The God of Black Hair


Siki Dlanga -Xhosa4

I was born in August on a late Thursday morning. My mother was impressed with my pink lips and she was fascinated with my hair. That was about it. She had given birth to more beautiful children before me, but none of their hair could do what mine could do.

According to my grandmother, who was called MaRhadebe after her clan name, hair was dangerous. My head was always somewhere close to a razor, a pair of scissors or a shaving machine.

After a holiday with my mother, who was not interested in shaving our hair, we would barely walk through my grandmother’s gate and the little bit of hair that had managed to grow in her absence, would fall to the ground. I was devastated by my grandmother’s strict attitude towards hair.

Inwele zizobamosha abantwana. Hair is going to corrupt the children, she said.


MaRhadebe was an angel in my eyes. If she believed hair had to go, then I could not resent her for it.

Tears flowed each time someone combed my hair after bathing, not unlike every other black child. The pain of being black was inescapable and God did nothing to relieve it. Instead, God had given us hard lives and hard hair to confirm our harsh reality. The same God gave white people hair that was easy to manage, that complemented their lives of convenience.

Every doll I ever saw was white with long, silky blond hair. God had banished black people to a life of short hair.

Then, on a rare morning, never to be repeated and never to be forgotten—I saw MaRhadebe’s hair.

The Transkei morning sun had fallen softly on my grandparents’ veranda and my grandmother had uncovered her head. I was awestruck. I could not believe it.

Black hair can grow that long?

I wanted to shout those words and dance; instead I was transfixed, staring at her soft, long natural hair. The truth was uncovered and it was beautiful to behold. My misery and uncertainty about black beauty vanished. I was enthralled. She was undoing her plaits in order to do fresh ones. My grandmother’s hair had been the best kept secret beneath her turban. A turban is a woman’s crown in Xhosa culture. It is a traditional symbol and declaration to the world that she is married.

The day I saw the length of my grandmother’s hair and how she took care of it beneath her turban, was the day I was liberated. I no longer accused God of punishing us with hard hair, even though I still cried when my hair was being combed. I now saw possibilities beyond what I perceived as God’s lack of love.

Suddenly the world was not a place of limitations for someone like me, but it was a world of limitless possibilities hidden behind hardship.

My mother—unaware of my relationship with hair—bought me a black doll for my birthday. It had short permed hair. Holding the doll and looking at it was sacred and transformative. I had never seen a black doll, much less heard of one. A black doll meant that my experience and existence as a black child was validated.

When I think of the doll’s chubby cheeks and sparkling dark eyes, I can still smell the permed hair. It smelt like a black person’s permed hair. My grandmother must have seen how mesmerised I was by this doll because she sewed traditional Xhosa clothes for my doll. I had never felt more precious. No one could make me believe that I did not matter or that I was not special in the world because I was a black child. Owning a black doll clothed in traditional apparel created by my grandmother, made me feel unique in the world. Anyone could own any other doll, but I owned a black doll. The only black doll I knew of.

Sadly, my grandmother died when I was eight years old. Without noticing, my hair grew and my life changed. I started going to a school where children played with Barbies. I was not remotely interested. Their dolls were expensive, impressive and had long flowing hair like theirs. I quietly delighted in the physiological confidence of having owned an uncommon doll with short black hair like mine.

At my new school, black hair was an unfamiliar object. At first nothing was said about it, but by the time we reached high school, we had been allocated a black hair inspector. What qualified the inspector to inspect our hair was that she could speak some Xhosa. Never mind that those black children were eloquent English speakers. She did not know the first thing about black hair and her love for black people could be disputed. What could have been an insulting time became hilarious instead, because in our midst were some of the sassiest black girls.

I will never forget Nzwaki Geleba. She interrupted the inspection session and shouted: “Miss, look! That boy’s haircut has steps.”

Laughter broke out. The truth is, no boy was allowed to have a haircut with steps, but the rule had been created with white boys in mind. Now, this teacher had no way of knowing the truth. Needless to say, the separate black hair inspection soon disappeared.

My grandmother believed that hair was powerful and a thing to be feared. Hair is not just hair. Samson confirms that. I could have grown up without seeing my grandmother’s beautiful hair. I could have had a mother who did not think my hair was made of magic. I could have not owned a black doll. Who knows what my relationship with God and my hair could have been like?

Now, I see African hair with its unique texture as one of God’s most thoughtful offerings. Black hair is a world of exploration. Difference does not mean inferiority. Five hundred years ago we used to believe that. Now, with God’s help, I believe we are making our way back to recovering our crown.