily fill of matooke, chapati, and mwogo, and semi-mastered traditional dances from several tribes.

There was only one thing missing that I longed for. African hair.

My volumeless, slick, straight Asian hair was boring me. Everywhere I went, women impressed me with their hair creativity, sporting weaves, braids, wigs, and cornrows, in a limitless array of colours and styles. With my own hair, I only had 3 options — ponytail, messy bun, or French braids, and my hair was taking soooo long to grow.

So, in an act of impulse, I got a dreadlocked friend to take me to his favourite stylist.

Et voila.

Post-dramatic change, I met up with friends, feeling like an African rock star with an extra 7 packs of hair braided in. I flaunted my new hair do, wondering, “What will they think? Is this weird? And will this itchiness ever go away?” (Hint: it will not.)

First, a confirmation from the boys. “Damn, that looks good.” Fist pump, YES. I gave myself an invisible pat on the shoulder for trying something new and flirtatiously whipped my hair back and forth. (Just kidding, that would really hurt.)

Then, from the girls, I got a lot of “Why???” Yup, I had shocked them instead. Why on earth would I change my straight and smooth hair — the hair that grew relatively quickly, never tangled, and didn’t require weekly salon visits?

I tried to explain the woes of my plain, flat hair to help my friends understand, but because they had always admired and desired straight hair, I just sounded crazy.

As I began to deal with never-ending dandruff and itchiness, scary amounts of severed hair strands, and being thrown off balance when I danced, a little bit of regret passed through my mind. But #noragrets, so I was determined to endure it and enjoy the new look for 2 months, or at least until I returned home to Canada.

Thankfully, women around me, from dance friends to coworkers to passersby, were very generous with their advice on braid protection and relief. Use this spray, try lemon juice, soak your roots in hot water…

But my favourite moment was when a co-worker walked into the co-ed washroom to find Patience, another colleague, fixing my hair in front of the mirror. He chuckled at the sight of a black woman styling the braids of an Asian girl, but she casually said, “Ignore us, we’re having our girl time here.”

The local ladies enjoyed giving me advice, but it was never without a harmless tease when I furiously scratched or patted my head out of the intense itchiness. “Now you know how we feel!” they would say, unable to hide their pleasure. I was awarded a new nickname at the office — African lady, and I earned a couple other local names, like Nagginda. That’s right, I was Queen Mother.

As much as I had done my hair out of fun, curiosity, and beauty, I didn’t realize the effect it had on people there; not because it garnered more catcalls, but because it garnered self-respect for the culture they owned.

One afternoon, near the end of my internship, Patience visited my office.

“Hey African lady,” she laughed, then continued in a serious tone, “Actually, I want to say thank you. Thank you for doing your hair in braids.”

“What? Why?” I wondered.

“We try so hard to be like you [Westerners/Europeans] — to have what you have and do what you do. But for the first time, I see the reverse. Someone like you wants something that belongs to our culture. It’s so nice and so refreshing for the people we admire to admire us too.”

What an eye-opener for me.

Ever since colonialism and globalization, Ugandans have learned and imitated the Caucasian culture, holding certain elements in high respect.

Hair is one of them. The culture doesn’t exactly accept big, untamed afros, especially for those working in the formal sector. Instead, the multitude of hair styles available for career women exists to hide or change the natural kinky hair. Women can use relaxers, which perm hair straight, or weave in straight hair to style into braids or twists.

Cultural sharing is not necessarily a bad thing, but the problem occurs when it’s one-sided, just like the international development work I wrote about.

Hair is only the tip of the iceberg. One-sided cultural adoption seeps into deeper, more intrinsic things. Wanting lighter skin, sharper noses, bigger eyes — that’s not only an African norm, but something I’ve personally held as more beautiful and desirable as an Asian. Beyond that, the American lifestyle, as portrayed by media, is sought after, leaving some of the valuable, long-held Ugandan traditions to die with the old generation.

So what I’m trying to say is this:

Look for the beautiful and noble things in each culture. Challenge yourself by adopting them, preserving them, or at the very least, expressing admiration for those very things. There is no culture that is better or worse than another in every way. So, in a world where cultures have been ranked arbitrarily, let’s get rid of the scale.