Text and photos by Christiane Schulte
It is art, it is fun and it is even practical. It comes thick and thin, in curls, ringlets and strings, in cornrows and goddess styles. Braiding!
Namibians love wearing their hair braided in individual and eye-catching styles. They get it done at simple street-corner barbers, in well-off beauty salons or simply by friends or members of the family. Places to create a new mane are numerous and all over the country.
It’s not only about getting the hair done. It’s about getting the right look to suit one’s hair and face shape. It’s about illuminating individual beauty. And it’s about showing a part of your personality. As if you’re saying, “Hey! This is me! Look at who I am!”
All you need is some time and an idea of the final result. Like Aino Moongo, who hits the streets of Windhoek with her extraordinary bluish hairstyle. She has long flashy streaks woven into her hair, creating a striking mane. “I always strive for something different, something that’s perhaps not been done before. Something that brings me closer to who I am,” says Aino. People turn round to admire her extraordinary look. “The blue sort of screams for attention. It expresses chaos, break, space, expression, confidence. Perhaps that’s what I’m looking for. Getting recognition, being the centre of attraction.”
Though various complex styles such as micro braids with human or synthetic hair, kinky twists with naturally kinky human hair, different cornrow styles, dreadlocks rolled with palm fronds and many new braiding techniques are possible, hair braiding in general is about plaiting the hair and incorporating synthetic extensions into it. Braiders simply braid without cutting or altering the texture of the hair.
Hair can even be very short. It is just a matter of practice and sufficient manual skills to plait or braid extensions into hair. Styles can take anything from a few hours to as long as a day to complete, and can cost hundreds of dollars, depending on how complex they are. And, depending on how adventurous the wearer is, “Braids, extensions and other techniques can give people a sweet look, a naughty look, an aggressive look, a tired look,” says Aino.
Courage for exposure? Stephanie Kahlert simply wanted to have a new experience. The volunteer from Germany, who came to Namibia for a school project, decided to change her own straight-hair look to a braided style. So she went for a look with tiny little cornrows very close to her scalp, the rows coming together in a plait at the back of her head.
The procedure took almost an entire day, and Stephanie found it quite painful. Regular braiding clients may tell the same story. Moreover, it was exhausting. “To sit around for the whole day in virtually the same position is jolly tiring. It’s exactly what they mean by suffering for beauty,” she says with a grin.
“When I saw the final result in a mirror, I felt like having it all shaved off,” Stephanie adds. But then the young teacher fell completely in love with her new look, especially because she received so many compliments. “People I didn’t even know were fascinated by my new style. And I wore it with great pride and pleasure.” There was just one disadvantage. It was yet another painful procedure to get it all undone some weeks later, she says.
Braiding is primarily a woman’s thing. You don’t see that many men with braided hair. They tend to go for a simple look without extensions. Like Emile Seibeb. He had his hair braided in zigzag cornrows. The promotional materials offer different reasons for this look. “It’s the only way to control your hair. If you don’t do anything, it grows out of control.” Another reason: it looks nicely African. Yet another one is that sometimes people, like Emile, don’t have electricity where they stay. “Which means I can’t shave my head. Having it plaited is the best solution.”
According to Emile, the best braiders come from Angola. “During the war in Angola, people didn’t have the time or the opportunity to shave their heads. So they developed great hairstyles. They got a lot of practice, as they did it most of the time.” Emile usually has his cornrows done by a friend for free. The style takes approximately one hour and lasts between two and three weeks.
Ndiyaamua Ndapewa can’t afford to do hairstyling for free. The young woman is a professional braider. Photos with different styles decorate the wall in Shop No. W26 in the Soweto Market in Katutura. A few braids hang from the scaffolding with brushes, boxes and bottles. Ndiyaamua and her colleague average about ten heads per day, men and women. “It takes two and a half hours to do the look and costs around 100 Namibia dollars.”
Braids, cornrows, weaves, dreadlocks – Ndiyaamua does them all. Her hands fly and her years of experience are obvious as she braids a customer’s hair, transforming her into a beauty as striking as tennis star Venus Williams. But it’s a tough job. Ndiyaamua works until late, so that her braiding turns a profit. But it is also fun, she says. Her salon is located in a community gathering-place, with kids playing around. Such salons are hubs of gossip and grooming. Home-braiding sessions also serve as an event for exchanging the latest news in town.
If it’s not about getting a practical look or fashioning up, braiding can also be about keeping tradition and indicating social status. This is the case in the Himba communities in northern Namibia. Hairstyles are redone about every six months or on special occasions and for ceremonies of significance. For example, during puberty, a Himba girl’s hair is plaited forward to mask her face from the darting eyes of young men. Young boys have smoothly shaven heads, except for a pigtail plaited over the crown. Once they become young men of marriageable age, the plait is spit into two.
Hair braiding can also be a political statement of resistance to conformity. Doing something unique makes people stand out in a crowd. It makes them unconventional. Above all, it’s about the magic of culture and art. “If hairstyling were my profession, I believe I would make magic in the salon with my ideas, just like an artist expressing feelings through colours, music and design,” summarises Aino Moongo.
Recommended for tourists!
Flamingo October 2005