I am an only daughter. Growing up, my playmates and friends were my brothers and their friends, who inadvertently tended to be boys. That pretty much meant I was bound to be a tomboy. My mother’s attempts at exposing me to girly things failed miserably, she even bought me this doll I named Dolly (I wasn’t a very creative child). Dolly was a green, plastic doll whose eyes and nose were pierced by my brother. I played with her sometimes, but most of the time I abandoned her and ran off to play with my brothers. So, as you can imagine, I wasn’t heartbroken when she met her tragic end.
Undeterred, my mother got me another doll, this time a pretty rag-doll with woolen hair just like mine. I didn’t bother to name her. She didn’t last either. RIP rag-doll.
I was more interested in playing with homemade wire cars, kicking footballs, climbing trees and basically playing with the boys because that is all I knew. I didn’t understand why I was singled out to wear the pretty dresses my mother made to match hers, in a Mummy-and-me inspired moment, and I certainly did not want to spend hours having my hair braided when my brothers didn’t have to endure that hardship. She managed to trick me into having my ears pierced, which was not a mean feat.
I vividly remember the woman who braided my hair in my childhood years. Her name was Ruth, a tall slender no nonsense woman from Alego. You see, I grew up in Eldoret, and so it was not common to run into someone who was from my dala. Ruth would sit on her chair, outside her house, and would sternly ask me to sit on the low, wooden stool known as then in my mothertongue. I would sit obediently, and Ruth would produce the dreaded wooden comb, which she assured my mother was the only comb that could ‘draw’ straight lines to ensure my cornrows, or lines as we call them in Kenya, were straight and super neat. Ruth would proceed to part my hair in two sections down the middle, front to back. To achieve the perfect hair part, she would take her gapped, three toothed wooden comb and draw a line from the middle of my nose up my forehead and all the way back to my neck. I imagine the other comb-teeth fell off fighting to comb ‘steel wool’ hair like mine, which seems to suffer from separation anxiety because it clings to every comb I put in it in a ‘I will never let you go’ grip.
I was a very bold little girl, and I once asked her why she had to start drawing the hair part line from my nose, to which she haughtily responded. “hawa watoto wa siku hizi hawana heshima, ling!” (Today’s children are disrespectful, shush!). Seeing as I was sitting in a stool in front of her, firmly pressed between her knees, and with no eyes behind my head to see what she was doing, I decided it would be foolhardy to speak up, what with the sharp wooden comb she was brandishing over my head.
I have a lot of hair on my head. I also do not have a small head. I also have my mother’s forehead, which is really a small space above my eyebrows. Like clockwork, halfway across the braiding, Ruth would sigh dramatically and say, almost to herself, “to wich nyathini duong’ ka then”. For those who are not speakers of the international language also known as DhoLuo, I had just had my head likened to the long wooden stool I was sitting on. I took this insult calmly, because as a child, my head was unusually large for my body. In fact, all of my childhood nicknames revolved around the size of my head.
My mother tells me that when I was born, visitors who saw me always remarked that she gave birth to a baby and a half, the half being my head and the sheer amount of hair on it. It took years for my head: body proportion to normalize. But I digress. Once Ruth was done braiding my “then” head, she took the can of Dax oil my mother had provided, and proceeded to slather an insane amount on my scalp until it was shining in the afternoon sun. Seeing as I have said non-existent forehead, some of the Dax would end up on my face, and I would go home with my head and face shining like a brand new coin. Apparently Dax helps grow hair, although my hair must have been the exception, because it remained short and thick. When Ruth was done, she would warn me not to ‘play in the grass’ because she may have found a blackjack weed or two in my hair when undoing my lines. That advice went in one ear and out the other. As soon as I got home and saw my brothers and their friends playing, I ran to join them, completely ignoring the little girls playing girly games.
My hair troubles came to an abrupt halt one morning. The day before we were to return to school, my mother asked me to have my braids removed by my aunt, who was visiting for the week. Now, I had single braids on my head. It had taken almost an entire day for Ruth to put them in, and after she was done braiding, Ruth had calmly informed my mother that next time she would charge me ‘full price’ because my 9 year old head was not the size of a child’s head! Honestly. I know I had a big head, but was that really necessary? Anyway, fast forward many weeks later, it was time to get the braids removed because the school did not allow single braids, only simple lines. So, when my mother told me that I would be spending the last day of my holiday sitting and having my hair undone, it was not in line with how I had planned to spend my day, and so I waited for her to go to work and I snuck out to play with my friends. When my mother came back that evening and saw I hadn’t had the braids taken out she was quite upset. My aunt, who is my mother’s younger sister and like a second mother to me (she will tell anyone how she babysat me as a baby, and it wasn’t easy, because I was a very challenging baby who drank milk nonstop, slept during the day and kept everyone up at night) decided that she had heard AND had enough of my hair shenanigans. She calmly took a pair of scissors and chopped off the braids to almost scalp level. She then proceeded to wash and comb my hair. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the end of my hair misery.