Ethiopian Culture / Ethiopian Identity / Immigrant Life

Human Hair and Me

One of the stranger questions I’ve been asked in my life, on either side of the Atlantic, is “Do you have human hair?”

(Note, question should not be confused with that which black females get asked at least once in their lifetime: “is that your real hair”?)

If the former question, about whether I have human hair, was being asked sometime in the far off future, when humans would have developed the ability to grow all kinds of other animal hair (or, better yet, wear multicoloured human hair grown on sheep) I would understand. But in 2014 all I could do in response was point, apelike, to the jet black evidence on my scalp and say, “Erm, yes. Right here”, while wondering if it’s supposed to be a trick question.

Though I wasn’t trying to be funny, my answer got laughs. As in, laughing at me, not with me.

Every time I go back home, it’s a given that I will have a lot of catching up to do as to what’s hot and what’s not, which will have changed in the last week, forget the last year or two. But this “human hair” thing took the cake as far as the extent of my fashion culture ignorance (of which I’m guilty on all hemispheres at all times), because even my septuagenarian dad – who’s never even understood the specific need for shampoo when plain old body soap does the job just as well, and whose visits to the barber have never taken more than seven minutes – knew all about the ‘human hair’ craze. Even knew that women spend upwards of 6,000 birr (equivalent to the salary of a top tier government official) minimum on getting human hair added to their…human hair. He shrugged it off as common knowledge. Did I really think all those cascading curls on every TV presenter were just hair? No, they’re human hair.

I see. I guess it’s safe to assume that all the horse hair jokes are all passé then?

But wait, that’s not the interesting bit. It’s what follows that always makes me, well, scratch my just-hair head. Whenever you talk to some habesha person who is against this fashion, the basic line of their opposition platform (aside from the fact of its exorbitant cost) goes as follows: why do our women feel the need to add a stranger’s hair when they already have such good hair? 

I remember hearing similar laments back when synthetic-hair enhanced cornrows were all the rage in Addis, circa early 2000s. Why, when our hair is so good as it is?
So, does that mean that there are indeed certain groups of women who would be well advised to…enhance the humanness of their hair? Certain women whom we can look at and say whew thank god she opted for some human hair?

Can of hairy worms, I know, which I’ll leave alone since it’s been well pried open and shook out by others before me, from Chris Rock to Chimamanda Adichie

Though I’ve, sadly, only ever worn the human hair of yours truly up to this point, I can, ahem, comb through my limited history with non-human hair, the cheap pooh-poohed synthetic hair which only costs 200 birr a head.
It all starts with wanting to look like someone else. My earliest memory of that is of Kuku Sebsebe and her adorned braids. As a little girl, after each bath time when, sitting between my mother’s knees, she asked me how I wanted my hair done this time, my answer was always the same: “Like Kuku”.570
In my teens and early twenties, I kept coming back to this style, only the objective had changed to looking “like Janet“, with the addition of synthetic extensions for extra length. I’ll not mention the joy of not getting to directly wash my hair for three months minimum.poetic-justice-1993-janet-jackson
My most shining moment by far though was when, days after chopping off all my hair on a sophomore’s whim, I went back to the salon to have extra long extension braids put in. Why? Because I missed my hair already. I guess I was trying to look “like Rebka” circa 1994.
IMG_1450But of course, my too-short hair was too “good” to keep its grip on the extensions, so they kept falling out in the shower and I’d find them on the ground whenever I felt a vacant patch and retraced my path, sort of like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs. So, after an adventurous few days of literally picking up after myself, I went back to the salon, this time to have the extensions sown in. Yes, with needle and thread.
Detangle that.
Maybe there will come a future where, just like the women who dedicate their hair to the gods at the Hindu temple Tirumala Venkateswara in India, only for it to be sold off for thousands in the Western market, the people who flock to Kullubi in eastern Ethiopia every July and December will, instead of bringing their babies and rocks on their backs or fat bulls or adorned umbrellas to dedicate to the church of St. Gabriel, they will instead donate their “good” hair, so that it can then get sold to millions of flat-haired people worldwide, who can finally stop envying the kind of hair that holds so much.
Wouldn’t that be, like, kuku.

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