Politics of Hair



By Tunji Olaopa
One of the few delights of public intellection is such an opportunity as this to weave seemingly disparate ideas and events together into coherent patterns of thoughts and actions that continually feed into my ongoing reform passion. And beyond constant reflection on the civil service, cultural matters and specifically Yoruba culture fascinates me a great deal. I have written about the cosmopolitan and accommodationist intersection of the triple heritage, a la Mazrui, which my growing up at Aáwé instilled in me. I was therefore in my elements when I listened to four incredible expositions in one week: the first three speakers addressed the Yoruba Academy Ibadan Conference that marked the September 23, 1886 end of Kiriji war. Two of them were historical scholars, Professors Banji Akintoye and Olutayo Adeshina, and the third, a Premium Times columnist, Ms. Bamidele Ademola-Olateju, presented an extremely refreshing narrative that revised the localised conception of ‘aiye’ or the universe in Yoruba cosmology in a prospective view of the Yoruba of the future that we should aspire to build, which I sure will reflect on some other time.
I met the fourth speaker at the recent 9th annual lecture in honour of Professor Bolanle Awe, an icon, whom I have had reason to celebrate in commentaries. Prof. Awe is not only a Yoruba intellectual but her discourses on gender reforms bristle with cultural insights. I needed no second thought to be at any event in her honour. But I had more than I bargained for at the occasion. My train of thought was set on fire by the presentation of a young and brilliant scholar, Dr. Sharon Omotoso of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. The title of her lecture was “The Philosophy and Politics of Hair.” This intriguing title was the lecturer’s way of intervening in the critical issues of human rights, economic crisis as well as sundry family issues. Of course, many in the august audience, including me, were rightly intrigued. What has hair got to do with anything?
But as the lecture picked up, I was reminded of Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, and the significance of hairdo in that brilliant novel. She sums up this significance in an interview she granted Channel 4 news in August. According to her, if Michele Obama had worn her natural hair in the run off to the presidential election, her husband, the then Senator Barack Obama, would have lost the presidential election. Why? This is because, according to her, “hair is political.” Michele Obama’s natural hair, for Adichie, would have conveyed a frightening, anti-establishment metaphor of militant Black power whose stereotypical symbolism would have been damning. The hair of a grown up, black American woman projects strong political feelings about political correctness or incorrectness.
For me, hair is more than political; hair is cultural. Indeed, as I sat and listened to the guest lecturer at the Bolanle Awe event, it was not too difficult to see how the modern configuration of hair styles and hair-dos have become symptomatic of almost everything that is culturally wrong with us as a people. Beyond the politics of wearing certain hair styles; beyond the economics of how much of foreign exchange goes into hair importation; I see hair as a symbolic context for lamenting all that is fast diminishing in what we can call our culture of being. Human culture plays a significant part in defining who we are and what we can ever hope to become. Culture, in other words, is a constant dynamics of being and becoming.
Yorùbá constitutes my own culture of being, just as Igbo or Hausa or Nupe or Itshekiri or Edo constitutes the culture of being for others too in Nigeria. But anywhere we look today, we see a disturbing diminution of what is cultural, and hence significant in our cultures. Take hair for instance. It is not difficult to risk the empirical claim that over 90 per cent of female youths in Nigeria now adorn their hairs with European style wigs and Asian weave-on. The days of traditional hairstyles have been swallowed by the modernity of fashion! That would really not constitute a huge fundamental problem if the wigs were to be essentially a pragmatic intervention in fashion. What is really problematic is that European modernity brings with it the rejection and abhorrence of all things that enables culturally. Thus, any woman with the traditional style of hair is, by that very fact, unfashionable; someone who has lost touch with modernity. To become modern therefore, we pay the costly price of identity dislocation. “People who live on borrowed culture,” says Varindra Vittachi, the Sri Lankan writer, “often go to extremes that their models and mentors had never intended.” On the contrary, colonialism intended just this cultural amnesia, and we are all still playing out the script.
In the final analysis, the real issue boils down to that of a genuine reflection on who we are and what we want to be. The social anomie which Wole Soyinka lamented as one of the fundamental roots of Nigeria’s underdevelopment, it seems to me, arises out of a grievous cultural dislocation which prevents a conscious retrieval and celebration of all that is best in one’s culture. And in the gap in between, we are witnessing today all that is abhorrent in our youths’ understanding of the modern: nudity and all forms of crazy fashion sense, the frightening loss of the mother tongue (which has become “vernacular” in the presence of sweet English language!), the terrible dismissal, until few days ago, of History from the school curriculum (and hence the prevention of a dynamic retrieval of the usable past), and finally there is a great and yawning absence of moral values and norms which feed the possibility of social harmony in Nigeria. There is therefore little wonder that Nigeria’s economic and development woes have become a combustible predicament when squared with cultural anomie amongst the youth and everyone else.
Among the Yorùbá, a cultural adage, paraphrased, says: Rather than steal, I will become a servant. This adage projects the significant value placed on the integrity that defines who a person is as an Omolúàbí. All these and more, which constitute fundamental cultural capital, seem to have gone with the wind. Africa seems to have been swept into the whirling and confusing vortex of global cultural fusion. And it seems we are the worst for it. Look all over Africa; look critically at Nigeria: we have not only been left perplexed in terms of development; our cultural beingness is unhinged at its very centre. We have refused to ground our progress in the context of our internal cultural dynamics; we have refused to search inward within our vast cultural frameworks for development insights that can drive national development in Nigeria. Scholars have talked about the strong tie between cultural attitudes and development. But we have not taken deliberate notice. For instance, the Washington Consensus still holds us in its economic grip while other culturally wiser nations are searching and ransacking their cultural capital for internal mechanism that will drive their future.
Recently, Nigeria’s economic imbalance has forced us all into a deep rethink of the dynamics of development and progress. One of such rethink is the “Made-in-Nigeria” imperative which the Buhari administration has embarked upon. This is a right move in the right direction if Nigeria’s economy would become buoyant enough to sustain the change slogan as well as the national project. I have written enough about reforming Nigeria’s institutional framework to know how change would not translate into any formidable transformation if care is not taken. Nigeria’s bid for an economic reform that targets the internal framework of development becomes immediately lopsided against the myriad of socio-cultural anomie already emasculating our social fabric. For example, it looks quite trivial, but it is really a significant issue that hair has become part of the “essentials” that Nigeria has to import. And this points not at the abdication of economic potential which the country can yield even in terms of internal creativity. Rather, this crass importation of hair points at a deep sense of cultural loss. The long European hair types are, in the eyes of all and sundry now, much better than the natural hair which could be made up into several aesthetically appealing styles consonant with our cultural being.
It is at this point of confronting cultural loss of our sense of who we are that the economic dynamics of “Made in Nigeria” unfailingly breaks down. The Chinese Beijing Consensus is an economic experiment driven by a deep investment in the Chinese cultural identity. In fact, the entire Asian Tigers economic transformation is founded on a deep appreciation of the role of culture in national development. Edward Blyden, the Liberian pan-Africanist, sums up the challenge clearly: “If you are not yourself, if you surrender your personality, you have nothing left to give the world.” Once we fail to understand the essence of the dissonance between cultural self-definition and economic well-being, then there is no doubt that something is fundamentally wrong with us as Nigerians.
.Dr. Olaopa, Executive Vice Chairman Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy