Dec 11, 2019 by William Lewis.
Growing up, Niellah Arboine was at odds with her natural afro hair. But through teaching herself how to braid, she’s discovered how to fall back in love with it.Like most black girls growing up in the UK, my hair was stuffed with more cultural significance than I understood. Deep in my roots grow generations of hair care and grooming techniques to protect and adorn my head. These methods to look after our locks have been passed down and are one of the physical attributes that connect the African diaspora. From the Himba people coating their curls in red clay and Rastafarians in the blue mountains discovering strength in their dreadlocks to my mum plaiting my hair in south London – our afro hair and how we care for it has always been ritualistic. As a child, I cherished natural hairstyles, but the older I grew, and the more European beauty standards crushed down upon me, the further I drifted away from my hair and learning how to care for it. So, a few years back as a radical act of self-love I decided to connect to my heritage and to myself by learning how to properly look after my hair. Growing up, hair day was on a Sunday and it was a whole afternoon affair. My hair was scrubbed hard in the bath, then, with the quacking of the TV in the background, I was perched between my mum’s legs and the process began. She parted my knotted hair, combed it, then neatly separated it into sections before working Pink Cream through my kinky strands and then finally greasing my scalp with moistening jelly. If I wasn’t sat between my mum’s legs it would be my cousin’s, or auntie’s or a family friend’s, and they would cainrow my hair, twist it or put it in plaits or Bantu knots. The styles were endless. This wasn’t a service I paid for – they did it because they loved me. Through their fingers, they told me my blackness was beautiful and my hair deserved caring for. When the detangling process brought tears to my eyes, it was because they cared. When I was told to “sit still” for hours indoors on a sunny day, it was because they were nurturing me. Like a cherished secret recipe, the art of styling afro hair is passed down. But by the time it was my turn to learn, I had already fallen out of love with my hair – it was a nuisance, something that I wanted to fight. And, thanks to constant straightening in a bid to achieve unattainable beauty ideals, it had become a thin and damaged mess. Eventually, I decided I’d had enough – my hair wasn’t the enemy, I just needed to learn how to look after it. After a series of disastrous trips to the hairdressers (one of which saw a stylist braid my hair so tight I felt like I'd just had a facelift), I decided that I wanted to learn how to braid my hair myself. I couldn’t let the tradition of cainrowing (which dates back to 500 BC) disappear, and so I took to the internet. And thank heavens for YouTube. There, I learned the art of protective styling afro, which is the process of protecting afro hair with specific hairstyles either done with or without extensions. With three packs of dark brown hair from the local hair shop, I sat down on the floor with a big mirror, a comb, my laptop open and began the long journey. Seven years later, I know everything about my hair. I know afro hair needs a whole specific care routine; it needs moisture, detangling and protecting from external conditions (I stick to natural ingredients in my hair, like raw shea butter and almond oil for moisture, and I steer clear of any shampoos containing sulphate). Now, I know that my hair has a cross-section different to most hair types and the strands are shaped in a zig-zag – it’s why my hair is curly and also why it’s more prone to tangling and damage. And I now know how to plait it, cornrow it, do box braids, Senegalese twists and more. For the basics of twisting, braiding and haircare, I recommend Breanna Rutter and Whitney White on YouTube and Lizlizlive for wig styling. Instagram is also a great place for hair inspo – Afroglory and Curltureuk being two of my favourite accounts. When I do my hair, I’m at peace. it’s a couple of hours when I’m not on social media, I leave my phone alone and I’m in my own world nurturing myself. Listening to the buzz of the TV or sometimes sitting out in the garden and playing music. Yes, it might not be as neat as a hairstylist, but I feel connected to my culture. I can pass this down to my children and continue the tradition of loving and caring for our hair, in a world that doesn’t always see the beauty in it.