23: Rasta Maahn… – Diary of a Single Girl – Africa

23: “Rasta Maahn…

Ria’s new hairstyle has taught her a great deal about travel, people and herself. No, really.

…the passerby said as he glanced at my hair and raised his fist. “No mahn,” I replied with a knowing smile, “I just like da braids”.

Braids. Backerpackers think they’re cool, airport security thinks I’m a drug runner, and almost everyone I’ve met in Africa likes to touch them. But, I’m not talking about any ol’ braids. I’m talking about glossy, black as night, down to my bra strap, African-style plaits.

I’d had them done before I’d left for Africa to relieve me from the daily hair hassles I’ve endured since I was old enough to comb my own semi-curly hair. It’s always been a pain – mysteriously tangling, frizzy half the time – but I wasn’t bold enough to cut it all off. Braids would solve my hair issues for awhile. After all, I was going on safari, uncertain what bathing facilities would be like. I figured this was a practical solution and a way to have that really long hair I’ve always craved. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

After eight and a half painful hours of having tiny sections of my hair pulled at the roots and woven with two parts artificial hair to each fingerful of mine, I left two weary Ghanese women who seemed surprised how well it all turned out. But, I was so self-conscious at first I could swear everyone on the tube was staring at me. So overwhelmed by the change in my appearance, I asked my guy if he’d still kiss me (to which he gave the best guy response of “of course, you’re still the same person”). My head hurt for three days and sleeping, while kinda cool ’cause it was like having a built-in pillow, was also really uncomfortable until the “head shock” wore off.

I was also concerned how a white, African-plaited woman would be received in Africa. Would the locals look at me and think, “What’s up with the white girl?” But I truly underestimated the effect my braids would have – on others and on me.

My braids turned out to be my conversation piece. Local men told me how beautiful I looked with my “African hair;” women would toy with a handful, tell me how well they were done and ask how much they cost. The receptionist at a backpacker lodge told me she “knew I was cool” as she played with my braids. Many a conversation started with “How long did those take?” or “Can I touch them?” Fellow travelers found it easier to approach me.

However, on the flip side, I was also now experiencing a new “real world” perception of me. In nearly six months of travel, I’d never been stopped or searched by airport security. Now, I haven’t made it past a SINGLE security checkpoint without being searched – in one airport I was searched twice in 500 feet.

My buddy Monica tells me I don’t understand the statement my braids make. She says that in the black community they are a symbol of strength and assertiveness. I wasn’t trying to make a statement – I just wanted to make my life easier! But now, like all the other surprising experiences I’ve encountered this past year, this too has taught me a lesson. Despite how open-minded I think I’ve been, despite how much I’ve thought I could empathize with others… I really couldn’t because I’ve never been an “other” until now.

I’m being perceived differently due SOLELY on my appearance. I didn’t change who I was, yet now I was obviously being treated differently because of a hairstyle that seems to make a statement of its own. No one knows me, but they are making an uninformed decision, positive or negative, based on nothing more than visual perception.

This has challenged me in an unexpected way. I’ve had to reluctantly ‘fess up to myself that I too, have had pre-conceived notions about people based on their appearance. It’s been hard to admit that I, who have always claimed not to have prejudices, does in fact have them. They might not be easy to classify like a racial, ethnic or socio-economic prejudice, but some sort of verdict system does exist. And now, I’ve got to re-assess my own judgment system. Another learning opportunity this year and another chance to grow. Who knew such a simple change could lead to such a big lesson?


More on Braids
Costs – in London, 100 pounds up to 250 pounds, in the U.S. $300+, in Africa dirt cheap in comparison
Time – it depends on the length and thickness, mine were bra-strap length and took 8½ hours

Where to get it done – someplace where it’s done all the time. Some American salons glue the artificial hair to your hair, while the African way is to knot in the extra hair.
How long they last – 1-2 months depending on how well they’re done and how your hair grows. Then they get a bit fuzzy with flyaways.
Dying roots – it can be done, much easier if your hair is dark.
Touch up – you can re-braid the top and face frame to make it last longer.

How long to take out – have someone help you. It took me 6 hours over 2 days to unbraid it and scrub out all the “gunk” that built up.

Things no one tells you:

  • Damage – I had thick hair and now I don’t. The weight of the artificial hair breaks off your hair and after 2 months in braids it was really frizzy and dry. I don’t recommend this for people with fine hair.
  • Ouch – the last hour of the braiding really hurt. My head became very sensitive from being tugged on all day. Good braids are done as close to your scalp as possible, so it will hurt towards the end.
  • Shock – your hair gets “shocked” in a way, and it takes about three days for the hair to lay back down. This means two to three nights of uncomfortable sleeping because your head is very sensitive. The good side of this is you wind up having a kind of pillow on your head (which helped cushion my head on flat pillows and bus windows).
  • Say that again – my braids were so thick that sometimes I had trouble hearing people.
  • Wrap it up – supposedly wrapping up your hair helps to make it last longer. I did it for two weeks and then gave up.
  • Make it fake – artificial hair last longer than real hair because it has more roughness and clings better to European hair, which is smoother than African hair. It’s also heaps cheaper than the real stuff.
  • Washing – some say you don’t need to wash your hair. I have a dry scalp and needed to wash it to reduce itchiness every week to 10 days. It wasn’t hard to do it all. A little shampoo at the scalp, massage gently and rinse really thoroughly.
  • Drying – you don’t want to use a hairdryer on it, so wash it early in the day or you’ll go to bed with a wet head.

Would I do it again? Absolutely, it was the easiest hair style I’ve ever had. Despite the initial discomfort, I loved it and wish I could have kept it the entire year.

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