Junctions; Choices, Hair and Public Health Adventures

My journey to Ethiopia begins in 18 days. I was stuck at a crossroad a few weeks ago when I happily accepted a year-long public health director position for a very small organization that operates in three countries in Eastern Africa because, a few days later, out of the blue, I received a request for an initial interview for a job that I had applied to months ago. A choice had to be made; should I go to Ethiopia for a year as a volunteer but gain plenty of field experience doing all the things they had taught us in graduate school OR should I go with this other DC-based organization that provided a job within the preparedness field, a sector that I have loved for as long as I can remember? My friends, especially Amanda, were subject to my flipflop decisions with each sunrise. I would wake up one morning convinced that I would stay and work (for pay) in D.C. and some mornings later, I would crumble up that decision and think about volunteering for that one year in Ethiopia. I went back and forth so many times that I think my friends were tired of hearing from me because, inevitably, I would start a conversation so determined in my decision on where I would want to work and by the time our phone call would end, I would have swayed the other way. Thankfully, everyone involved gave me a wonderful amount of time to make my decision.

My bags are sort of packed. Either way, this meant a move from sunny California. This was the first junction.

I am ready to live in Ethiopia, and pick up all the knowledge and field experience that I can in the next 365 days after I land. I have only been to Ethiopia once and that was during transit en route to my home country, Kenya.

It feels strange not knowing what to pack for my new home. Another junction. It feels stranger not to know what I am going to do about my hair. Yet another junction, perhaps more perilous than it appears. I have had my hair in it’s natural state for a while now; I can’t tell you when I decided to just let it be, unencumbered by relaxers or chemicals. I usually get Senegalese Twists installed during my annual trip to Kenya but this year, I may not be able to make it down there and so I am at a junction yet again. Should I shave it all off? Should I just attempt to maintain it in the manner to which it has become accustomed (co-washing, Cantu Shea Butter leave-in conditioner and coconut oil to seal in moisture)? Should I attempt to install my own extensions (braids or Senegalese Twists)? I am actually pretty proud of myself because not once did I ponder getting a relaxer aka the creamy crack to manage my hair out there in the elements. Many times during junctions past, I would moan and complain about my hair especially if I had just spent hours taking out my micro Senegalese Twists and my hair was standing at attention, happy to have been freed, with no idea that the owner was contemplating putting it back into a permanent prison with a perm.

Well, I was in a mild panic last night, trolling youtube and the web incessantly, trying to figure out what to do about my hair whilst in Ethiopia, whilst traveling to Africa (it’s a long 30 hour plus ride, over three continents, with two layovers, planes departing from  three countries with different weather patterns that affect my hair in different ways). I came across various gurus on youtube and I ended up with a very long list of products that they use, that I convinced myself I would need for my year-long stay. Then it hit me. My hair mantra has always been ‘Keep it SIMPLE’ and, just like that, the panic went out of me.

I thought about the work that I shall be doing out there. Working alongside community health workers, focusing on identifying malnourished children, providing education on breastfeeding to (sometimes very, very young) expectant mothers, following up on TB treatment defaulters and trying to identify those with active TB, and trying to elevate public health awareness in the villages within that region. With outreach hikes ranging from 2 hours to perhaps 2 full days, maybe my hair should be the least of my worries. Keeping it simple.

I cannot explain what it is about my hair that led me to the panicked thoughts of ‘Oh, what to do, what to do’ but I can tell you that sometimes a girl needs her hair to look good so she can feel good. Good, however, is relative. In the face of orphaned children and sick community members, should I really be pondering whether my hair is well-moisturized and properly protectively styled? I am not saying that I shall not think of how my hair looks, even in the middle of rural Ethiopia, because that would be a lie. I am sure I shall wake up on more than once occasion, wondering aloud if I can get away with wearing a hat all day. At the end of the day, many of my friends have pleaded and requested that I ‘be safe’ and that I ‘take care of’ myself. As an African girl, taking care of myself inadvertently includes taking care of my hair. My tresses cannot be left as-is, without proper cleaning, conditioning, moisturizing and sealing, because my hair is extremely fragile and would dry, breaking off in huge clumps. I do not have locs which are also pretty hands-off. But, even locs need to be cared for in order to maintain them. In my ‘keeping it simple’ methods, I would continue to co-wash, moisturize then seal my hair. I use a simple set of products – co-washing with cheap conditioner (VO5 or Suave Naturals), moisturizing with Cantu Shea Butter Leave-In Conditioning cream and sealing with coconut oil from Tanzania or Kenya (what my mama used on my natural hair when I was young).

Hair products for my 4C type hair

Hair products for my 4C type hair

Currently, I occasionally wear my hair in a pushed back afro-puff but I cannot and will not travel with it this way since the distance to Ethiopia will wreck havoc on the style and on my hair.

Afro puff

Afro puff

Besides having it patted down vigorously by the TSA during security checks, the dry air on the plane and my ‘sleep-against-the-window/seat’ pose for grabbing some shut-eye during the long ride would restructure the style and wick moisture from my hair faster than a blink. The hair in the picture above has been cleaned, conditioned and is well moisturized but I don’t think it would be suitable at all for travel or for work in the field.

There is really nobody that I can ask about hair maintenance in the field since everyone who has worked in that particular position in that area has not had my type of hair. I do know that it rains 181 days out of the year, and that electricity goes out sometimes. I have essentially cut out flat-ironing my hair over the last few years, doing it only when I would head to my professional stylist who would do it in order to length check and give me a trim once every six to eight months or so. Water is also a precious commodity out there and I was told that I may have to go a few days without a shower so that means I may not (and really should not) be washing my hair daily. One thing my hair type (4c) does need is a lot of moisture so I plan on having a small spray bottle with water and some coconut oil to moisturize and seal as needed. Keeping it simple may just work.

As my panic and frustration fell away, I sort of began to get excited about my hair out in Ethiopia. Would the kids look at my hair strangely as they did when I was in Thailand? Would it look very similar to the type of hair on the heads of the women in the community? Would they want to braid my hair in their traditional styles? Actually, I would be open to that. I am excited to put my hair in two strand twists for my long plane rides, and I am excited to land and see how my hair responds to living within the rain forest and coffee fields of Ethiopia.

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