Sunday, October 14, 2012


Caucasian hair, African hair, Caucasian hair

So I have pretty typical "white girl" hair.  It's fine, straight, and sort of limp.  I struggle with flatness and grease and a lack of ideas.  I never really know what to do with it, so usually I just tie it back.  Out of sight, out of mind, right?

I didn't really understand African hair when I arrived in Mozambique, either.  It took me months to realize most of the long hair that I was seeing was fake, and that women would change their hair on a month-to-month basis.  It was impossible to remember who was who just by identifying hair, hair color, or hair styles.

Four little girls with four different hair styles

After living in Mozambique for more than a year, I have learned a lot about styling African hair.

Here is what I have learned:

African hair is super, super curly!  It generally grows more slowly than other hair types, and is more prone to breakage.  To counter this, boys usually keep their hair very short.  Girls wear their hair in short, temporary styles or braid in lengths of fake hair.

Short styles include braids, spirals, spikes, and puffs.  Hair is held in place with clips, beads, caterpillar hair ties, or bits of string.  Because the hair is so coarse, braids will stay in place without being tied.  To create longer hairstyles, hair can be bought and braided into the original hair.  This process takes hours and often yields beautiful lengths of (semi) natural-looking hair.

Short, natural hair: Braids
Short, natural hair:  Spikes
Short, natural hair:  Unstyled
Short, natural hair:  Spikes and Poofs
Short hair extensions
Medium-length hair extensions
Long hair extensions
Fancy hair extensions
Long, natural-looking hair extensions

Women usually change their hair every few weeks.  Because of the cost and effort that it takes to braid in longer extensions, little girls usually just wear short, natural hairstyles.  For little girls, long hair is a mark of maturity.  For older women, well-managed hair is a sign of prestige.  

Here are a few extra facts about hair in Mozambique:
  • Peace Corps volunteers are often asked for their hair!  My neighbors are especially fond of my yellow "American" hair, and have requested that I leave some of it behind when I am finished with my service.   Since it's already 12 inches long (with more than one year left to grow), I am considering it.  
  • Hair extensions can be expensive and they can take hours to tie in.  Because of this, extensions will often be added over the course of several days.  It's not uncommon to see girls walking around with long, raggedy mullets while they wait for the rest of their braids to be finished.
  • Mozambicans are really fastidious about their hair.  A fantastic punishment for secondary school teachers is the old "eraser bop."  Kids hate having chalk dust in their hair!   
  • Little boys rarely grow out their hair, but they are expected to comb it.  Sometimes, if boys don't brush their hair, they get sent home from school as a punishment for being "untidy."  It always looks the same to me, though.
  • Our 6-year old neighbor once begged his mother to let him grow out his hair to look like "Dani." She has flat-out refused him, arguing that his hair would absolutely NOT look the same.  Junho is still not convinced.  

Final Challenge:  It can be really difficult to recognize somebody after they have drastically changed their hair!  This was a huge problem for me in my first few weeks as a teacher.   Can you tell which (older) girl is actually shown twice in the pictures above?  


  1. I'm sorry I am an African American who just finished their Peace Corps application and I was looking for information on natural hair and Peace Corps service and came across this entry. I mean absolutely no disrespect, but while I am glad you are learning about those different from you some of the things you say are a little rude.

    1. "It generally grows more slowly than other hair types"
    This is absolutely untrue, kinky/coily hair grows at the same speed as your "white girl" hair, it is just the fact that kinky/coily hair is so curly that you cannot see the growth until it is very significant.
    2. "It's not uncommon to see girls walking around with long, raggedy mullets while they wait for the rest of their braids to be finished."
    I'm sorry but your description of "raggedy mullets" is extremely rude. Kinky/coily hair is not "raggedy" it is simply curly and any words in this list are absolutely acceptable; kinky, coily, curly, afro, but never ever say nappy or "raggedy".
    3. There is a difference between the shape of a combed head of hair and an "untidy" uncombed head of hair.
    4. Get to know women as people and not by their hair. We are not our hair.

    I again reiterate this is not an attack, just a teachable moment. Be very cognizant of what you put on the internet, because as I mentioned before this came up in a search. Be very aware of the things you say and remember we are not our hair.

  2. Hi! Thanks for your comment. I would like to respond to a few of your points, because I feel like you have been insulted. I try to stay pretty neutral, so I'll try to explain myself.

    1. According to the British Journal of Dermatology, African hair grows 66% slower than Caucasian hair. The research in question used volunteers from central and western African, and in no way reflects the growth of African-American hair. I did not mean to suggest that my "white girl" hair was superior in any way.

    2. I'm sorry that you were insulted by my use of the word raggedy, but I was referring to the false hair. A lot of girls here use a type of yarn hair, which does indeed look "raggedy." I'm thinking Raggedy Ann, here.

    3. Sorry.

    4. Of course you are not your hair! But it is certainly a defining feature and generally acts as a useful indicator when trying to remember hundreds of new faces. I have 250 students, which is a lot of names to memorize! I think that you will forgive me for trying to remember, in my first few weeks as a teacher, that "Rute has red hair." I did the same thing when I was an instructor in the United States.

    Wishing you the best of luck in your application process.