Braiding has been an African way of styling hair for as long as there have been Africans. This is evidenced in the ancient stone sculptures that portray both men and women with neat stone braids. When I was about thirteen I wanted to have my hair braided. My Mum said ‘No’, As was my habit back then, I called from London to Zambia. I called my Dad out of deliberations on the struggle and begged him to override Mum’s ruling on the all important matter of my hairstyle. His amused response was ‘So, you want to look like a real Pondo girl’. He spoke to Mum, and I got my way.
I loved my braids. They were long and reminiscent of the traditional Mpondo and Himba styles. On the streets of London I felt so African, so unique. Ever since, I have had an addiction to braids. They are a homecoming for my head; a place to retreat when weaves are worn out and the labour intensity of daily styling is more than my soul is prepared to endure.
However, there are few things in this world more painful, more excruciatingly tedious and more rewarding in its result than the process of having one’s head braided.
Time goes slowly, even when there are three or more people pulling small strands of hair on every side of your head. They use a comb as though it was a paring knife engraving neat circles in your head. It’s as though they want to take a pound of flesh, infinitesimal bits at a time.
And there’s that moment of planting when they tug at the tiny strand of hair and tie on extra pieces of simulated hair to extend the whole into one long braid. A sharp expressive ‘Ouch’! will assist in getting through that moment. Focusing squarely on the outcome diminishes soreness.
Then they yank, and pull because only by yanking and pulling, it seems, can they achieve a really neat braid. It’s quite manageable at first, but inevitably they will to lose sight of the fact that there is a human head attached to the hair that they are tugging at. Because the girls, the lovely lively girls have so much to say to each other while their hands go into automatic overdrive. One can’t help but wonder why they don’t talk to each other. They shout. They argue, there is a cacophony of chatter, they laugh loud, four of them, and so close to your ears. Thank God for the ipod.
There is nothing to do through all this but suffer and contribute with the occasional loud expression of pain, which will go unheeded. You can try to bringing a book, but pain makes you cross eyed; so you can’t read. You can bring a laptop, but the discomfort makes you ham handed, so you can’t type.
The only thing to do is to watch your face and see how many different facial expressions there are that illustrate the various moments of torture. There’s the close one eye, the pull up one side of the mouth, the twitch; There’s the total grimace, the frown, the frown close one eye combo, the teeth gnash, the pout, the pursed lips, the close one eye pursed lip combo, the frown, gnash teeth, twitch, frown, grimace, combo which is usually followed by a purposeful yelp. And finally there’s the twitch, close one eye, teeth gnash, frown, pout, grimace, pull up one side of the mouth, neck shrink into the shoulders in a futile attempt at escape super-combo.