Babylon feels haunted, dreadlocks in the Constitution, let us drink from the fountain

Sunday January 27 2019

A woman with dreadlocks. PHOTO

A woman with dreadlocks. PHOTO | FILE | NMG 

By NERIMA WAKO-OJIWA
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The case of the student with dreadlocks demonstrated how progressive our Constitution is and just how many Kenyans are not prepared for it.

The uproar that surfaced because a parent went to court to demand justice for his teenage daughter, who had just been kicked out of class at her new high school because she had dreadlocks – which reflected her Rastafarian religious beliefs.

Many people could not understand the parent’s frustration. Normally high schools do have strict policies when it comes to standard uniform and appearance.

Many schools force girls to shave off their hair; it is their policy, so what was the hullabaloo about? Why would a parent go against the rules of the school?

The politics of hair is a contentious matter. The fact that kinky hair has often been characterised as unkempt, and tied to words such as nappy, gives the impression that African hair is not naturally good hair.

As a matter of fact, hair straightening products and skin bleaching are multibillion industries around the world due to this narrative being pushed directly and indirectly in our media.

Authors such as Yaa Gyasi in Home Going, highlight the struggle that Africans have to go through to keep up appearances.

Gyasi talks of a character who was lightskinned and kept his hair short – even though he was black, it was hard to tell.

One day he just could not take being stereotyped and living under threat in an America that was legally racist. So he crossed the invisible line that cut through where he lived, leaving his black wife and child and started a new life. He married white and never thought about being black again. It was just simpler to not be black.

“Has parenting changed?” Those were the questions that kept coming to the fore: “If it were my parents, they would never allow me to have dreadlocks, never!”

But we seem to forget that even in that time, our parents would never criticise Moi. Even speaking about him negatively at a night out in a bar with friends could cost you dearly. Speaking was scary, having an opinion was even worse.

We forget that certain books were banned from universities and even particular clubs or councils, that freedom of association did not exist. Those were the times, but we forget.

Today, through Twitter, people hurl all sorts of insults at the president every single day. And the engagement is two-way: People can insult their politicians, and sometimes the politicians will fight back.

So much engagement, that politicians even block individuals on social media because they are too reachable.

In a survey that we conducted, we asked about 900 youth where they went to engage with their representatives.

Some 25.8 per cent said it was through social media, 24.4 per cent said at a public rally or campaign, 23 per cent mentioned social functions such as funerals and 22 per cent formal public forums like a baraza.

If we want to talk about the future, the coming generation of youth will increasingly communicate electronically. Yet even today, many adults find this laughable.

But what does hair have to do with anything? Dreadlocks have always been linked to the Mau Mau and that was one of the ways that the colonialists could identify freedom fighters.

And being masters at creating narratives, of course negative narratives of their hair were peddled to discourage people from wanting to be associated with the group or joining the movement.

The oldest trick in the book, 50 years on, and we carry those same stereotypes forward. Never questioning their existence and relevance, so pervasively do they permeate our society.

In the end, the young girl was allowed to go to school – a big win for our country because she has a right to her religion and a right to education.

Article 32 (1) of the Constitution says: “Every person has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion… (3) A person may not be denied access to any institution, employment or facility, or the enjoyment of any right, because of the person’s belief or religion.”

So, now we have such a progressive Constitution on paper, it is time to live it.

Nerima Wako-Ojiwa is executive director of Siasa Place. Twitter: @NerimaW

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