Her dreads sway around her shoulders as she walks – and when she twirls her headdress of black ropes spins like a merri-go-round, whipping through the air with whimsy. I’m often mesmerized by her hair, those thick strands of luster sheen yarn reaching down her back, framing her face, sometimes tangling with her long lashes. I gather the dreads up in my hands as I make a ponytail high atop her head and I marvel at their strength – chords that could bind the broken-hearted, I imagine for some reason.
I remember the first time she donned dreadlocks. All the twisting and yanking hurt her tender head. Really, every time we go to maintain them, tears are part of the ritual. So are aspirin and a fizzy soda. But once conditioned and cleaned, freshly knotted and dried, she smiles into the mirror at her own reflection. A couple new barrettes from her hairdresser and she’s ready to parade out the salon door with all the swagger a nine year old can muster. She’s a sight to behold.
This summer we arrived in Burundi, me with my highlights (masking my growing gray) and she with her ebony dreads in mint condition. We came looking our best and ready for days in the sun, visits to Lake Tanganyika and times of reconnecting with relatives and neighborhood friends. So off she went one Sunday for a day filled with church, cousins and play.
She returned home in the early evening and collapsed on the couch next to me, her mop of dreads tickling my side as she leaned in close. She told me how her cousins touched and tugged at her hair, how they pulled and played with it, teasing her. Her feelings were hurt.
I ran my fingers through those dark dreads slowly, acknowledging each one. Some thicker, some longer, some with unexpected bulges – but uniform in their shiny strength. She put her head in my lap as if submitting to some kind of blessing. I kept stroking her hair, repeating our mantra, ‘You’re beautiful, smart and strong.’ Her smile returned. The moment had passed. She ran to the dinner table.
Only hours later did it dawn on me why her cousins yanked at her hair. Her dreads were an uncommon sight to girls with little or no hair of their own. They touched out of sheer curiosity.
In their neighborhood little girls are all shorn like sheep, it’s hard to tell them apart from the boys if they aren’t wearing a dress or skirt. Ringworm is common, and untreated in leaves permanent patches of hair loss. So less hair means less chance of contracting the fungus.
And in the dusty streets where her cousins live, most kids walk barefoot. Their parents struggle for daily bread, for school fees, for the basics of life. Money for the hairdresser doesn’t make the list, especially when there are several girls in the family. So no fancy braids or sassy afros for these girls, just a quick shave. It’s economical; it’s easy.
For the first time I saw my daughter’s dreads as a luxury item. Good nutrition allowed her hair to grow fast, to grow strong. Good hygiene meant regular washing. Our income meant we could afford regular trips to the salon, conditioners and medicine when she did once contract ringworm. (With the proper medicine and doctor, she suffered no hair loss at all.) This, all tallied, adds up to privilege.
These summer months I’ve noticed other girls in Bujumbura with intricate cornrows, some crowned with many micro-braids and a few with relaxed hair, smooth as their chocolate skin. These are the upper-class girls, the international girls, the ones on the top.
Most others just look on for now, waiting till they get some money of their own so that they can afford to grow their own hair. Maybe, if someone’s hair is in reach, they can be found pulling it. They are curious, yes; but they aren’t blind to the differences hair communicates.
When I first held my daughter, she was on hospice. Her body fighting, full tilt, a disease no one expected her to beat. No one cared that her hair was dry, matted and unkept. Now I see her dreads as her glory, symbolic of a great reversal of health and fortune.
Now I hold her hair in my hands aware of so many conflicting truths. I see all these things – healing and health, prosperity and privilege – wrapped into her dreads.
[ Previously published on DeeperStory.com ]