In Africa, identity is both an anchor and a vehicle. In older times, Africans wore that identity on their sleeve — it is why the continent is known as an “exotic place”, for its traditional religions, its dense music and colourful people.
Few things remind you of that unique cultural and individual identity more than appearance.
What is a king in Yoruba land without his elaborate crown and the long flowing garbs that drag behind him long after he has left a room? The most beautiful Igbo women had intricate face paintings and long braids that were seen as a crown on their heads.
In African culture, a person’s hair is treated with unique attention and respect, largely because of its spiritual connotations and the many ways it can be adorned to reflect beauty. The relationship between an African woman and her hair is a love affair to this day.
According to Sylvia Ardyn Boone, an anthropologist who specializes in the Mende culture of Sierra Leone, “West African communities admire a fine head of long, thick hair on a woman. A woman with long thick hair demonstrates the life force, the multiplying power of profusion, prosperity, a ‘green thumb’ for bountiful farms and many healthy children".
By and large, the same cannot be said of men. Patriarchy in African societies demands that men express their identity in physicality and success. However, certain cultures encouraged men to also wear their hair in eclectic ways. When they did, it reflected their status, beliefs, grooming and inclinations.
Regardless of what style was made, thick, dense, neatly groomed hair was highly sought after.
The Dambaras of Namibia wore short, stubby locks that boys kept and tended from a young age.
Men in Gabon’s Fang tribe wore their hair cut in places, groomed to a considerable thickness and styled like many long ridges.
There aren’t many examples of men in Nigeria’s tribes wearing such hairstyles, but depictions in art — such as sculptures and busts - show that it was not uncommon, perhaps mostly done to differentiate classes and groups.
For instance, the original warrior tribes of Ibadan wore thick, natural braids that made them look fierce. In popular culture, Sango, the god of thunder and the icon of this class, is often depicted wearing similar braids.
Self-preservation is the basic instinct.
The colonial era brought with it a need to conform to the standards of those who brought freedom; it was in this era that African men began to straighten their hair to appear more like Caucasians who do not have the same thick, curly hair, what is now referred to as “Afro-textured hair”.
In modern times, the shrinking of the world and the democratization of influences have broken many limitations on self-expression.
In Africa especially, the youth are riding this wave within and wihout in a bid to discover and, in places, re-create a stolen identity.
In 2017, Nigerian musicians are making music for dance floors in Berlin, designers are making suits in African fabric and men are dying their hair, braiding their curls or, if Birdman is your once and future role model, inking a tattoo on the dome.
In Nigeria, dreadlocks are replacing buzz cuts and Mohawks.
The trend has been inspired by a renewed wave of cultural awareness (that has brought many African-americans across the Atlantic to practice traditional religions), the music of Bob Marley and free-spirited creatives like the Jamaican and Burna Boy.
Long and thick, or short and stubby, these locks have become both a trend and a condensed expression of youth and rebellion, but they are by no means new.
Few people agree on where locks originated - so much that it would seem there is one story for every person with a different opinion.
The earliest archaeological proof comes from Egypt, where mummies have been found with their locks still intact. It is also believed that most Pharaohs wore their hair in that manner.
But India has another story. One of her many dieties, Shiva is depicted with dreadlocks and many followers believe this to be the origin.
If the subject of where it first came is put to the side, dreadlocks have been worn in nearly every area of the world.
Vikings and other Germanic tribes are known to have worn their hair in locks. The same is said of the Celts in Roman accounts of the time.
In modern times, where entire groups wear dreadlocks, it is a symbol of spiritual identity or purity or the stamp of a sub-culture.
Monks of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Sadhus of Hinduism and Dervishes of Islam all wear dreadlocks.
The most popular of these sects, the Rastafari or Rastafarians, as followers are called, is the definitive face of dreadlocks in the modern age.
Bob Marley, the iconic reggae artist and a Rastafari himself, is attributed with bringing dreadlocks into popular culture, as well as inspiring a major element (alongside marijuana use) of a hippie movement that influenced youth around the world, starting in the 70s.
A generation of artists and creatives who elevate Bob Marley’s success and ideals to romantic levels have brought dreadlocks to the present by sporting various interpretations of the man’s long brown locks, and providing free-spirited templates for their fans to follow.
"I've always wanted to have long hair and a beard", says Daniel David, who has been wearing his locks for over two years. "As I got older, the hair grew how I wanted so naturally, I was like, "Amen""
For some, who wear their hair unbridled and set free in these thick bonds, their decision goes beyond artists and their influence, or an old desire to look different.
“Some people prefer dreadlocks because of their low maintenance. There really isn’t much to do to the hair once it has locked unless you choose to style it and do regular maintenance.”, says LaRetta Ann Taylor, a consultant at SisterLocks and an expert on Afro-textured hair.
“There are some who like dreadlocks for cultural identity. They just feel more comfortable wearing their hair in a way that seems natural to them instead of straightening it out with hot tools or chemicals”
While this may seem like a noble cause - the desire to return to one’s roots and connect to one’s identity, most of the society still treats dreadlocks as an entertainer's luxury or a social ill. Like yahoo-yahoo.
The Police, backed by various government directives, view dreadlocks not through judgmental eyes, but handcuffs, threats and white vans that hold up to 10 people at a time.
The natural hair trend has occured across gender lines and men with locks can find their sisters with their hair billowing in its shea-butter laden glory.
Sooner or later, someone might need to ask the police if dreadlocks ever killed anybody.