My earliest interactions with long hair involved oiling my mom’s braids. She’d come home from the salon, or from work a few days after her hair-do, and she’d ask my sisters and I who wanted to help oil her hair. My mom would sit on a low stool, and if it was my turn, I’d take a bottle of hair oil, pour some onto my palms and rub them together. With a little bit of oil in my left palm, I’d dip two fingers into the oil and begin applying it onto my mom’s scalp.
Think painting. I’d paint the hair oil onto her scalp, going down one corn row and up the other. Soon enough, oil would begin dripping down her ear lobes. I’d collect it in my right palm and rub it all over her hair.
With time, my hair skills improved to the point where I’d help my sisters undo their braids. Before the school semester begins, Kenyan students style their hair neat and tidy for the first day of classes. Call it a throwback to past colonial sentiments when school attendance was adorned with military precision. Hair cuts, for both girls and boys, had to be done with extreme care – not a hair line could be out of place. So, for my sisters, we had to undo their braids and prep them for a trip to the salon. Between either my mom or our house-help, and I, we’d get my sisters sitting on a seat cushion on the floor and so would begin an hour or two of pulling, combing, and quite often, crying.
A few months before embarking on my International Baccalaureate Diploma at Singapore’s United World College of South East Asia, I sent an email to the principal, Di Smart, enquiring about the school’s hair policy. In particular, I wanted to confirm that it was OK for students to style dreadlocks. My adventure with long hair had began. Ms Smart’s reply was non-committal: essentially, it was neither good, not bad, for students – aka me – to sport locks. As I was to learn later, Di’s reply hid a lot of trepidation on her part. She was worried about this new kid from Kenya with some rather unorthodox views regarding hair styles – she was British, after all.
In the end, the Singapore version of my long hair saga culminated in a pony tail. I grew out my hair, before eventually getting it straightened. It was a pretty cool style, as far as I was concerned. And I complemented it with a single piercing on my left ear.
Over time, I’ve had to repeatedly confront the history of long hair on Kenyan men. One strand emerged at the height of Kenya’s anti-colonial resistance. This was manifested in the young men who ran away from colonial oppression in towns and villages and disappeared into the forests. They formed bands of militias, organized under the Kenya Land & Freedom Army, and battled it out with both Loyalist/ British collaborators and the colonial project. By the end of the Mau Mau rebellion, long matted hair twisted into thick locks was associated with Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi. In the political atmosphere of the Sixties, Kenyan bourgeois sentiments sought to distance themselves from the peasant revolution that had underpinned political self-government. The up and coming middle class estranged itself from its rural history, previous colonial oppression, plus the associated sense of being a country bumpkin. As a result, men styling dreadlocks were viewed as an anachronism.
This despite a much longer pre-twentieth century history of young Masai, Samburu, and even Kikuyu men styling long red-ochre locks in the years after their passage into adulthood. For these bands of morans, manhood included brightly-colored hair, bare chests, and long sojourns away from their parents’ villages. They’d live together, isolated from their communities, and bond together into cattle-raiding bands (sometimes) and tight age-sets which held their families together in challenging times (more often). Their most superior members would form councils of elders that served as communal governments. Regardless, the association with Mau Mau “terrorist” activity has overshadowed any empowering indigenous history.
More recently, the early 2000s saw a spate of gang-related criminal activity promoted by the infamous Mungiki group. They styled dreadlocks and spoke of anti-modernization policies that are currently re-hashed by Boko Haram and Al Shabab. Ultimately, however, they were a criminal group that profited from insecurity by charging “protection fees,” as well as connecting individuals to public services, including water and electricity. It was common knowledge that they consumed, and dealt, marijuana. It is with this background that folks often look at my hair, and jokingly ask me if I am a former, or current, member of this group of outlaws. No, thank you!
On the streets of Kenya’s urban areas, something interesting happens when I have my long locks showing. I am perceived, correctly or not, as an outcast from middle class culture as well as a possible fugitive from the law. Hence, I find that street families, both kids and adults, approach me much more than before my locks were so prominent. To some extent, I guess, they see me as one of them: a member of those who form the underbelly of East African urban capitalism and one who can help a peer “sufferer” with a meal to tide over the next day.
One of my paternal aunties commented on how she favors young men who tie their long hair back. As a member of Kenya’s peasant class, her compliment was unexpected. On second thought, however, she displayed the kind of cultural fluidity that is the hallmark of the lower and upper social classes, but which often lacks in the stoic characteristic of the middle class. Too afraid to fall back into poverty, and too intent on making it to the next rung on the social ladder, the bourgeois are focused on doing things “just right.” They carefully watch themselves, as well as the proverbial Joneses, in order to calibrate who’s moving slightly ahead in the human rat race.
In this regard, nothing throws off middle class mentality more than piercings on a man. This is the height of indecency, if my future in-laws are to be listened to. It not only disrupts gender norms, which middle class patriarchy is heavily invested in protecting, but also a painful reminder of a cultural heritage that they’d rather forget. Older men in Kikuyu and Masai communities styled big ear lobe piercings where they’d hang tubes filled with snuff. This is the apex of backwardness – the very history that private education and foreign fashion accessories attempt to erase.
Finally, my previously two, now three, left ear piercings have elicited questions about my sexuality. Since men “do not” style earrings, it follows that any man who does is not really a man; in other words, he’s half woman, or gay. Hence one of my cousins’ wives once asked me if I “played for the other team?” It did not seem like a wholly appropriate time to explain my support for gay rights, as well as my self-identification as bisexual. The best part about the piercings, however, is that they give me a “bad boy” edge. One that I sorely lacked while growing up. The revelation that I have a PhD, in a country that still highly values education, always lights up women’s eyes. When they do eventually spot my piercings, they are lost between the nerd in me and the budding outlaw. And therein lies my opportunity to strike and make a move.