With my 24th birthday and my one-year anniversary in Guinea-Bissau falling in the same week, I decided I wanted to do something to commemorate the occasions. For most of my life I’ve had mid-shoulder length curly hair, and during my last year of college I was feeling like I should do a drastic cut. This seemed like the opportune moment to make that a reality.
In Guinea Bissau, women switch their hairstyles as often as once a week to once every 3 months! By switch their hairstyles I mean rotating between wigs, fake hair extensions, human hair extensions, and an infinitesimal variety of braid styles.
This is a multi-million dollar industry, mind you, so this is no small deal. And if time is money, then the amount of TIME spent doing hair is probably equivalent to the industries profits. Some women have multiple boyfriends just to make sure that they have funding for their hair purchases. It’s that serious!
It was only after the second or third month living here that I began picking up on the fact the majority of women’s hair are hair extensions. With all the other stimulating and new experiences, noticing the culture around women’s hair care was far from my mind. But as the novelty of my surrounding began to wear, I began to notice that it was impossible to walk past 10 houses without one of them having a women or child getting their hair done!
Hilha is exceptional at braiding hair, and would dedicatee most of her Sundays to doing hair for female friends and family (for free!!). Occasionally I’d sit with her and ‘help’. Fortunately for me, all that required me to do was complete the braid she had already started. It was simple, easy, and just at my level of hair styling competency.
She often offered to do my hair, but I always prided myself on having s hair styling regimen under 5 minutes, and the 2 to 3 hours it took to braid my hair seem more unattractive then having my hair done
No one believed my hair was real, which ironically was the same situation in the US. Most people assumed it was some kind of human hair extension because that’s what everyone else was wearing. In several situations, after I explained that my hair was actually growing out of my head, the immediate reaction was to ask for my hair if I cut ever cut it!
I found this hilarious, out of my own ignorance of course. Why would they want my hair?? I mentioned that the hair business is a multi-million dollar industry, but what I didn’t know was that women (with the financial means) were ordering human hair from brazil and Portugal for as much as 1,000 USD!!! And my hair would be the same quality, minus the price!
I cut my hair unannounced, so when several neighbors and friends saw me they refrained from commenting on the hair I had left on my head and asked instead where the hair I cut was!
Hilha’s mom had been the most persistent, so I brought her the small black plastic bag with my hair in it. I wondered how she planned on organizing all the loose strands because as you can imagine, it was just a big hairball in a bag. She insisted she was going to wash it and have Hilha put it in. ‘’I’ll believe it when I see it,” I thought to my self.
Then one morning on my way to buy bread for breakfast I saw hilhas mom in a toca- toca driving past me. With her upper body out of the sliding glass window she called my name and yelled out the window,” Look! I put in your hair!” And there were my curls sitting on her head as if they were her own.
I was shocked!! She really put my hair on her head! I’m not sure how I can describe how it feels to see your hair on someone else’s head. As I walked home my thoughts took a strange turn. – It was my hair! SO my sweat, and oils are all in it. And now its on someone else’s head. It’s like giving someone your fingernails so they can put it on their nail. And that’s kind of gross ( to me, its possible this is done in some places of the world- who knows?!) -- This was the beginning of my short lived moral dilemma. But by the time I got home I was just glad my hair lived to serve another purpose instead of getting thrown away.
Tia M’boby had the biggest smile as she showed off how well it turned out. After her photo shoot she went on to ask me for more hair because the hair I brought her wasn’t enough! I pointed to the 5 inches of hair on top of my head as I explained that I that wasn’t going to be able to help her much with that.
But M’boby was really happy about her new hair. She said she could wear it for 3 months, take it out, wash it, style it again and wear it for another 3 months. And the best part was that it was free!
I had come to understand this hair culture for what it was, but explaining it to my co-workers brought about some interesting topics. They come from a place where women have lush, thick, black hair that they grow down below their waist. It is their pride and joy. So they could not comprehend why on earth almost every woman was wearing fake hair (and in some cases it really did look fake) when they obviously had their own hair. It became routine for them to point at any woman who passed us and try and figure out what kind of their they were wearing, which always then led to the question: why??