When our friend and colleague, Channing, arrived to teach in the Congo, her hair was the last reason she expected to feel like an outsider.
Before I arrived in Kinshasa, I was warned that African Americans in Congo can experience difficult transitions for two main reasons: #1: They are often the only, or one of a very few, African American staff members where they work and #2: They arrive expecting to be automatically accepted by the Congolese people.
I wasn’t too worried about being the only African-American around for various reasons, including:
- I attended a small private school in South Georgia for 5th - 12th grades. I was the only African American student in my classes for the majority of my experience there.
- Upon graduation, I matriculated at Duke University. Though it likes to boast a 20% minority population, it is still a very white school.
- At the time of my interview for Congo, I was the only African-American working at my school, though there had been three of us my first year there.
Additionally, I never expected the Congolese to welcome me without question for two simple but very important reasons: I don’t speak the language and I am not Congolese.
Thus, when I boarded the plane from Valdosta, GA to the DRC in August of 2011, I had no presumptions or expectations of what I was getting myself into. I was just thankful to be an independent twenty-something adult with a job and health insurance.
What I truly was not expecting was that my main difference from the Congolese was not my American accent, or even my Westernized clothing.
It was, and still is, my hair.
Walking the streets of Kinshasa, I would find people staring at me, hard. They sometimes even gave me a double-take. I thought, “What is going on?” “Do I have food on my shirt? Is something on my face? I haven’t even spoken a word yet, but you are staring me down like I just walked out of my house naked." What was happening?
After a few months of these stare downs, I finally asked a Congolese colleague of mine what the deal was. I mean, I don’t look that much different from everyone else around me. So, what was up?
“It’s your hair,” she told me. “You wear it natural.”
“So?” I replied defensively. “Is that a bad thing here or what?”
“No. It’s just different.”
Different? My hair is different? From African women?
Mind officially blown.
How is it possible that my hair…which is natural and free from any harsh chemicals, weaves, etc., could be so different from women in DR Congo? I mean we are in AFRICA for crying out loud! Didn’t the whole black power movement that spurred on the iconic afro have a slogan of “Back to Africa”? Didn’t the majority of natural styles originate in Africa? Bantu Knots, Twists, Braids, you name it…didn’t it all come from this “Motherland”?
I began to pay attention to the women around me… nobody… absolutely NOBODY wore their hair out natural. I have seen a plethora of bad weaves, beautiful sew-ins, braids and twist extensions. Only twice in three years have I seen a Congolese woman in Kinshasa sporting her natural, un-relaxed hair, and I found myself staring at her just as many others had stared at me when I first arrived.
So I was curious. Why is it that we in America have this notion that on some level, going natural is a way of “getting back to our roots” both literally and figuratively, when women in DR Congo seem to be running away from their natural beauty?
Thus I asked a few of my colleagues and friends more questions. Their responses included:
- “Natural hair is considered to look poor, or like you are from the village. They are probably staring at you because no one would necessarily be proud to wear their hair like that.”
- “Men, including my colleagues, made fun of me when I wore my hair natural very briefly.”
- “How many Afros have you seen walking down the street? It’s just not the style here.”
- “It’s just too much work.”
These comments were so interesting to me because: 1.) The same people who were giving me this information are among the many who tell me how beautiful my hair is, and how “brave” I am to wear it out. 2.) I didn’t realize until that moment that I maintained a stereotype of Congolese and all other women from African countries as persons who would, naturally, be proud of their roots. The last thing I ever expected anyone to notice was my hair because all in all, I expected these women to be proud of showing off their beautiful hair follicles, with the variety of shapes, sizes, textures and even colors.
But here, in Kinshasa, that is just not the case. People rock their various weaves, wigs, and extensions, and get them rotated with record timing! Everyone has to keep up with the new trends and styles, and women would not be caught dead without a fresh hairdo at least once a month, but usually once every two weeks.
So here I am, in all of my natural glory, in an African country where the people have little to no appreciation for natural hair. And while that baffles me to some extent, it has never discouraged me or made me feel like I needed to change my own style. As I mentioned before, a lot of women, upon getting to know me, compliment me on my style choices; many admit that they would try the same thing if they felt that they would be accepted or encouraged throughout the process of becoming and/or being natural. And while I always want to stand on my soapbox and give all of the reasons of why they should feel beautiful in their most natural state, I feel that the best I can give them is just being comfortable with my own style and demonstrating how proud I am to be a natural beauty.
I think my expressions and mannerisms have had some positive impact. Several of my Congolese students have come to me and asked me questions about my hair: how it feels, how I take care of it, why I don’t regularly use weaves, extensions or relaxers. One even went so far as to cut her hair into a short Afro, but weaved in braids as soon as her hair was long enough.
The best example I experienced of my impact was when I took a trip out to the Kimbondo orphanage. With over 300 orphaned children and teenagers, it can be quite an overwhelming place to visit, especially if you don’t speak the language. When I arrived, several teenage girls grabbed my hands and took me over to their rooms. They looked and pointed at my hair excitedly, and one pulled out a comb, motioning for permission to play in my hair.
As I sat to let the girls go wild with my curly locks, one young girl who spoke a little bit of broken English said to me:
“You American?” she asked pointedly.
“Yes, I am American,” I responded in my broken French.
“But your hair, it’s like mine.”
“Yes. It’s just like yours.”
(Gingerly touching my hair) “It’s beautiful.”
“No. You are beautiful. And thank you so much for braiding my hair.”
She smiled, touched her own hair, and continued her furious braiding of my natural locs.
Such a brief conversation, but I will never forget the bright smile of that young girl who never imagined that someone from a world away, would ever think that she (and her hair) was absolutely beautiful.
Text by Channing Mathews. Photos by Jill Humphrey.
Text by Channing Mathews. Photos by Jill Humphrey.