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Big hair don’t care - the untangled millennials of Addis

Big hair don’t care - the untangled millennials of Addis

Getting “good haircut” often means transforming one’s hair style to a “conventional” and “presentable” one. But, for the millennials of Addis, it is far more than simple grooming. Having the conventional haircut has been perceived as a way to be more acceptable to certain relatives, as well as to the wider community. However, to some members of the youth, it is more than that – it is political, writes Gouled Ahmed.

Black hair is political. One need not search in the nooks and crannies of history to find instances in which it has been the focal point of immense social and political scrutiny. Thirteen-year-old, Zulaikha Patel’s stance against the Pretoria Girls High School in August 2016 is one such example. After being continually disciplined and humiliated over her supposedly “unkempt” hair: an afro, she triggered a viral online revolution leading a silent protest against her school’s “racist hair policy”. Seven year old Rashaad Hunter’s suspension in February 2017 from his elementary school over his new haircut was a great source of controversy in his tight-knit Alabama town of Bessemer, and showcased yet another example of the highly politicized nature of black hair. The young honor roll student was sent to the principal’s office and suspended because the school did not “like” the design in his haircut. Though these accounts may be dismissed, and seen by many as isolated incidents, they showcase a growing trend in the institutional policing of black hair and black bodies, internationally. Many assume that these situations are merely limited to individuals residing in nations predominantly governed by people of European descent. This, however, is not the case, as is evidenced by the manner in which black hair is also tightly policed within many, if not most black African nations, including Ethiopia.

In Addis, hair, especially men’s hair can be a contentious topic. Many Ethiopian men are persuaded to eschew growing out their natural hair in favor of shorter, more “clean-cut” styles. Afros, mohawks, fades, and dreadlocks are rarely depicted on local television, and other media outlets, rendering individuals who adorn these dos publicly as social pariahs. The young men who wear their hair naturally in these gravity-defying styles are not solely faced with the societal stigmas that their aesthetics evoke, but are also heavily impeded professionally and economically by the manner in which mainstream society views them. They are often readily shunned from office spaces, even if they are highly qualified for the jobs they seek, and are also more likely to be suspended and expelled from schools if they refuse to conform to the institutions’ respectability politics. 

Melaku Getahun is someone who is all too familiar with the repercussions his hair has had on his professional growth. Melaku is 27 and a musician, a career he’s wanted to pursue since the age of five when he first saw the music video to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in his family’s house in Dire Dawa. He says “I’d never seen anything like it, he was dancing like he didn’t have bones, like he was on air, like he could fly. His voice was like nothing I’d heard before. I was hooked.” Melaku also marvels over how much he envied Michael Jackson’s hair at the time and how it was so “different” when compared to the conservative aesthetics he was so accustomed to seeing while growing up. Just like his hero, the late Michael Jackson, Melaku’s story is one likely to entertain anyone fortunate enough to hear it.

He was a model student growing up, always finishing in the top ten spots in all his classes, until the age of twelve when his family relocated to Addis because his father had been offered a new job here. “After we moved to Addis I wanted to try new things, it was a bigger city, nobody knew me here, so I grew my hair out to become an Afro,” he says. According to Melaku his teachers did not take too kindly to this rebellious act and he was asked several times to cut his hair, but he kept refusing until one day at the age of 16 he was asked not to come back. Melaku did not know how to tell his family the news so he took to the streets of Addis to become a shoe-shiner to earn money to pay for classes at the Yared School of Music. “For months I saved all the money I made, waking up early and going to bed late cleaning peoples’ shoes. By then my hair was very big and I was very noticeable while walking through the streets. People would often call me duriye (a term loosely translating to vagabond). But I did not let their negativity dissuade me from staying true to myself.”

Melaku is now a graduate of the prestigious Yared School of Music, is extremely well versed in playing numerous instruments, and is a highly skilled vocalist, transporting those who hear him into worlds they’ve seen only in their dreams. He has traveled internationally for music workshops where he teaches traditional Ethiopian instruments to people from all over the world. Melaku’s life is a success story, despite all the barriers that society placed on him in their attempt to make him conform. He says that he would not trade his experience for anything, and that he is extremely heartened by the increasing number of Ethiopian youth growing out their hair in Addis. “Our hair is our culture. Men in the Afar tribe have been growing out their hair into Asdagos and Daytas since the beginning of time. Men from the Karrayyu tribe cover their traditional afro hairstyles, (known as Gunfura), with butter and even our royalty like Atse (emperor) Tewodros was renowned for his distinctive cornrow hairstyle. We should honor our traditions and not shun young boys who want to grow their hair,” he says.

Samuel Bekele of Abenezer Hair and Beauty Studio located in Holy City Center has been a men’s hair stylist for the past seven years, and according to him the number of young boys between the ages of 15-20, who end up on his seat, are increasingly requesting to have their cut in styles that are “non-conventional”. “Oftentimes my clients are very young or older, and come from wealthier more conservative backgrounds so I cut their hair in more respectable, clean cut styles” Samuel says. However, in recent years, the young boys between the ages of 8-13 ask him to put designs in their hair. Similarly the number of requests for fades has also increased. “Children nowadays have access to all forms of technology, they know everything. A lot of children want their hair to look like their favorite football players. They want all sorts of designs in their hair and since they go to expensive international schools nobody will say anything to them about their hair styles, but the children who don’t go to these schools can’t have these kinds of styles because their schools won’t allow it,” he says. In stating this Samuel raises the heavily pertinent question of class, which plays a major role in the division of Ethiopian society. “You see a lot of diaspora who return to Ethiopia with dreadlocks and big afros, as well as other styles. Although people stare at them, they don't get the same amount of backlash as the less affluent youth who grow out their hair," he says.

Michael Zewde or Mickey as he prefers to be called is one such example. Born and raised in San Diego, California, Mickey’s shoulder length dreadlocks are his pride and joy. “It took me five years to grow out my hair, it took a lot of time and energy and I had to be extremely meticulous about maintaining them," he says. According to Mickey, he chose to grow out his hair for both political and cultural reasons. He states that the practice of African men opting for shorter more clean-cut hair is not solely an aesthetic preference but rather a colonial practice that emerged when Europeans decided to colonize the African continent. "Boys in colonial schools were told to shave their hair and keep it short, by their European colonial instructors. By doing this they attempted to, and later managed to erase the boys' traditional upbringings. By labeling the black natives as primitive and backwards and themselves as enlightened and modern they managed to psychologically convert entire generations of African youth. Although Ethiopia was never colonized, it shares borders with nations that were, therefore these harmful ideas permeated our borders through osmosis entering and sharping our collective psyches" he surmises.

Mickey decided to move to Addis a year ago to start a bicycle co-op, using people's old damaged bicycles he refurbishes them in order to sell them. So far he has a team of 10 assistants who he has trained to help him refurbish the bikes. "I want Ethiopians living a healthy life, instead of always being in cars and buses I want them to walk more, and ride bikes, that's why I started the initiative." As to why the time is suddenly ripe for a natural hair movement, Mickey ties it to a larger trend of national pride "In the past few years, more people want to know about their traditions and what they have," he says. "You see this with the diaspora and with Ethiopians who have been studying in the US, UK and Canada. When they come back, people ask them, 'Why did you come back? You should have stayed there.' But the people that came back love their country. They want to develop their own country and learn more about it, and this is the same mind set that's made it possible for people to change their hair. Mainly, though, growing out your natural hair is about empowerment,” Mickey says, adding that it is about making men feel better about themselves. "I think hair and self-esteem are linked. I know my own self-worth as a black man has been linked to my hair and I developed more self-confidence when I started wearing it in locks" he says.

Although hair is a physiological phenomenon, it is also a social one. Black hair is an object of intense elaboration and preoccupation in almost all societies. Hairstyles and rituals surrounding hair care and adornment convey powerful messages about a person's beliefs, lifestyles, and commitments. Inferences and judgments about a person's morality,  political  persuasion,  religious sentiments  and,  in  some  cultures,  socio-economic  status  can sometimes  be  surmised  by  seeing  a  particular  hairstyle. Hair is a symbol of the self and of group identity, an important mode of self-expression and communication. Because of its versatility as an adornment, hair can not only symbolize social norms but also changes in social ideologies.

Ed.’s Note: The writer is on an internship at The Reporter.