“Okay it’s my turn!” Vivian would say bursting from behind the tree. She was always outside. Lucky for her, her hair never got in the way. At school, she would chase her friends around the the playground. She would nudge and coil her straight black hair around her fingers as she said goodbye to her friends. At sleepovers, her friends and her sat in her room in a circle whispering and snickering at each other. They put on makeup and did each other’s hair. When I thought it was okay, I joined in for a while, but when time came to gossip, she would chase me out of the room and slam the door behind my back. But eventually, the weather, sleepovers, and cotton pillows washed out the magical thick pink paste that made her hair straight. It became coarse and brittle and those pesky little nappy roots grew back. So when the time came, mom would drive to the nearest shop and buy the colourful box that made her hair straight again. I would eagerly watch as mom brought the box to the table. She mixed the creamy white paste and pink liquid.
“Don’t get to close,” she would say.
“And if I do?”
“It will burn you and while you’re at it open the windows.”
I dashed to the windows and did so. Mom would run a rat tail comb down Vivian’s hair and split her hair into individual parts. She brushed the pink paste into Vivian’s hair and wrapped it in a plastic bag.
Tell me when it starts to burn,” mom told Vivian as she cleaned up the mess.
“Mom, when can I do it?” I said circling her
“Not now Wambui you’re too young”
“But I can get it now?”
“Not now. Later okay?”
But I knew later meant never. I knew in the morning before school, I would still have to comb out my nappy hair and tie them into individual knots. I knew on Sundays if I were lucky, mom would bring out the hot comb and maybe if it was straight enough, I would be like the other girls at church. But not straight and long enough like Vivians. Not good enough.
Eventually, Vivian complained about the burning and raced to wash it off. And when she was done, it was nice and straight just like before. But she never listened to moms orders. “You’re hair is not like everybody else’s.” mom would tell Vivian. “You can’t do what they can. It’s going to fall off” she warned. But Vivian never listened. She swam with no swimming cap, she slept without braiding her hair into neat matutas and bickered when mom warned her again and again. Since the beginning of time, it’s almost like black girls have had it hard with accepting every aspect of themselves. Especially our hair. We’ve all strived to look eurocentric at least one time in our lives. Relaxers and skin bleachers have been marketed to us so we can fit into society’s mold of “beautiful.” We straighten our hair, bleach our skin and adjust our accents just so we can feel accepted. Occasionally, we are told that our hairstyles aren’t professional or they are distracting in a school setting. You see, our environment doesn’t build girls like us to be wonderful and proud women. We aren’t taught to be proud of our heritage, the colour of our skin, or our hair. We are instead told the lie that the more afrocentric features we have, the uglier we are. And this lie spreads throughout different black communities around the world like a virus.
But It was under the Panamanian sun. The thick air that filled my lungs and the unwieldy clouds that brought rain, under this sun was when mom finally said yes.
“When I go to the Rey, I’ll pick up the box” she said closing the book she never put down.
Too young to know any better, and too thrilled to contain my excitement, I ran down the hallway to the room I shared with my little sister, Wanjiru. I hopped on the bed startling her a little. I told her everything.
“ It’s gonna be long and straight.”
“Really?” she said smirking
“Yeah and I can comb it easily and I won’t have to put them in matutas every night before bed”
Wanjiru came 3 years after me. Her hair bronze in the sunlight, was curlier than mine. She was short and plump and when she smiled, her eyes disappeared under her caramel fat cheeks. Moms excuse for every wrong things she did was “she is young Wambui, you were like this once.” Wanjiru was always the center of attention. After dinner, we would race to the living room. Out of all the cassettes and CD’s, we picked Alicia Keys “As I Am”. Wanjiru would pick the red flashlight on the table and pretend it was a microphone. Everyone’s attention would immediately divert to her and dad’s camera would instantly turn on. I patiently waited for my turn sitting right by her. She mumbled and swallowed her words, but know one minded. When the song was eventually over, mom, dad, and Vivian cheered and her eyes immediately disappeared behind her cheeks. I grabbed for the red flashlight thinking it was my turn, but Wanjiru’s show just begun. She whined and bickered. “Wambui, go up stairs and get the other flashlight” mom said pushing me away. Being Vivian and I were 6 years apart, we never related to anything so I somehow found a way to get over Wanjiru’s brattiness and become close to her. Whatever she did, I did. On our birthday, mom and dad would buy both of us presents so one of us wouldn’t feel left out. And whenever I got something she didn’t get, we would find a way to share it.
I sat in moms and dads bathroom on the stool. Mom opened the small window peering over the dullness of Guayaba street and our untamed backyard. Guayaba Street was once owned by the zonians. They were the Americans that once worked in the canal. Before they left, these streets were considered a high class neighborhood. I imagined the roads during their times as lively. Old Corvettes and Cadillacs must’ve been parked in the driveway. Children would freely run around the neighborhood riding their bikes and playing hide-and-seek at the park and on the 4th of July, the neighborhood must have gathered together to fill a backyard with fireworks and a barbecue just like the movies. During those times, black girls must’ve never felt love for their nappy hair. Being black people were being heavily discriminated against, their environment surely never cared to remind their black kids that they were amazing. Their hair bleached and straightened just to get a job or fit in. They must’ve done whatever they had to do to fit in. Sooner or later the zonians, jobs were taken from them and they forced out of Panama’s paradise lifestyle. The neighbourhood was abandoned. Trees grew onto power lines and the humidity of Panama coated the painted houses with moss. It stayed that way until people bought out the entire neighbourhood.
The bathroom was small and congested. I knew mom would worry that the ammonium would get to us and we would begin to get light headed. The tiles on the wall were baby blue. The lights would flicker and sometimes turn off, but I was too thrilled to notice any flaw of the bathroom. The Just for Me box sat on my moms dresser. She put a newspaper under the container and begun mixing the creamy pink paste that made my hair straight. The smell of ammonium among the thick breeze burned my eyes but I didn’t mind.
She wrapped a towel around me and begun parting my hair with the rat tail comb.
“it is going to burn a little” she uttered as she got the paste close to my hair. The paste was cold and tingly as it touched my scalp. As mom brushed it into my hair, the tingling slowly begun to burn. I sat at the chair staring at myself from the mirror of the vanity picturing myself with long black hair. Just imagining how great I’m going to look the next day of school. Like everyone else.
“Mom, when am I going to get my hair done like that?” Wanjiru said sitting on the edge of the bed. Wanjiru’s hair was wilder and never listened. Deep conditioners and leave ins never worked but it was always longer when mom straightened it.
Mom too tired and too hard at work said “When you’re older”
Kids at school made fun of Wanjiru’s hair. Mom spent the entire day doing bantu knots on her hair. When she was done, Wanjiru stared into the mirror happy about how her hair turned out. The next day at school, she couldn’t get enough of the kids poking at her hair and making fun of it. She pleaded mom to take it out, but mom said no.
Her face wasn’t as bright anymore. She stared at the floor and played with the rug.
“Don’t worry Shiru, I had to wait a little too.” I said smiling at her
“Yeah but I want my hair straight like that now.”
“Some other time.” mom barked trying to end the whining.
She wrapped my hair in clingfoil warning me to let her know when it starts burning. Wanjiru and I sat together by the ipad taking turns on Candy Crush. She took her turn and I took mine, but the burning just got worse.
“It’s starting to hurt a little” I said poking at the clingfoil. Mom pushed my hand out of the way warning me that it would burn.
We rushed to the sink of her bathroom and carefully washed it out.
“Close your eyes until I tell you to open,” mom said running her hands through my hair. Eventually, the paste washed out and my hair was straight. No nappy hair in the mornings to tend to. It would be easy, and I would look prettier. When mom blow dried my hair, I fidgeted, squealed, and curled when the heat burned my scalp. “Pole sana.” she said rubbing my burned scalp. When she finished, she grabbed the TCB herbal oil and rubbed it into my scalp. From the mirror, I could see my straight hair coming to life. I could see my new locks of hair. Silky, flat, and black. When the blow drying was over, mom handed me the afro comb.
“It’s so soft.” Wanjiru said running her fingers through my new hair.
“Can I comb it? Please?” she said reaching her hand out for the comb.
I sat on the lid of toilet seat swinging my legs back and forth adoring my new hair. Wanjiru combed my hair for what felt like hours but I didn’t mind. She parted my hair and combed longer. Looking into the mirror, I noticed how silky it was. Not like Vivians, but eventually it would be. It didn’t touch my shoulders like I thought it would, but it someday it would. Maybe the paste needed more time.
The next morning, everything felt easier and mom and I wouldn’t have to spend what felt like hours forcing my coarse hair into a bun. I just combed my silky straight hair into a ponytail and headed down for breakfast. At school, no one seemed to care. No one yanked or pulled on my hair like the 1st couple days of school and I wouldn’t have to sit down to explain why my hair is the way it is and how I do it. I was just like everyone else. And when I came home, mom wouldn’t have to again force my hair into matutas before I slept. Going out to play was even better. No more having to limit my fun because I would have to deal with my hair after. I just combed it went on with my day. But it was the 1st day of washing my hair after relaxing, I realized it was not as easy as I thought it was. “Have you been braiding your hair before you sleep?” Mom would say as she ran her fingers through my locks of hair trying to part the knots and tangles. I was so confused. Wasn’t my hair now straight? I wouldn’t have to do that anymore right? She waited for me to answer but I just stood in front of the mirror looking at her. “Wambui, I’ve told Vivian this time and time again, you need to take care of your hair.” But I thought relaxing my hair was an easier way out. She clicked and mumbled under her breathe in kikuyu. That’s when I knew I was in trouble. I kneeled on the cold tile floor bending my head over the bathtub as mom scrubbed the dirt out of my hair. My neck and back begun to ache so when I asked mom for a break she said “If you took care of your hair, we would be done by now,” and then she continued.
Not long after, Panama’s humid air and rainy days washed out the pink paste so mom and I spend the whole day attacking my nappy roots so it would be back the way it was before. When mom blow dried my hair, I noticed how thin it was. Almost lifeless. It barely reached my shoulder and moved. It was so stiff and brittle, but it was straight. That’s all that mattered. On top of the sink,there were all kinds of shampoos and conditioners. There was sulfate free shampoo. There were aloe vera conditioners. Ones that you couldn’t get in Panama. The types that had herbs with healing properties and the others were just samples. And there were all types of combs too. There were fat ones and other were thin. Some were made of wood and others were plastic.
My hair felt dead after washing it. I was scared of combing it cause it was brittle and weak. But it was still straight. When Wanjiru blow dried her hair, it was long and straight. It went down to her collarbone and it was full. Mine was thin and matte. A small part of me wished for my old hair, but another part of me loved the simplicity of straight hair. I was holding onto something that wasn’t intangible. Eventually I came across a picture of a black girl with thick locks of hair. It was big and full. She stood proud with her head up smiling. That was the picture that persuaded me to go back to natural.
And eventually, Vivian did too.