Remember the afro, the natural hairstyle forever synonymous with the “black is beautiful” movement championed by African-Americans in the 1960s?
A group in Ivory Coast is trying to persuade black women to turn the page on their expensive hair-straighteners, extensions and wigs and go natural instead.
Blending “natural” with “happy” to produce “Nappy”, the group calls itself Nappys de Babi — Babi being a nickname for Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s bustling economic capital.
Founded more than two years ago, the support group now boasts some 2,400 members, meeting every two months in Abidjan’s trendy Cocody district to share advice, tips, and practical help about keeping their hair natural.
Nappys de Babi bucks a deeply ingrained belief all across Africa that straight hair conforms best to an ideal of beauty.
In Ivory Coast, most women were teenagers when they began renouncing their naturally kinky, frizzy hair.
As a result, most do not know how to care for it and “make it beautiful”, says Miriam Diaby, one of Nappys de Babi’s founders.
“Society frowns on ‘afro’ hair overflowing all over the place,” she said, lamenting that women have to opt for “conventional” styles involving straightening or using false hair in the form of extensions or wigs.
The little knowledge on haircare is evident in some questions posed at the group’s meeting, with one participant asking: “How do I know if my hair is hydrated?”
“Well, when they are stiff and dry, that means they aren’t hydrated at all,” replies Bibi Gagno, who created a motivational website, omgiloveyourhair.com.
‘Like a pariah’
The African sisters of the 1960s American “Black Is Beautiful” advocates need to emancipate themselves from the dominant white model, the Nappys say.
“When I arrived in Abidjan (after growing up in the United States and Europe), I noticed, and it struck me, that all the advertising showed light-skinned women with long, smooth hair,” said Gagno.
The fair skin — achieved in the Ivory Coast mainly through constant application of carcinogenic whitening products — is “synonymous to success”, the businesswoman said.
Going against the grain is deemed provocative.
“People are uncomfortable about it. When they see you wearing natural hair, they look at you like you are a pariah, like there is a problem, when actually, it should be normal,” said Liliana Lambert.
Lambert, a 27-year-old half European, who adorns her naturally frizzy hair with flowers, said people “want to touch such hair all the time” because they don’t know what it is like.
“It’s just ignorance,” she said.
The only Nappy-boy at the session, Ange-Dady Akre-Loba, a 28-year-old stylist with mid-length locks, said men, too, get odd looks if they do not stick with the usual close-cropped style worn by Ivory Coast men.
“From five centimetres (two inches), it is considered too long here… Many people would say I have a bit too much hair,” he said.
Less conformist men are expected to “remain discreet”, said Akre-Loba, who let his own hair grow out during the post-electoral violence that rocked the country during 2010-2011.
Leaving your home at the time was potentially dangerous and most of the barbers were closed anyway so the insecurity offered Akre-Loba the excuse to finally go natural, he said.
He has since learnt to ignore what others think and “try to carry on regardless and to be myself”.