Crowning Glory: A Root Map to Africa’s Braiding Tradition

A Nairobi salon offers insight into a complex cultural practice.  
Braiding Nairobi Kenya
“Havana”, “Janet”, “cornrows”, “herringbone”, and “pixie” are the different styles of African braids and twists. Photo: Petr Jilek/Shutterstock (left) & Christian Michaels/Getty Images (right)

My head hurts, my neck aches. I’ve already been perched on this wobbly chair in Nairobi’s Kenyatta Market for an hour getting my hair braided. And I have another hour to go. Akini pulls loose a tuft, deftly attaches it to a strand of red synthetic hair, and passes it to Mildred. Mama Connie, owner of the little salon, calls for backup. Soon, Sabina, Ajia, and Ruth join in the production, laughing and chattering in Swahili.

“Where did you learn to braid like this?” I ask. They look at each other and smile: It is almost as if I’ve asked how they learnt to eat or walk. Africans have been braiding their hair for several centuries, I learn. Different tribes had signature styles, but now, braiding is as much fashion as convenience.

Kenyatta Market is a warren of narrow lanes and dark alcoves that suddenly erupt in colour and activity. Over 200 hair-braiding salons that draw clients from as far away as Uganda and Nigeria sit next to stalls selling everything from meat to clothes.

My salon is a humble room with two mirrors, plastic chairs, and a narrow table cluttered with combs, phone chargers, and hair extensions. The walls are plastered with posters of exquisite hairstyles. Mama Connie had accosted me earlier, luring me with samples of intricate designs. I chose the “salsa”, a simple style that takes two hours to fashion.

Normally, my concern for my hair is marginal. For several African women, however, hair and its maintenance is very important. All over Nairobi, bright billboards advertise hairstyles, weaves, and salons. Everywhere I look, I see hair in thick bunches of hundreds of braids—left open or expertly woven around the head like a grand turban or regal crown.

My fascination with hair was recently kindled by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah, where Ifemelu’s battles with her hair mirror her struggle with racial identity in a foreign land. Hair is an indicator of employability, social acceptance, and happiness. In the book, Ifemelu wonders if Obama would have been elected President if his wife Michelle had sported an Afro instead of straight “relaxed” locks.

Part of me longed to experiment with my locks, part dismissed the notion as foolish, tourist whimsy. As if on cue, I had met Faith, a young Kenyan who had suggested I get a hair makeover. “We African women don’t like our hair,” Faith had said. “We want hair like yours.” My own hair is average by Indian standards: black, straight and a little coarse.

I ask Mama Connie’s girls to hurry. But they are artists, and will not be rushed. When I finally look in the mirror, the woman I face—with a shower of braids tapering into reddish tufts—appears bold and strange, yet familiar. I feel the girls’ sense of accomplishment as they pose for a picture with me. I can retain the hairstyle for a month or more. I am not sure I will. What I will keep is the realisation that hair is more than something that grows on your head.

Appeared in the November 2014 issue as “Crowning Glory”.

  • Nirupama Subramanian is a columnist and author of two novels, "Keep The Change" and "Intermission". She has also won the Commonwealth Short Story Competition prize in 2006 for her short fiction.

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