The racist legacy of Kenyan schools' short hair policies
On January 10, 2019, Makeda Ndinda’s first day at Olympic High School in Nairobi County was cut short when the school’s deputy principal summoned her from her history class. The deputy principal asked Ndinda to remove the headscarf she was wearing; only Muslim students were allowed to cover their hair, and Ndinda is not Muslim. She complied and took off her headscarf, revealing dreadlocks that she had been growing since she was a child as part of her Rastafarian faith. The deputy principal then sent Ndinda home, telling her that she would have to cut her dreadlocks off because the school saw the hairstyle as “distracting.”
Only days before this incident, another Kenyan girl, Sharon Akinyi from Kisumu County, was turned away from her new school, St. Mark Obambo Secondary School, for similar reasons. Sharon met all the requirements for new students except one: She had long hair. One of the school’s student regulations states that all students must be tidy and well-groomed with their hair cut short. A teacher said the policy was a result of the school’s hot and dusty environment. Akinyi refused to cut her hair, citing religious reasons for her decision and sticking to her guns even when the school threatened to deny her admission. Akinyi said that she would rather take up a course at a local polytechnic or quit higher education altogether than cut off her hair.
It’s not uncommon for Kenyan public schools to have a “no-hair” policy, meaning both girls and boys have to shave off their tresses. Some argue that these rules harmlessly attempt to promote uniformity (and, it’s implied, equality) among students. Teachers defend this decision as a time-saving measure and method to control and prevent lice from spreading.
These arguments, however, are undermined by the fact that non-black students in the same schools are often allowed to grow out their hair despite this rule. In 2016, Ugandan female students protested their schools’ no-hair policies for that very reason: that they apply only to black students. Kyamulabe Margret Mugema, a middle school dean at one of the schools at the center of the protest, defended the policy, telling the Global Press Journal, “We let other races grow their hair because it’s in their culture not to cut off their hair, and we respect that.”
A crucial part of protesting these “no-hair” rules, however, is that these policies are the legacy of colonialism and, as such, still perpetuate racism. In precolonial times, Christian missionaries demanded that girls who attended their mission schools cut their hair to their scalp, as they believed that black hair was “unsightly, ungodly, and unatemable.” Beyond their students, missionaries also forbade all African women who attended their churches from wearing any artistic hairstyles, even though African women did so for many different reasons, including signifying their age, class, and rank in their community. Based on their racist beliefs that all African men were uncontrollable beasts, missionaries also believed that African girls would be less desirable to African men with short hair.
The legacy of colonialism and racism is entrenched in many African schools, even those that allow students to wear their hair long. For instance, my alma mater required students to hold our hair up in “push-back ponytails.” This policy dated back to pre-independence when the school was segregated and catered only to British (and white) girls. The school now caters to mostly black Kenyan girls, whose natural hair does not really “push-back” as a result of its kinkiness. Protective hairstyles such as braids and twists were forbidden, though, which made many of us resort to chemically treating our hair, as doing so was the only way we could meet the school’s standards. These conditions made it hard for us to grow and take care of healthy natural hair.
The impact of these policies on students’ perceptions of black hair is ultimately quite harmful. They effectively underestimate Kenyan school girls’ intelligence to the point that something as ordinary as taking care of their own hair is seen as a task that they cannot handle without being distracted from their school work. In what other continent are students told that taking care of their own hair is a misplaced priority, or that it has any bearing on their education at all?
It is time for schools to examine the roots of the dress codes they implement and the implications of them on students. The natural hair wave that is taking over the world needs to sweep into Kenyan schools so that black girls can view their schools as places their hair doesn’t designate them as untidy and unmanageable, but as a source of pride.
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