Before I left for Congo, my financial adviser offered me some advice, the nature of which had nothing to do with finances. His suggestion?
People of other cultures are more eager to embrace you as a foreigner if you dress as the locals do. So when you go to Congo, make sure you don the African style.
Naturally, I thanked him for the suggestion, but in my heart I scoffed at such a notion. I believe he was genuine in wanting to share valuable advice, however, I doubted the validity of it. He has never been to Africa, let alone Congo, so how would he know?
Fast-forward nine months to an event which proves his advice
During a conversation with my stylish friend Tete, I mentioned how I love the creativity and design of African hairstyles. Changing month-to-month, the hair of these women can completely alter their appearance. Long, short. Dark, light. Maybe even colored accents. Curly, straight, crimped. Braided, twisted, rolled. The possibilities are endless.
The following day, Tete and her hairdresser came to get the party started braid my hair. Had known what I was getting into, I doubt I would’ve agreed to it. The process lasted over 6 hours and cost a mere $10 to transformthis American into a true Congolese…well, my hair, at least.
Did I mention it hurt? Cause it did. Immensely. Slightly less painful than being stabbed to death with a blunt object, I imagine.
Slowly, but surely, the pain subsided.
Slowly, but surely, the attention I received increased.
Week 1, I questioned myself. Was this really a wise decision, considering I am already a spectacle with my shockingly pale, glow-in-the-dark skin? Frequently, I feel like the lone white-chocolate morsel which got mixed in with the bag of dark chocolate chips. I stick out like a sore thumb.
By week 2, I was convinced that my financial adviser was correct. Granted, I had already observed that the people in the community love it when I wear my kikwembe (Conoglese skirt), but that has never caused such extreme excitement as my hair.
I’ve just now found the secret to unlocking the door of relationship building
- Walking through the market, women no longer jeer at me, shout muzungu, or ask for money. Rather, my hair seems to bridge the gap between our difference in skin color. Somehow it has leveled the playing field. The same women who used to jeer are now discussing my hair, remarking on my beauty, and sharing how glad they are to see me embracing their style.
- Walking around the university, students giggle from excitement. They pull out their camera phones, requesting to be photographed with me. The women offer advice about how to maintain and care for it, what products to use, how and when to wash it. The men thank me for my commitment to becoming Congolese.
- Walking around the Women’s Center, everyone wants to engage me in conversation. “Who braided it?” “Is it your natural hair or is it mesh?” “Please let me braid it next time. When you’re ready for a new style, you must come and see me.”
- Walking in my neighborhood, the children finally remember my name and run to greet me when they see me coming. They want to touch my hair instead of my white skin. One woman has invited me to join her for lunch next week and offered to sew me an African style outfit to complement my African hair.
Saying farewell to the hair
By the end of week 3, it was time to bid farewell to my Congolese locks.
Mama Furaha and her daughter Brigette helped me to remove the braids. Noticing that my natural hair had developed major crimping, they declared that I have now become Congolese for good. Sad to disappoint, I informed them that the crimps would release when my hair became wet. They begged me to refrain from washing it, insisting that my students would LOVE to see it crimped.
(Personally, it reminded me of a bad 1980’s hairstyle. At this point though, I’m much less concerned about my appearance than you might imagine. I lasted 3 weeks without washing my hair…why shouldn’t I wait just one more day?)
So, here are a few pics showcasing the various styles and the life of my hair over the past few months.
1. short, cropped, everyday style 2. hair braided with mesh 3. crimped hair after removing braids 4. for in-between, lazy days
Lesson learned. Next time, I’ll think twice before I dismiss advice from my finance guy.