On August 4th, 2017, I applied to be a Peace Corps volunteer. On August 17th, 2017, I went to the hair salon and got a relaxer for the last time. The two instances, though ostensibly dissimilar were related in that my hair care process would need to be adapted to whichever country I left to serve in and would necessarily be different from how I managed my hair in the USA. Deciding to go natural, though not easy, was one of the best decisions I’ve made. A few weeks later, I had moved to the black hair capital of the world (or at least the USA), Atlanta, where I found a wonderful stylist who undertook the commission to help me transition from chemically straightened hair to embracing the hair which naturally emerges from my head. Several months later, my hair was in conflict with itself as the latter half was stringy and straight and the upper half was curly and thick. The time had arrived for “the big chop”, that moment when one texture has dominates the hair ecosystem and the other must resign itself to removal. Scissors, mirror, inhale, cut, exhale. No turning back now. Once in Rwanda, I gave myself a break from styling my hair by wearing braids throughout pre-service training. Upon reaching my site, I gave my hair a break and myself...a lot more work.
To wash or not to wash; that is not the question. It is Saturday morning which means that once again the time has arrived to engage in the *weekly ritual of washing my hair. I attempt to negotiate my way out of the somewhat arduous task. Perhaps I could postpone a few days and just spray my hair with a little water, a little leave-in conditioner? I could always just rinse and then do a full wash another time? But these gravity-defying, moisture-resisting mass of coils and curls atop my head don't negotiate; they dictate. And I, humble servant that I am, obey. Any thoughts of extending the designated wash time a few more days are banished as my fingers conduct a quick interrogation with my scalp. Alas, a week's worth of dust, rainwater, and fossilizing hair products are in need of immediate removal. As I begin gathering the tools for the task, I can't help reflecting on what this experience was like back in the land of the free, or more aptly to this narrative, in the land where my world included shower heads and running water.
Wash Day USA
To wash or not to wash, that is the question. It is Saturday morning which means I should probably take the time to wash my hair. I consider the time commitment and effort required and decide I'm just not up for the three hour affair that is shampooing, conditioning, deep conditioning, styling, and air drying my hair. I put in a quick request to my faithful hair stylist, Tony, and after exchanging a few texts, we agree to meet up Sunday afternoon. The designated time sees me caped and comfortable as Tony expertly cleans and coaxes my thick tresses into a style that testifies to his 20+ years of experience in this trade. Two hours, and $45 later, I'm on my way home scalp still tingling pleasantly from the peppermint oil Tony employs in my wash routine. I have successfully satisfied the demands of my hair and although I’ll have to actually do the work myself next week, what of it? That's a whole seven days away.
Wash Day Rwanda
My reverie concludes around the same time as I gather the last required item on the ledge behind my house strategically placed by the back door, the tinted glass of which serves as my mirror during the impending ordeal.
Jerry can ✓
Plastic mug ✓
Combs (2) ✓
Shower cap ✓
DIY Deep Conditioner ✓
Leave-in Conditioner ✓
DIY Hair Oil ✓
Materials assembled, the spectacle commences. Using the combined resources of my upper and lower body strength, I lift the full jerry can (about 50 lbs.) and pour about a quarter of its contents into the bucket then maneuver the bucket onto the ledge. Steeling my nerves, I lean over the water while simultaneously filling a plastic mug to the brim. Deep breath, poise, and pour. The cool liquid makes contact with my neck and runs over my ears but I’ve slightly miscalculated the necessary angle and most of the water doesn’t make contact with its object. Before the last bit of water has dripped back into the bucket, another cupful has already been filled and poured. Like jumping into a pool for the first time, the initial contact is the most painful and each successive dip-pour, dip-pour is less shocking to my scalp. By degrees, I become more accustomed to the brisk waterfall. Dip-pour, dip-pour, six, seven, then eight cupfulls and at last when my inquisitive hand sweeps through my hair, I find the water has done its work. Hair dripping, everything from this point on is about positioning. Remaining bent at the waist, I continue with the next phase-shampoo. Reaching to my right, I grasp the dearly purchased bottle of cantu shea butter shampoo and deliver a moderate handful into my left hand. One small pivot moves my L-shaped figure away from being directly over the bucket of water so that my view is the humble dirt of my backyard. Not bothering to close the bottle lid, I quickly begin to massage the cleaning agent into my scalp. With its countless coils and curls, my hair acts like a living loofah and rapidly distributes the sudsy substance. One additional handful of shampoo serves to cover all of the real estate. My fingers navigate to the roots and continue to scrub until I can safely presume that the week of grime has been dislodged. And now for the rinse! But ah, a dilemma! How to approach rinsing out the shampoo? Three options present themselves. I can:
Pivot back over the bucket and use the same initial rinse water to remove the shampoo
Remain in my current position and engage in the dip-pour routine over the ground
Dump the initial rinse water and get fresh water for the shampoo rinse
The sun is out which means I have limited time before the evaporation phase of the water cycle reclaims the water so recently added to my hair. But, I indulge in a moment of reflection over these three options. The first allows me to conserve the most water but reduces the efficacy of my wash. The second will rid my hair of all the shampoo but may leave some residue from the initial rinse and the third, though the most desirable in terms of guaranteed hair happiness, is the least amenable to my efforts at water conservation. Ultimately, I decide on a kind of hybrid approach where I dip-pour with my plastic cup allowing some of the shampoo-water to run back into the bucket but twisting away and wringing out the remaining suds over the ground. Thus a repeated rinse-twist-wring rhythm commences for the next few minutes. Over the past several months, I’ve become accustomed to the wily ways of natural hair and I know hidden pockets of soap are still languishing somewhere in the caverns of curls so I strive to rinse as thoroughly as possible faintly registering the protest of my lower back warning me that my assumed position is no longer conducive to comfort. Ignoring my discomfort, I wring the last bit of water from my hair and side step to the right two or three times to avail myself of the tools for the next phase in this affair. Today’s wash routine will include a step to restore protein, shine, and pliability to my natural curls. Hence, I turn to nature. I’ve concocted a mixture of ripe avocado, mayonnaise, honey, and olive oil which is subsequently slathered on every strand of hair. As I laugh inwardly at the contents of my kitchen cabinet being lavished on my head, a sobering thought intervenes and gives fresh energy to my task. During one of our many medical sessions during pre-service training, one of our Peace Corps doctors soberly informed us that some hair loss would be an expected casualty of our low-protein diets while in country. I had wild visions of waking up and huge clumps of hair being left behind on my pillow although I think the doctor meant that a little more hair than usual would end up coming out in the comb. Although I consume a plentiful number of eggs, I don’t want to take any chances and decide to make protein an external as well as internal part of my efforts toward maintaining hair health. The squishy, squelching green goo gets completely incorporated into my hair at which point I realize that I’ve forgotten my shower cap inside. Vexation! My hands are covered in avocado so I side step back to the bucket. Cupping one hand, I quickly scoop and pull a handful of water out of the bucket to rinse my hands without compromising the mostly fresh water with the oily substances on my hands. Darting quickly into my room, merely a few steps from the back door, I fumble through my basket of hair supplies until my fingers make contact with the plastic cap. Back in the sunshine, I draw the cap over my head covering my hair completely and finally stand upright for the first time in the past twenty or so minutes. At this point I notice the group of children assembled in the neighboring yard which belongs to my landlady. I smile obligingly even as I imagine the bizarre scene witnessed from their perspective. With my sight unobstructed, as before, I wash my hands and dump the shampoo-water into the concrete crevice in front of the ledge and refill the bucket with another couple gallons of water. I am struck, as always, with the realization of just how much water I, as a single human, consume in the course of a day, a week. Absent the luxury of turning a tap, I am perpetually aware of my water consumption and ever more cautious in my usage of it. Water prepped, I mull for a moment over how to spend the next half hour while the avo-mayo-honey-oil stuff does its work. There are dishes to wash, banana bread to bake, and…the next chapter of The Count of Monte Cristo waiting to be read. Mmmm, I did leave off right when Edmond, disguised as the Count, was visiting the son of his sworn enemy. Yes, Kindle it is. Thirty minutes of reading, especially the exquisite writing of Alexandre Dumas, elapse rapidly and I reluctantly leave the Count to return to the second half of my wash routine. I poke my head cautiously outside and glance to the left then to the right. Empty. The children have vanished evidently not interested enough to await my reappearance. So much the better! Outside again, I hear a distant rumbling and notice the sun has retreated somewhat behind a cloud. Ugh, no. Rain, you will have to wait. I still have work to do. “Mwaramutse Betaniya”, my neighbor to the left greets me across the verdant fence between our two yards. “Mwaramutse neza” I reply smiling though feeling a bit more conspicuous with my enormous black shower cap than I had with the children. “-------ibigori”, I only catch this last word as my neighbor speaks as rapidly in Kinyarwanda as everyone in my village. “Ibigori!” is my reply; I smile patiently at the expected laughter at my response and wait for the next effort at communication. My neighbor holds up an ear of roasted corn and motions for me to come and retrieve it. Aha! Some traces of the previously enigmatic sentence are revived now that I’m aided with this visual prompt. “You want me to come and take the ibigori?” I ask the question mostly in English even though I’m capable of saying it in Kinyarwanda. My neighbor’s puzzled look and stream of Kinyarwanda is lost as I’m distracted by a warm feeling on my right temple which is traveling rapidly past my ear. “Mukanya” (later) I wave to my neighbor, “ndafura mu mutwe” (I’m washing my hair). “Mukanya” she smiles by way of return. Turning to the window/mirror on my back door, I scrutinize my tinted visage for the source of the warmth though my suspicions have already been engaged. Sure enough, the avocado stuff, which was cold upon initial contact, had been warmed by the combination of body heat and the shower cap. Thus, succumbing to gravity, a trail of the green goo was escaping the elastic constraints of the shower cap and blissfully running over my forehead and onto my neck. Ha! I will not be bested by mashed avocado! I sweep off the shower cap and once again, it’s me, a bucket of water, and a dilemma. How to approach rinsing out the avocado stuff? This time, I decided to squeeze out as much of the DIY conditioner as possible before rinsing. Then, I threw in a “squeeze” to the dip-pour routine. I fill the cup, pour it over my head, then twist away from the bucket to avoid avocado contamination and wring out as much of the mixture as possible. Dip-pour-twist-squeeze, dip-pour-twist-squeeze. Returning to my mirror, I stood upright, resigning myself to the water which rapidly began streaming down my back and into my eyes. Swiping the towel over my eyes, I examine my hair for any traces of green and rejoiced in my success in removing all of it. Only one more rinse to go. Before I can talk myself out of the last step, I quickly undo the lid of my favorite conditioner and dump a substantial amount into my palm. Eyeing the contents of the now less-than-half-full container, I ponder the most efficient way of securing reinforcements while running the conditioner through my hair. There’s the coveted care package from home but those are costly and take several weeks to arrive then there’s tracking down the specific hair product in the capital city, Kigali, which cost almost twice what they would in the USA but the cost and time of shipping is then eliminated. My hair drinks up the conditioner becoming soft and silky under the influence of the shea butter mixture as I use a comb to equally distribute it. Technically I ought to let the conditioner sit for an hour or so to reap the full benefits of its restoring powers but the threatening rain clouds are beginning to gather again so I opt for a quick rinse instead. Dismayed by how little water is left in my jerry can, I refill the bucket a third time with as little water I can imagine will be sufficient for this final rinse. As the last cupful of water streams through, I feel the first drop of water not on my head but on my arm. The heavens have sent their final warning and the rain is only moments away. Hastily rinsing out my bucket and cleaning my conditioner-laden comb, I gather the tools and head inside just as the plip-plop of rainfall begins to descend. Back in my room, I ignore the inviting appearance of my bed and push through the last phase of wash day, slathering a moisturizer through the still damp strands to aid with combing through the tangles and aiding this process with some hair oil. I glance in my mirror and see a reflection of the 1980s in the wavy crown framing my face. A little (well, a lot) of gel coaxes the vertical waves into curls that reluctantly spiral downward, sort of. Sighing with relief and exhaustion, I examine my work with satisfaction. Next week, it will be time to do it all over again. But, what of it? That’s a whole seven days away.
Relaxer: A chemical material used to permanently straighten curly hair (specifically that of black women). It is usually applied 4-6 times per year in order to straighten the newly grown hair
Going natural: Deciding to allow natural hair to grow without chemically straightening it with the intention of keeping one’s natural hair at the end of the period of transition.
Transition: Allowing natural hair to grow without chemically straightening it, gradually trimming and cutting the straight hair as the natural hair grows
Big Chop: After a designated period of transition, cutting off all the remaining relaxed hair leaving only the natural hair