Sandrine Uwase Ndahiro on hair love, a journey of self-love
One of my fondest memories as a child was the bond that me and my mum had when she would plait my hair. The process of getting my hair done was always a special moment between us, as she would always try different hairstyles on me and my sister. Back then I never really thought much about having Afro hair as everyone around me had it.
This all suddenly changed upon moving to Ireland.
Moving to Ireland changed the relationship I had with my hair because I was being thrown into a new world where there were different beauty standards, and Afro hair did not match this standard. I distinctly remember going into school and being hyper-conscious of the texture of my hair. I would look around the classroom and see girls with soft long blonde hair that matched the same features as Rapunzel. Something that I quickly became very jealous of as I knew that I could never grow my hair to that length, nor would I ever get the same texture. I noticed that my Afro would stick out with random strands whenever I would try to straighten it or place it in a tight bun. It appeared as something that needed to be tamed. I viewed the exteriority of my Afro as something to be ashamed; it was yet another reason why I was different and stood out. When I was younger, I hated standing out and always hoped that I would just fade into the background.
This insecurity around my Afro hair intensified during my teenage years, as I was exposed to different pop culture references. The exposure made me have a love hate relationship with my features, specifically my hair. I found that every television show, movie, and magazine that I collected all had one type of beauty standard. A western beauty standard which championed people who did not look like me. It became very confusing as a child as to why I never saw anyone who looked like me be celebrated or viewed as beautiful. It brought on a lot of negative thoughts about myself as I desperately wanted to fit in and be viewed as beautiful.
I tried to tap into this beauty standard. I convinced myself that to be viewed as beautiful I would need to tame my Afro curls. This was something that I was still insecure about, because the size of my Afro was something that people always commented on. To avoid these unpleasant comments, I started to chemically straighten my hair as this was the only way that it could remain straight for a long period of time. The distinctive smell of the chemicals is something that is ingrained in my memories. I remember my mum would apply the texture and I would have to wait for a few minutes for the chemical to work. There was always a small risk of discomfort, but this was something that I ignored as it was the only way I was going to get my dream hairstyle.
Looking back at it now, my mum and I always talk about how it was the wrong decision to use the chemicals, as they caused serious damage to my hair, and it has taken a long time for my natural hair to become healthy again. When I talk to my other African friends, they too went through the process of chemically straightening their hair when they arrived in Ireland. It appears to be a shared commonality as in one way or another our natural hair was a leading factor in our identity crisis. We share the feeling of shame and the need to do anything to fit in, even if it meant unintentionally destroying our hair. We all have our distinctive stories about how we came to love our natural hair. But some are still learning to love their natural hair. It is a long and painful process but once you accept it, one that becomes life changing.
I found my new love for my hair when I started college in 2014. Moving away from Carlow to Limerick allowed me to start over again and I started this new process of self-love by embracing my natural hair. The first step in self-discovery was trying out braids of different colours. I knew that having different colour braids would make me stand out. This was a feeling that I fully welcomed as I was sick of hiding in the shadow of shame and trying to conform to unrealistic beauty standards. Every semester I would go home and me and my mum would work on my braids. I am always so excited picking different colours to match my mood of the semester. Specifically bright and bold colours. It is my favourite thing to do despite the long process. On average, depending on the length and size of braids, it could take up to a whole day. Me and my mum use this time to catch up on life and just gossip. We chose a television show to binge watch and just take turns braiding my hair. It is something that we both look forward to as we have been doing it for years. Our time spent together doing braids is something that I want to continue as a tradition in the future with my kids as it is a bonding experience that we have shared for years and has created this unbreakable link between the two of us.
Although I am grateful that my mum does my hair, I have always been curious as to what it would be like to get my hair done in a hairdresser. I wonder what it’s like to go in and not feel overwhelmed for having different hair texture, to not feel anxious if none of the hairdressers are trained to work on my hair texture. Growing up my friends would always talk about going to the hairdressers to get a haircut or highlights. This is something that I have never experienced as I have never been to any hairdressers in Ireland. I am twenty-seven now and find that revelation mind-boggling but not surprising because of the slow progress we have made with diversity in Ireland especially when it comes to the lack of training in different spaces such as hairdressers.
A friend of mine who is a hairdresser recently revealed the shame she felt when a young mixed- race child came into a salon that she works in hoping to get a hairstyle done for her First Communion, but none of the hairdressers were trained to work with Afro hair. A day that was special was tainted by this experience. My friend recalled the disappointment left on the young girl’s face. Something that I am all too familiar with. Immediately my friend asked me for tips on how I do my hair as she never wants to be in that position again where she is left feeling helpless.
The conversation between my hairdresser friend and I was a difficult one, as I had to point out how a lot of the time Afro hairstyles are just an afterthought. An example is visible in a previous documentary that I worked on, Unsilencing Black Voices (2020) where a participant talked about how she had to do her own hair and make-up during the Rose of Tralee competition because none of the hairstylists were trained to work on Afro-hair. This proved to be a humiliating instance for the participant as it was just another form of ‘otherization’. The lack of training within this industry is something that is downplayed and not given the same urgency as other issues when talking about the lack of diversity in contemporary Ireland.
Having said this I am hopeful that things will change. I am now able to go to my local Boots shop and buy hair products catered to my hair instead of having to order them online. I have also seen the determination of my friends who want to change the hair dressing culture. They are watching various YouTube videos with different Afro hair textures. They are having difficult conversations with me about the painful experience of walking into a hairdresser or makeup artist and the paid professional not knowing how to work with my hair/ skin texture. These difficult conversations have made us closer as I get to introduce my friends into my hair braiding process. Anytime I am doing my hair, even something as simple as washing, I take a video of the different hair products that I use, and the different techniques used to maintain my hair texture. It is something that I am no longer ashamed of. Instead, it is something that plays an integral role in my newfound confidence as I can change my braid colour every few months and be playful with my hairstyles. I no longer feel like I need to conform to the unrealistic beauty standards as I am finally comfortable in my skin.
It has taken a long time to be confident in my skin. I can walk into a room and no longer be hyper-aware of looking different. When I have my Afro-hair I feel confident and no longer shy away from stares over the size of my Afro hair. I can embrace every aspect that makes me Afro-Irish, specifically loving my distinctive Rwandese features like my skin and hair.