Sunday, September 26, 2010


One of the challenges I occasionally face here in Zambia is recognizing my students and calling them by the correct name when some of them change appearance so dramatically from one day to the next. And it is mostly the hair that changes.

There are an amazing number of ways an African woman can arrange her hair. She can leave it natural and close to the head, or comb it into an Afro or an Afro puff (where the hair is pulled back and secured with an elastic, then puffed out from the elastic.) There are multitudes of braided styles. I have seen cornrows with and without beads on the ends. Sometimes braiding involves much more intricate designs than simple rows. Although "hair saloons" abound, offering braiding and other hair styling, braiding is often done by friends or family. Once, when I was younger and had longer hair, an African woman asked if she could try to braid my hair. Taking a small section, she began the process, but she soon gave up, complaining that "European hair is just too slippery!"

Braided hair can be augmented by long or short extensions, and these can simply provide longer braids or can be pulled into pony tails or other styles. Dreadlocks are not very popular here, but I see them sometimes. Little girls often have a knotted style, in which the hair is carefully parted in sections to make patterns (triangles, for example) and the hair in each section gathered into a knot with the end tucked under. Sometimes colored elastics or barrettes or beads are used with this style. Adult women may knot their hair, as well.

Perhaps because of the influence of international fashion, quite a few Zambian women use some kind of relaxer or other straightening process on their hair. They then style their hair in a bob or another smooth arrangement. Sometimes they leave the hair wavy, other times straight as a pin. There are also styles in which the hair is slightly relaxed and shaped into many long corkscrew curls. The possibilities seem to be limited only by the imagination. Studying different hair styles has become a favorite part of my people-watching here.

And then there are the wigs. A woman can dramatically change her appearance with a wig, and much of the time I don't even know it is a wig because it looks so natural. Some are full wigs, some just partial wigs integrated into the natural hair.

Occasionally women here wear scarves or elaborate headdresses that entirely cover the hair. Some of the scarf styles are quite fancy, both in the colors and fabrics, and the way the scarves are wrapped and tied. The uniform for the church women's society of the United Church of Zambia includes a white head scarf. The traditional dress of some regions, especially when worn for celebratory occasions, includes coordinated headdresses.

Men in Zambia seem to have only two choices in hair style: natural but short and kept close to the head, or shaved bald. I have seen no dreadlocks or Afros on men here.

As for me, I have been afraid to get my hair cut here, so far. This fear dates from 1993, when I had the worst hair experience in my life in Uganda at a beauty shop that claimed to know how to cut "European hair." The memory is still strong, so I have been letting my hair grow. It is almost--but not quite--long enough for a pony tail or other pulled-back style. But for the moment, it is at that scruffy, in-between stage, so I'm glad you can't see me!

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