Making and unmaking: good and bad about Gambia’s head-tie directive


head tie

By Mustapha K Darboe

When local newspapers hit the news-stance on January 5th, Tuesday, it came to light the rather disturbing news for some Gambian women that they are now required to cover their hair at work.

But the story— perhaps a testimony of the power of the internet—was already hours old online and it would unconsciously run into the news priorities of BBC Africa.

As expected, there was some silent “disapproval” to the order but in the words of the information minister, Sheriff Bojang, the context was little “distorted”.

The career journalist accused the online and foreign media outlets of peddling “lies” and making some bizarre imaginary connections with the directive to that of the President’s Islamic State declaration.

I would excuse the minister’s wisdom, if I may, because the imaginary connection between the “Islamic State” and the “head-tie” was never totally an outside crime—it was equally an internal crime.

I belong to a what’s up group, if you allow me to excuse the name, that made an issue of it.

I could not help but respond to questions like: “but how about Christians, what was the motive, why now” as some were busy making connections to that of Islamic State declaration.

After minutes reading through arguments of these armies of critics, I teased: “the directive has no relations to Islamic State because there was no mention of it in the circular that I have seen”.

Then suddenly came all attentions on me with one of my colleagues, a journalist, asking if I am “that naïve” to believe the directive has no connection to the Islamic State agenda.

But as a matter of fact, all presidents are sensitive to public discourse and they listen too; thus it came to light that the Office of the President has taken a U-turn on the directive to the joy of the President’s “best friends”, Gambian women.

The gains

I had no privilege to hear a strong argument from any Government official on why the Government has so suddenly decided that women’s hair must no longer be displayed in offices.

There is fun in it because showing hair in the office has become what women consider, but only in the vocabulary of Mustapha K, beauty fare— because these hairs are rarely theirs and so it is the South American vs. the North American brands or the Indian Brand and list goes endless.

And being also in an unconscious love affair with class, whatever that means, it has also created competition among working women on who dresses most elegantly— now in modern day ghetto what is referred to as dress-to-kill.

Hold your final verdict on this piece for now reader; I am narrowing hair to wig or artificial hair because that has become the replacement for natural hair for Gambian women.

So stepping on women’s opportunity to take a place in this beauty fare and dress-to-kill competition will be no fun, whoever I am referring to, but there is good to it just as there, perhaps, bad to it.

But let’s reserve the bad to the latter part of this opinion, if it falls under that category.

On December 21, I shared on my Facebook this story:

“I joined a cab today from work going home and by me sat a Gambian sister. She is inexplicably beautiful— the type you would bet your last dalasi coin and swear was created by Allah on a very calm day of creation- a billion years before Germany’s Hitler.

She host the kind of a black skin that defines the beauty of a Black Stone.

Ironically, I could not identify from her hair which race she belongs. She wears a wig with a colour that I only see on movies.

“You are beautiful,” I said, with the kind of a hurry you would drag your only daughter on the way of an approaching truck.

“And your hair,” I stopped.

“It is a wig,” she helped, but only insufficiently.

I was going to suggest if she could use her own hair but what is the point. It has become a continental curse- the old-normal manifesting itself into the new-normal.

It is made from America,” she could barely hide the pride.

An African has allowed him or herself to be taught to run away from his or her own self. I was left wondering if all Africans jump out of their physical being for the sake of conformity— or reject their natural self— whose destiny do they jump into, that is if destiny and self are inseparably linked?”

The response to this was pretty impressive!

Among people who have commented on the post was Fabakary B. Ceesay and he observed: “Nice piece Mustapha. It is all part of the brainwash system that has been imposed on our people to disregard everything Afrikan. I am sure that sister would be more beautiful with her natural hair.”

Maybe the use of the word imposition in Ceesay’s argument might be replaced by “desire” for this piece but he is not alone in his argument.

It was the slow-talking but immaculately brilliant Kenyan professor, PLO Lumumba, who said in one of his oratorical lectures that “African man is continuously running from himself… and this self-rejection has created a multi-billion dollar wig industry for the western world.”

And he would question: “what difference would it have made if we invest these billions in the agricultural sector of the continent?”

While reliable Africa-wide stats are hard to come by, market research firm Euromonitor International estimates $1.1 billion of shampoos, relaxers and hair lotions were sold in South Africa, Nigeria and Cameroon alone last year.

It sees the liquid haircare market growing by about 5 percent from 2013 to 2018 in Nigeria and Cameroon, with a slight decline for the more mature South African market.

This does not include sales from more than 40 other sub-Saharan countries, or the huge “dry hair” market of weaves, extensions and wigs crafted from everything from synthetic fibre to human or yak hair.

Some estimates put Africa’s dry hair industry at as much as $6 billion a year; Nigerian singer Muma Gee recently boasted that she spends 500,000 naira ($3,100) on a single hair piece made of 11 sets of human hair.

In one clue to the potential for Africa, market research firm Mintel put the size of the black hair care market in the United States at $684 million in 2013, estimating that it could be closer to $500 billion if weave, extensions and sales from independent beauty stores or distributors are included.

What is certain is that Africa’s demand for hair products, particularly those made from human hair, is only growing.

Who wins the most from this artificial beauty market apparently making businesses turn-over on the backs of the dying African in exchange of manufactured charm? India, China, America and Brazil.

Even with “Africa emerging” story propounded by romantic economists and blind statisticians, all of the countries mentioned in the preceding sentence are witnessing a fast pace of economic development than any African country where their hungry-for-beauty customers reside.

You might excuse the “pan-African agenda” that I uselessly embed in this to deliberately ruin your Friday but it makes some sense to the writer that if head-tie would mean our billions of dollars stay and we invest it in agriculture to save millions of poor people, so be it.

Though the Government has made no mention of artificial hair in the directive, apparently, I could sense a taste of it in the statements made by the information minister against online newspapers and foreign media outlets.

“The covering of hair by female staff is an attempt to discourage the use of false hair commonly known as mèche.  He believes the use of such things is an affront to the dignity of the African woman and constitutes gross waste of resources,” Minister Bojang said.

“Some of these false hair packets cost in excess of D50,000 and they are mostly unhygienic and messy.”

The problem

However, the problem that could be associated with the directive was the timing and the lack of clarity of the agenda behind it.

It came immediately after the President declared The Gambia an Islamic State and even though the President said the secular status of the country won’t change and the constitution will be maintained, but Islamic States, in fact, are governed by Shariah.

Then there was an information gap between the President and some people with regards to the ideals— that is if new ones are required— on which this newly-found Islamic State will operate.

Moreover, the argument of the economic losses Africa accrues to artificial hair industries elsewhere was barely heard, if at all, as a basis for the directive.

Meanwhile, a fight against Mèche is a battle of the mind since people using it have been made to believe that their hairs are not beautiful and that they must import beauty from elsewhere.

Therefore, what was perhaps required was public lectures— for which I voluntarily surrender my service in advance—to talk to Gambian sisters on why we must be reasonably economical with our outfits and this goes even for the top dogs of our national fashion-victims.

These steps, among others, were necessary if there were to be an avoidance of a scenario where women folks would argue “it is our constitutional right to dress whichever way we like”.

For all prophets say “religion save people from hell fire” but they equally know that indoctrination works better as oppose to imposition to get people to believe and do as they say, no matter how passionate they are about their prophetic cause.

Anti Mèche policies should be very welcome in Africa but people must first be educated on the merits of such actions before they are taken to avoid backlash.

African people are in a virtual prison— they ever were— and to free them is not just to change the educational system that sends them there but also shut the doors, consciously, to the media and the kind of educational exposures that condition their minds like Ivan Pavluv’s dog in the Condition of Reference.

Don’t accuse me of giving a new face to the blame-game because I believe that Africa’s identity crisis was invented here— though not without influence from outside— and they can be fixed internally.

It is not late to change from being Hollywood image victims with quasi- African image to Africans but Africans in the core of our existence— only that a road that will take us to this Promised Land needs to be thought out anew.

May be the continent needs a re-dedicated crop of people who are going to sow the seeds of renewed nationalism, patriotism against apathy and self-rejection that today’s Africa has fallen so much in love with, especially our beautiful womenfolk.



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