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– by Damilola Oyedele
Growing up in Nigeria, girls’ hair is subjected to chemical relaxers right from childhood. It is also a class thing: girls from supposedly “civilised” families have their hair permed or jheri curled, so they don’t look like village girls.
My mother told me my hair was first relaxed at the age of two, and that I cried for the entire time the chemicals were applied to my hair. Growing up, it was normal to bear the sting of the relaxers without tears, even though it hurt. I did not want to be called a “bush girl”. Later on I switched to the painless relaxers, and so I could bear it for at least an hour – after all, the longer the application, the straighter the hair. That was not risk free, however. Relaxers should not be left on for more than a few minutes, but most African hair needs more than few minutes to lose its kinky curls. As the years went by, I started to deal with thinning hair, breaking hair strands and a receding hairline, which I simply covered up with hair extensions.
When I became pregnant, and actually had a high-risk pregnancy, I decided to reduce my exposure to all sorts of chemicals. The relaxer was the first to go. My hair, boosted by hormones, became coarse, but I kept it in line with braids. I was planning to resume straightening my hair after weaning my baby.
Then I visited my cousin in New York and discovered that many African-American women were going natural. My cousin was one of them.
When I returned to Nigeria, I decided to find a stylist who was willing to work with natural hair. They were more expensive, so I learned to manage my hair myself.
Nowadays, more and more Nigerian women are going natural, partly because it is becoming fashionable, but also because many are taking more interest in their health.
Several studies, such as one conducted by the California-based Black Women’s Center for Wellness, are highlighting the risks of hair relaxers and link some of their chemical components to cancer. It is, however, necessary to point out that other studies have found no link to cancer from hair relaxers and dyes.
Many Nigerians now rock their natural hair, and hair stylists have joined the train. There are salons now completely dedicated to natural hair and the styles that come with it, such as dreadlocks, cornrows, afros and others.
I now sport dreadlocks for two reasons: I have always admired the style, and it is much more convenient than trying to manage my natural hair on a daily basis.
Damilola Oyedele is a senior correspondent for Thisday, a Nigerian newspaper. She lives in Abuja.
Black Women’s Center for Wellness: