I am Africa and No, You Cannot Touch My Hair

africa woman globe

“Can I touch your hair?”

How did we get to this point? How did this stranger get the nerve to ask this personal question?

You see, I am at the park, with a book I will not read because watching people is so much better. Behind my sunglasses, I can stare for as long as I want. No one will know, so no one will care.

When she arrived with her multi-coloured handbag, wearing a blue dress with little white daisy patterns, underneath a light green sport coat, a bright pink scarf around her neck, and navy tights in brown leather ankle boots, I thought of church on Sundays in Nigeria, the profusion of colours but without the gaiety.

She began looking at me not long after she sat on the bench opposite me, occasional stares, polite stares, with a small smile, the kind that invites conversation. I should have said something; maybe something about the weather, about how annoying it was that the sun chose to play peek-a-boo.  Instead, I averted my gaze. But I could not keep my eyes away because she has earrings all over her face—four earrings on her right ear, two on her left, two on her nose, and one on her lip.

If I did not look back perhaps, she might not have asked. I thought about one fallout of not being native Dutch as she kept staring, her curiosity shining through—being at the mercy of people’s assumptions about why you are here. I see it in their eyes, a self-indulgent kind look that presumes I know how lucky I am to be here, as if I had escaped starvation in Africa by the skin on my bones.

However, I could not dwell on the challenges of immigration. I could not analyse how racial prejudice swings back and forth from citizens to migrants like a bicycle that pedals forward and backward because that was when she walked towards me, looking at my cornrows in wonder as if they were listed in the Guinness Book of Records.

Maak ik uw haar aanraken?”

Ik spreek Engels.”

“Oh, is it your hair?  Please can I touch it? How long…”

I should be used to it. I am. I am not. I am … tired.

She continues to look. Looking is free.

Why have I never asked to touch the hair of any Caucasian woman including those who are my friends? I have a theory. I had many Barbie dolls growing up. I brushed and brushed the rubbery silkiness of their blond hair; twisted it, plaited it, wrapped it, pony-tailed it, cut it, washed it, pulled it, until I was “un”fascinated by it.

“Hello, I’m Africa, and no you may not touch my hair! If you had played with African dolls when you were younger, you would not need to touch my hair.”

The words are at the tip of my tongue, but I do not vocalize them.

How can I? How dare I sound indignant when I remember that some people in Nigeria stare at foreigners as though they have never watched TV? Others ask to touch their skin and there are those who solicit funds with their sad, sad, stories, as if every oyinbo is World Bank, willing to give aid to Africa.

I exhale deeply. “Yes, you may.”

We can recoil from what we do not know, we can pretend we know, or we can seek to know. Maybe understanding will foster peace. Maybe understanding will dispel superstitions. Maybe understanding will reduce stereotypes. Maybe understanding will bring acceptance. What do I know? I close my eyes as she touches my cornrows, lightly, hesitantly, and then with firmer motions as her confidence grows.

my cornrows

© Timi Yeseibo 2013

Image credit: Woman holding Earth globe by Microsoft

Photo credit: my cornrows © Timi Yeseibo 2013

 

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Timi Yeseibo and livelytwist.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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25 thoughts on “I am Africa and No, You Cannot Touch My Hair

  1. Thank you so much for writing this piece!!! I am TIRED of being asked. I don#t know where their hands have been and quite frankly I am not an artifact to be poked and prodded. Look, appreciate, ask questions and MOVE on!

    I transitioned from relaxed to natural hair over 5 years ago now and I found that even amongst Africans my coils seemed to be a fascination and was constantly asked why I didn’t ‘just relax it’ so as you can imagine, if our own people think this way, its no wonder our Caucasian peers are bemused by the springs that naturally root from our scalp.

    AO

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your comment brought a smile to my face. It can get tiring, all this touching, touching, touching!
      I’ve resigned myself to being a cross-cultural ambassador 🙂

      Lol, depending on my hairstyle, my friends of African descent still ask if it’s my hair, a weave, how much, where, and they touch without permission!

      Here’s my rant on hair… it’s another side… maybe you’d enjoy reading?

      https://livelytwist.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/for-coloured-girls-only-no-i-think-not/

      Like

  2. Lovely piece. I’m transitioning my relaxed hair to natural hair presently, and everyone keeps wondering why I would sacrifice (chemically-induced) silky, smooth hair for curly, thick hair. Apart from my personal spiritual convictions, I also did it because of cultural pride. I am African, God made our hair that way for a reason, and altering it seems to be making a rebellious statement, like He didn’t make a wise choice. It is part of what makes us who we are.
    I hope I maintain it well so it can be as beautiful as yours. 🙂

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    1. Going natural seems to be all the rave now. Whatever works best for you 🙂 I admire your trying to be true to you in the face of pressure. I like my natural hair, but for convenience, I rarely wear my hair without some form of extensions, I find it too difficult to manage otherwise.

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  3. Ah!…that our hair…I think God enjoys the curiosity and fascination we express at the racial diversity in forms of physical attributes that He’s created…

    Lol@nerves and boldness…play with your African dolls too…do they exist?

    Like most young girls,I struggled with accepting our hair and wishing it had the length,lustre and curl of western hair…learning to appreciate and make the best of my natural gifting now.

    I loved the lady’s combo though…description made for an outstanding outfit…yes?….oh and that game we play with strangers in search for icebreakers?…one word:dramatic!

    P.s:I love the fact that you write Dutch…remarkable!

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    1. @ Like most young girls,I struggled with accepting our hair and wishing it had the length, lustre and curl of western hair…. I think the images of beauty we were fed was partly responsible for that. The natural hair movement is on the rise, and perhaps our daughters will not have that struggle. But the grass usually seems greener on the other side!

      @ African dolls, yes they exist! Are they in the shops here? Another discussion, another day.

      I have grown to love the versatility of my hair, its strength, resilience, mirroring something of me. Mostly, I am at peace with my hair and different things about life. This makes me more tolerant of strangers’ curiosity about my hair. As long as I live here, someone will ask….

      I write snippets of Dutch. If you understand Dutch, it’s not remarkable, I promise 🙂

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  4. I really enjoyed this. Really bold lady. Shame it was offensive but I guess her curiosity got the better of her.
    I live in a city (London) where people generally keep to themselves and it can be a challenge sharing the gospel of Christ with them so I’m always looking for great ice breakers but being mindful that they aren’t offensive.

    Ps The hairstyle is beautiful and the eyebrows were on point. Perfect poster for an African girl 😊

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    1. Afi, I hadn’t looked at it as an icebreaker and an opportunity… thanks for sharing. Aw, thank you for your compliment on my hairstyle. A friend saw the photo, and said she would have also asked to touch it lol! 🙂

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  5. a very thought provoking piece – I can so understand that you get tired of such requests – It is the dutch woman who bemuses me. Again – a difference is culture perhaps, but as an English woman I would NEVER approach you as a stranger and ask anything as intimate as “Can I touch your hair?” Don’t get me wrong – I love talking to people and connecting with new people – BUT to me it is out of order to ask such a question on first engaging with someone. I don’t know the Dutch as a race, and I have yet to visit Holland – are they usually so forward?

    Like

    1. The Dutch are very direct and forthcoming with their ‘many’ opinions. The times that I’ve been approached by complete strangers like in this case, are few and far between, so it would be wrong for me to say all Dutch people are forward. But I’ve been approached many times in social gatherings by people whom I knew on a ‘social’ level only.

      I style my hair differently nearly every month and I think that because people here are not used to being around people of African descent, the versatility elicits curiousity.

      A friend who lives in London, commented on reading this post that people are more ‘aware’ over there and don’t ask…

      I guess sometimes curiousity pushes the boundaries of common sense, making us like children again…

      Thanks for your comments, made me think again

      Like

    1. Thanks Ama. I’m glad you enjoyed reading. Well, I ended the post the way I wanted to. I didn’t have any more musings on the subject. A few of the comments here and elsewhere have got me thinking… so who knows 🙂

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  6. Hi Timi, I have been out of circulation for a while so i have a lot of catching up to do on your blog. Enjoyed the post, and I while I can sympathize with your situation, I think it is the culture of curiosity – as against fear or should I say the doctrines of Taboo in Africa – that that has gotten the Western world where it (positively and negatively too), Curiosity is a good thing cause it helps “open your mind”. Do not be surprised that 2yrs down d road there would be a revolutionary “treatment” for Caucasian hair and there at the launch is your multi-ringed friend holding up the product and saying………….. It all started in the park one day when I met an African woman sitting on a bench…………

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    1. Hello Emma, glad to have you back. Thanks for your comment, I hadn’t looked at it that way. I’m all for exporting our culture… I guess I should brace myself for more “touching” 🙂

      Like

    1. I’m glad you found the post so engaging you were hoping for more… that’s a good sign 🙂
      Thank you Tonbareg! The post generated some interesting comments on FB & elsewhere… maybe I can find another angle to continue from…

      Like

  7. Timi

    This is a “novel” piece. You have touched on a very interesting topic that is seldom talked about by African families. My son wears dreadlocks, and some of his mates are envious wishing they were “black” so they could have their hair done like his.

    We’re a unique race and the fact is that many “oyinbos” do want to look like us although they tend to hide or suppress this innate feeling within them. I suppose it is borne out of nature that humans generally desire to be like the other person. As the saying goes “my neighbours garden seems greener…” As “blacks” and Africans, we (including out children) must continue to be proud of our colour and who we are.

    Thanks and Well done !

    Like

    1. Well said Chris, we should be proud of who we are… and willing to share who we are (within reasonable limits). Yes, we tend to want what we don’t have… let me not even start with bleaching creams 🙂

      I hope your son is handling all the attention he gets because of his hair well; it can be tiring.

      Thank you so much for stopping by!

      Like

  8. Ah! That’s so true. It’s a mutual thing, really.

    If I may ask, did the Dutch woman make any further comment about your hair after touching it?

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    1. She did. she liked it and admired the versatility of our hair. She wished she had several options like I had. But when I told her it took almost four hours to get it done, she shook her head :).

      The comments about my hair are usually positive- nice hair, beautiful hair… It’s the questions about the hair and wanting to touch… lol!

      Like

  9. Yes Uzoma, it can be sensitive. lol @ German girl in primary four!
    I tire of the questions about my hair, but if I put myself in their shoes, I am patient, and even grateful they want to know…

    Like

  10. Quite a grabbing topic with a sensitive edge. Years back, in primary four actually, one of my classmates was a German girl with blond hair. Goodness me! How we gaped at her the first day she stepped in. We wondered why her skin often turned red when the sun was blazing hot or at play time. But human interaction without bias or segregation helps us appreciate each race better, thus removes superstition or negative thinking.

    Like

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