It’s no secret that many black women don't like their hair, but can’t be bothered, or afford, to change it. I remember a long interview by Larry King on CNN with the talk show host Tyra Banks who was talking about the moment when she admitted that her hair, as seen for years on her show, was a wig. Just to prove the point she had shocked the world by taking it off, live, on air. In the interview, she talked at length about the problems of black hair and the deeply-felt need by many black women to overcome the challenge that nature had given them.
In Africa, if you want to impress the first thing you do is to have elaborate braids. They can look truly stunning, and sometimes are much more than two-dimensional patterns on the scalp – they rise into little arches, are formed into bobbles on stalks, or curl like tentacles around the ears. But a fully-fledged braid job takes 8 hours or more, not something that busy people have time for. So wigs it is.
You would expect receptionists, bar maids, and busy professional women to wear wigs. It’s a quick and easy way to look smart and different.
When I was working in another country we had a colleague who was a professional from the country concerned. She always looked very presentable, in a conservative way. One morning she turned up in a wig which was slightly reddish in tone. One of my colleagues, who doesn’t work often in Africa praised her effusively for the nice hair, and asked how she had had time to go to the hair-dresser when we were working so late. She had no hesitation in telling him that it was a wig which she had just put on that morning. It is not considered a shameful thing to do – no different, I suppose, than wearing a hat.
But what has really interests me in the Congo is that they are so ubiquitous. Even policewomen wear them under their caps. A uniform – they seem to say – is a uniform, but our latent beauty must be allowed to peek through. We are self-respecting women, and mustn’t let this horrible masculine uniform squash our sexuality.
Since everyone knows that everyone is wearing a wig, the need to make it look like real hair is, in a way, academic. In a recent trip to a small town in a rural area we went to dinner at a run-down hotel. The entrance hall had many large armchairs, tattered and dirty, in which were sitting tired and bored NGO types (like us, except that we weren’t bored – it was much too interesting). No doubt they were wondering what they were doing there. In the corner, as always, was a television which no one was watching.
Our preoccupation was how to get a beer and order dinner. Word was sent for the manageress. From a small door emerged a beautifully, if somewhat saucily, dressed, woman probably in her forties wearing the most elaborate wig you can imagine. It had black hair, auburn hair and blonde hair. Some was straight and some was plaited. Some was neatly curled. The overall impression was, in fact, rather nice and at least very decorative. There could never be a question about whether this was a wig, and why should there be? This was just head make-up.
She came up to us smiling broadly, and organised dinner to our specification. A seminar room was cleaned specially for us so that we could eat in peace and privacy. Service wig a smile.