Politics of black people's hair in Botswana

To begin with, our bodies and all things that have to do with our bodies are not only political, but are also subject to a human rights discourse and are topical social justice issues.

Some contemporary writers who have explored the evolution of the black beauty movement, and it’s objectification and insistence on the ‘taming’ of blackness, have suggested that this can cause on African people, either a great self-liberation or self-hatred.

The politics have everything to do with human dignity, integrity, privacy, and has been subject of discrimination. These are all rights and freedoms. It is especially critical that the lens used to interrogate this is one that is African, and particularly, one that is native to Botswana.

The ‘Africanness’ and particularly ‘blackness’ and movement in Botswana, and how it interacts with human rights has scarce been documented to the extent that it has in other countries. One must acknowledge that the movement is one that is growing and evolving, particularly in the reclaiming of our beauty.

Bloggers are enabling and capacitating people who opt to nurture black natural hair, to grow it naturally. The literature however, is biased towards celebrating black excellence and not fully interrogating the developments of the movement and it’s context as well as importance in our contemporary Botswana.

Why do we have to talk about black people’s hair? Well, Miss Botswana is coming up. Although I completely abhor beauty contests and the history and contemporary objectification of women’s bodies (including plus size women campaigns), and the reduction of women to their physical beauty, I find black hair topical.

Hair is one of the sites that are central to self-hatred or self loathing, often as an internalisation and response to external factors. A few years ago, it was revealed that a local private school has banned afro hair styles, in one of its school policies. This caused a short-lived uproar amongst activists who expressed displeasure at this, citing that it limiting black children to hair styles that do not include their natural hair, was problematic, suggesting that it is racist and unacceptable.

Recently, a meme floated along on our timelines that said, “people with natural hair think they have shares in Africa” (I found this tickling).  The question, I think, is whether there is hair that could be said to be ‘African’ or even ‘black’? The answer to this will mind itself to issues on ‘representation’ as raised by many of the antagonists of “Brown Skin Girl”, a recently released growingly popular song by Beyonce, which I think was intended to celebrate darker skinned girls.

The theme of representation also came up when, on the 9th August 2019, the new Miss South Africa was crowned. The beauty queen donned her natural hair for the competition, and many women who advocate for natural hair suggested that this was representative of a real South African.

It is important that in every space that women occupy, even the problematic space of beauty contests, that there be a adequate representation of women, intersectionally. Of course I hold this opinion and reserve places claimed rightfully by marginalised communities, who I argue have the right to safe spaces, to heal, overcome, and address their varying exclusions, safely and in the absence of their oppressors, potential oppressors and to the greatest extent possible, the tools of their oppression.

Disclaimer noted, I think it is vital to ensure representation simply because because there are those who see themselves in certain people, and this affirms and validates their own dreams and hopes to occupy such places. It is inspiring, as well as encouraging.

It also disrupts the norm and calls for opening up of different spaces – something that has the tendency to diminish segregation and exclusion.  It has to however be accepted that ‘a single story’ no matter whose it is, is always dangerous. I celebrate the doing away with assumptions of a homogenous, limited and tamed design and conversation of beauty in Botswana.

I think it is critical in a Botswana that has by-and-large, viewed fairer skinned women as the most beautiful, in comparison to their more melanin endowed equals. It is important that we decolonise our standards of beauty, particularly because we are no longer aspiring to standards, in all other sectors, that impress, look like and represent whiteness.

We are constantly questioning, unpacking and undoing ourselves and our lives, to restructure ourselves as a nation, as a people and as individuals. Particularly as regards our hair, we are a society that embraces that our hair as Batswana, is differently textured.

That said, I think we should be careful to not, in our celebrations, make the assumption that the new us is an exclusive space, for those, and only those who do not apply chemicals to their hair, or cover their curly nappy curls with wigs and Brazilian weaves.

I think a contemporary vision of beauty is one that embraces that we are all different, and keep our hair differently, for different reasons. I think our new real, in as much as it boldly posits that lighter women are not prettier than darker women, and that in fact the comparisons should not exist; that when it comes to our hair, we should also embrace variety and difference, and insist that a beauty queen be selected on merit and not on the texture of their hair.

Immediately after typing the above, I paused and thought to myself, but why not?! Even if only for the making of history, so that it is documented that in 2019, even the problematic industries embraced the different woman.

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