New Vision (Kampala)

Uganda: The Big Debate - Treated Hair Vs Natural Hair

More and more women are deciding to rock natural hair lately as opposed to chemically relaxed hair. Is it just a fashion statement an economic decision or a matter of choice?

To be honest, my hair stresses me sometimes. There were days I kept it natural, but my ponytail often turned into one "laughing puff." It was never neat. I had it relaxed and liked the fact that each strand of hair kept in place.

But I am now tired of it. There is that itchy "growth" thing, the burn I feel on my scalp every time I am doing retouch, and the hair drier that freaks me out every time I visit the salon. Is it about time I went natural again? All around me, there are convincing reasons to.

A natural hair revolution is going on among women of colour around the globe. And in the US, it is being televised.

Recently, MSNBC TV had a roundtable discussion on hair, in which the entire panel of African American women had natural styles.

When Hollywood actress Viola Davis appeared for the Oscars last year, wearing her curly Afro, "this was a moment that said, 'we have arrived'," said Patrice Grell Yursik, a leading natural hair blogger.

O' Magazine September 2012 edition also addressed the issue, as Oprah Winfrey appeared, for the first time, on the cover with natural hair.

A growing number of Ugandan women are also shunning chemical straighteners. Motivated by different factors - damaged and weak hair, the expense, the hassle - the popularity of natural hair has gained traction in recent years.

Women do not just sport natural afros; they have gone natural under the guise of dreadlocks and kinky braids. The truth is, you cannot grow natural dreadlocks with straightened hair.

Feel the burn:

In the last two years, chemical hair relaxer sales - marketed mostly to women of colour across the globe - have dropped by 12%, according to Mintel, an international consumer spending firm. Mintel attributes the drop in sales to the fact that many women are opting to stay natural with their hair.

It predicts that the natural hair movement will continue to decrease the sale of hair relaxers by as much as 67% by 2016. So hair companies that have traditionally only marketed products targeting women with relaxed hair have to suddenly scramble to have natural hair products as well.

While it might sound like a comeback of the 1960s fashion, the gist of the current natural hair movement is absolutely different.

Diana Ndaba's hair journey mirrors that of many young women. When she joined university, she decided to relax her hair since everyone else was doing just that.

It seemed the best decision she had ever made. She had to leave behind the shabby afro "puff" for a more polished look.

"It was my first perm," she recalls, "I really had so much hair on my head, and it was hard to comb it every morning. I thought straightening it would be easier."

Five years later, she would cut off her chemically processed hair to return it to its natural texture. Years of wearing a relaxer had weakened the strands. It even looked browner.

"It was thin and breaking," says Ndaba, "It was not growing, so I cut it off and now I am happy with my natural hair."

Some women also complain of having to deal with the burning sensation on the scalp that comes with relaxing or 're-touch' as we love to call it. The most common ingredient in relaxers is sodium hydroxide or lye, a chemical said to be dangerous to one's health.

Prima, 24, can still remember her first chemical burn. The paste was a creamy white colour and had a foul smell, but it left her with fine, straight hair that was easy to manage.

The burns came when she went to sloppy hair stylists who must have disobeyed the cardinal rules of relaxing, which include not applying Vaseline to the scalp or washing the hair a few days before application.

"The burn was so bad, I could not even comb because the wound would bleed afresh. "I asked myself, 'Why am I doing this?'" she recalls, "I chopped it off and I do not regret it."

Why I am stuck with relaxed hair:

But Resty Muwanga, a hairdresser at Friends and Family hair salon, dismisses this as false. She says it is all about technique and places the blame on unqualified personnel.

"Usually, before I relax your hair, I will ask you whether you have recently washed it. If you have, then the hair will have a burning sensation, and I do not advise anyone to retouch it," she explains.

She further argues that relaxers are not solely to blame for the problem of hair loss.

"It could be the fake products on the market. Or plaiting your hair frequently, without giving it time to recuperate," she says.

Patra has had her hair relaxed for the last 12 years. And she still loves it. "It is easy to manage, especially if you are busy with a job," she says.

"When I am tired of visiting the salon, I braid it for three months and then retouch again," she says.

Patra, however, says there are days she is torn between the relaxed and natural hair: "Especially when there is too much growth and I do not have money to visit the salon. With natural hair you could wash it from home with ordinary soap and walk away with it. But she is stuck to the relaxed one. "It is always smarter," she says.

But it largely remains a personal choice. Moreover, most trends have a tendency to come and go and once they are gone, they are forgotten until they bounce back.

Although considered a growing trend, natural hair is certainly nothing new. Women who wore their hair natural before it was popular are finding that what has long been a personal style preference for them, is something now admired by others. All of a sudden, their hairstyle is "acceptable" and adored by the mainstream.

Human hair:

Apart from the health and personal implications women face in search of good hair, there is the expense. When all has been said and done, a lot of women agree to one thing: They love braiding their hair, whether or not it is relaxed. The cost of braid extensions, human hairpieces and wigs can be staggering, ranging from sh3,000 each to about sh300,000.

Yet, if you are going to plait your hair, you are not going to use just one piece but three to four pieces, which means the cost of having human hair could be between sh50,000 and sh100,000, depending on the class of salon you go to. Yet it does not deter women bent on achieving the look they want.

Take Hellen Lukoma (aka Patra) of The Hostel TV series, for example. Her imposing long human hair and weaves have become her trademark.

Danniella Atim, wife of local musician Jose Chameleone recently admitted to New Vision's Achieve the Look column that she had spent more than sh30,000 to sport her curly afro.

Gloria Ingabire, formerly a dancer with Wafagio Girls' dancing and singing group, bought a long weave at sh82,000 at a salon in the Hotel Equatorial shopping centre.

And for the famous Pencil hair style, Sole Namanya, an official with 360 Degrees, a public relations firm, had to spend about sh50,000. Some women like braids over weaves and vice versa.

"The weave lasts three or four times more than cornrows," says stylist Muwanga, "So it is cheaper, because you can have the same hairstyle for months."

Muwanga also says, a lot of celebrity women use weaves because they makes them stand out. But she also feels that some weaves are meant for the older generation. "For me, you always look younger if you have the normal braids or cornrows."

But some men, such as Phillip Barisa, a communications consultant, are biased.

"It is okay when you look at this woman and she looks great. But there is also that fake thing about them. I love to slip my fingers in my woman's real hair, not kiwani," Barisa says, before adding "My wife must keep her hair. No weaves!"

What men say:

Ponsiano Kasolo

I want to have a woman who plaits her hair because it makes a difference. Even those who are not beautiful are enhanced by good hair styles. Expanses are not a big deal, we can join hands to foot the bills.

Ben Tumwine

I like natural hair because it makes a woman look good and remain in her natural form. It is also not costly because she would not frequent the saloon demanding for money to change her styles when she has natural hair.

Denis Ssebale

Natural hair remains natural and makes a woman look real. Plaiting and treating hair is costly. Many women scratch and slap their heads in public after visiting a saloon, plus I think the money spent in saloons can be invested elsewhere.

Fred Bwanika

I think a woman should plait her hair to change appearance and look beautiful. Women look better when they keep on changing their hair styles. I like it and feel pleased when she changes her styles regularly.

Michael Tabalamula

I like women with natural hair because that enables regular washing. Many women who plait their hair spend months without washing their heads, sleeping with them is a discomfort. My wife now keeps her hair natural.

Women share their thoughts:

Annette Nassozi

Making up my hair is all about how smart I feel and look. I also feel I am grown up because we used to keep our hair natural while at school, but now that I am out of school, I have to show that there is a difference.

Jackie Nakitto

I keep my hair short and natural because I am too busy to style it. When in a hurry, I do not have to worry about visiting a saloon or applying cosmetics. Treating hair needs a lot of time and such hair is not easy to maintain.

Rachael Nakasi

It depends on the quality of your natural hair. Some people are born with soft hair while others have hard hair that rolls and requires treatment. My hair is hard so I cannot have it natural, that is why I have a weave which is fast to work on.

Catherine Ddembe

Everything on me is natural. I want people to appreciate me that way. Plaited hair makes you unclean because you cannot wash your head regularly and treating hair demands too much time.

Halima Yasin

Every woman should work on her hair because it enhances her beauty. Natural hair is expensive and is not easy to maintain. I dislike wigs because they look so artificial especially on large women.

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