Embracing My Natural Hair Was The Best Decision I Ever Made

“Your hair is so beautiful; can you make mine like yours?” said the little Tibetan girl

ALUEL ATEM | gender equity
Image: Aluel Atem

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing blog posts from Aluel Atem, a Development Economist and African Feminist Activist in South Sudan. Check out her full website here, the previous article in this series here, and keep your eye out for more of her work soon!

Words by Aluel Atem

In 2017, I was in  Dharamshala, India with 27 other youth peacebuilders from some of the most conflict-ridden countries in the world for the “Youth Leaders Exchange with His Holiness the Dalai Lama”, a program by United States Institute of Peace . Dharamshala since 1960 has become home for Tibetans who followed the Dalai Lama after he went to exile after the 1959 Tibetan Uprising

ALUEL ATEM | gender equity
Photo Credit: USIP

When I was younger, like many other things I never paid much attention to, hair was one of those. I spent most of my childhood between Yambio and Yei in the Southern part of the then Sudan. It was during the Sudan civil war and those where Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA) control areas, there were bigger things to worry about.  It was when my family moved to Uganda where I started high school that I started noticing hair dynamics. In Uganda, it was more intentional, it wasn’t just about keeping your hair short but it was a particular kind of short, anything beyond that length was punishable.

I never made any connection with my natural hair growing up because it was constantly shaved off as soon as it grew.

Extremely short hair for all girls with the kinky kind of African hair in most schools has become an unquestionable norm in most schools across Uganda. The first high school I joined had one white girl who was allowed to keep her hair. That was the same narrative with other schools we interacted with. While girls with kinky African hair were monitored and harassed to constantly shave their hair, white and mixed-race or girls of color were allowed to keep their long natural hair. 

I never made any connection with my natural hair growing up because it was constantly shaved off as soon as it grew. At home, in the neighborhood and everywhere I went, all I saw were women wearing all kinds of weaves, braided hair and very few with their hair in its natural form or had dreadlocks. Those that wore their own hair had it relaxed. So when I had opportunities to do my hair especially during those slightly longer school holidays like Christmas, I would relax my short hair, braid or wear a weave.

ALUEL ATEM | gender equity
Photo Credit: Studio La Munachu

When I finished high school, one of the things I was most excited about was the fact that I would finally get to grow my own hair. The sad reality is, I was excited to freely grow it hidden in braids, relaxed or under weaves. Throughout my university I visited salons to remove a weave and put one right back even when I realised it was damaging my hairline. I graduated from “synthetic weaves to “natural weaves” even when it felt nothing naturally relatable to my natural hair. I spent a lot of my student upkeep trying to keep up with these “natural weaves” trends because it wasn’t just about wearing a weave, the kind of weave you wore articulated your “status and stylishness”.  

For the longest time, I never embraced my own natural hair, it never felt good enough, it felt untidy and too burdensome in its natural form. There are unspoken standards of the quality of “admirable” natural kinky African hair one can wear proudly; it has to be of a certain texture, volume and color that I felt mine didn’t meet. 

In 2015, I decided to cut my hair. I cut my hair because I was tired of weaves, my hairline was really getting damaged and keeping up with fancy weaves was just starting to feel like such an unnecessary expense. But even when I cut my hair, I didn’t leave it in its natural form, I relaxed and colored it, so I still frequented the salon to maintain it including braiding it here and there for two years. It wasn’t any less burdensome and neither was it cheaper either but I still committed to it. Those two years unconsciously made me slowly realize that there was actually nothing wrong with my hair, I started falling in love with my own hair. It was only then that I started seeing how beautiful my hair actually is. “I do have beautiful hair”, I started convincing myself in the mirror.

By the end of 2017, I had stopped relaxing the growing hair to match the already relaxed part so my natural hair, “growth” they refer to it in salons was now visible. When my growing natural hair was long enough for me to trim the relaxed hair on top, I started braiding it more and more. In April 2018 when it felt long enough, I locked my hair. That was the best decision I ever made. For the first time, I felt like I became my true self, I felt free.


ALUEL ATEM | gender equity

Aluel M.B Atem is a Development Economist who has a keen interest in Gender and Conflict Transformation. She is an African Feminist Activist who believes change is not only limited to offline and in-person engagements, media too is an effective tool for social change. She utilizes every space she occupies to initiate and or challenge narratives that reinforce gender stereotypes and roles. She hosts Gender Talk 211 an African-Feminist platform where South Sudanese explore and share resources, knowledge, experiences and skills that facilitate conversations on Gender. She co-founded Crown the Woman-South Sudan and currently sits on the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring and Verification Mechanism Board as the South Sudan Women’s Coalition for Peace Representative.

Aluel globally facilitates trainings on Conflict Transformation Skills, coaches and mentors other trainers and facilitators. When she is not catching flights from country to country to facilitate trainings or doing any of the above, she writes for African Feminism and blogs here on her personal website about issues that affect the social status of women and girls especially in South Sudan.

Aluel is grateful for a lot of things and coffee for sure stays on top of that list.

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