Thoughts on the Beauty Industries in Africa

The discussion on hair dyeing helps me reflect back on the rituals I observed as a little child in traditional rural Africa. The ritual I remember involved watching young boys and girls at six in the morning, while it was extremely cold. They were almost nude, their faces decorated in white chalk, their heads completely shaved, heading down to the river for circumcision. Men and women in this part of the world go though those painful rituals convinced that they are now becoming adults. The ritual is meant to transform people from childhood to adulthood. From that point on, they cannot show tears or any emotions. They can no longer play like children. Interacting with children is considered disrespectful to the group that underwent the ritual. Girls are marriageable after this ritual. In communities such as the Maasai, this is the time to move to live with your future husband, who acquires you as a baby girl shortly after your birth. Many such husbands are old enough to be the girls’ grandfathers.

I watched men decorated by traditional artists in various designs and shapes. I saw artists cut the women’s faces around the eyes in designs similar to modern tattoos. I watched men and women being cut and fitted with garrets, which are meant to expand the ear as it heals. I watched women bleed badly. One day when my daughter Wandia was three, while walking with me to market she noticed the loop on a woman’s ears. She approached the woman and asked, “Grandma, did someone cut and injure your ear?” The lady responded, “Oh no, my child, this was for the beauty.” Wandia looked and asked if she could be allowed to pass her hand though it. The lady said, “Of course, my child. Go ahead.” Wandia did it. That is how big that hole is. Wandia asked me what this kind of beauty was about and why girls like her didn’t do this to their ears. The lady herself explained to Wandia that during her youth such rituals of body mutilations were signs of beauty and were an initiation process, and I further explained to her that traditionally, all men and women were subjected to such rituals as a rite of passage, and also that girls would demand to be subjected to such rituals because they knew that otherwise they would be ostracized in the society and be unlikely to get a husband.

Growing up during the colonial time in Kenya, we Africans were confined to small, highly-populated villages. We had every disease you could think of related to malnutrition. The wives of the settlers and their children used to come over once a month to hand out supplies. We would be lined up with plates and be given food. The rest of the days we would be talking about the white people with their beautiful outfits, nice cars, “good” lives. Every one of us would talk about how, when we got money someday, we would “live like the white people.” The dream was to eat like them and to look like them. So easy it was, and still is, to want to have that life.

The consumer beauty industries have found a fertile ground for their products in this continent. When I was younger, all the teenagers wanted to straighten their hair. In the villages we would take a tin, make holes in it, put some charcoal in it, and iron our heads with the hot tin after having applied milking jelly. Then came the Beatles. It became even more fashionable, because every teenager in the village wanted that hairstyle. Many people damaged their hair.

The make-up industry did finally find its way into the market here, lipstick being the first item to arrive. Uneducated girls who came from the rural area to the city were recruited during the colonial time to be men’s escorts in the city and were encouraged to wear makeup. When they came back to rural areas they appeared sophisticated and were considered immoral. All women who attempted to assimilate to the behavior and fashion of Western culture—smoking, wearing makeup, wearing mini-skirts—were perceived as prostitutes attempting to seduce men.

Over the last ten years artificial hair extensions have been aggressively marketed with all kinds of natural names. Hair salons are the most outstanding businesses; and it has become the main occupation for women here to take the girls to a salon to start the week with braided hair. Many school drop-outs and school leavers want to work in these businesses.

 I am glad that RC has liberated my life in many ways, and equally so my perceptions. I would like to look at the issue of coloring hair from a broadened perspective by encouraging and offering as much information as possible, particularly scientifically-proven effects of the chemicals that women use and how they affect the body. At the end each one can make a decision on how she wants to be and why.

Wanjiku Mukuria Kironyo
Nairobi, Kenya
From the RC e-mail discussion
list for leaders of women

Last modified: 2014-10-06 21:46:31+00