I got weave checked yesterday. I mean, a real check. If you’d seen the check, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that this woman and I were Siamese Twins joined at her right hand and at my scalp. She delved right into my hair. Hair that I had taken an hour to carefully curl before heading to work; hair that fell to my shoulders in soft voluminous curls; hair that I had worn down for the first time since I came to Ethiopia. Here’s the story – I went to buy some toiletries after work. I went to this small kiosk near my office because I had created a camaraderie with the girls working there after my umpteenth attempt to buy an umbrella stalled in near-hysterics near their shop. Everything was going well and we were all exchanging pleasantries and then she came up to me and dived, delved, fished, dipped and rubbed at my head, asking, ‘Is this yours?’
I have never been one to deny when my tresses have been enhanced. It is what I enjoy most about being an African girl – the different options. You can rock your natural hair one day, turn around and slap on a wig, then wake up and throw in a weave on your head or you can put in some braids or perm it, if you are so inclined. But this lady straight up went diving. I was more upset at the thought of her disturbing my curls than her questioning my hair authenticity because I had burned the better part of my index finger twirling that curling iron. I had not used that curling iron in years so it was a long and arduous experience to put those beautiful curls in. My tresses are indeed currently enhanced but that doesn’t mean I need to be subjected to the equivalent of a TSA-patdown times ten!
I suppose it is to be expected because nobody expects any African girl to have long hair or, rather, most are inclined to believe that any long hair on an African girl must be a weave or a wig.
This is only one of the things that have happened to me lately in Addis Ababa that have left me with my mouth agape.
Some young men threw out the n-word at me. Then they smile like it’s a compliment to me. It has happened to me about four times, in different parts of the city. The young man, believing that I most likely hail from the US, yells out or, in one instance where one man walking in my opposite direction leaned in towards me as we crossed each other and, with a leer on his face, whispered pervertly, ‘Hey n***a’.
So, in case you do not know, I am African. I am not and have never been a n***a and would never claim to be one, not even to be hip when I am compiling my gangsta raps. I do not compile raps and have no need to refer to another human being by such a hateful term, no matter how many others justify it by saying they are reclaiming the word. I do not call my brothers and sisters the n-word or the b-word. I am African, proud to be from East Africa specifically, and I do not understand why some young men here feel the need to show their ‘Americanness’ by yelling out the n-word then grinning like they are so in on the inside joke with African-Americans. I tried to explain to one young man why I felt so offended when he called at me with that word. His English was not the best and my frustrated hand gesturing just led to more toothy smiles from him.
Most people here speak Amharic and English is definitely a second language here. There are no lessons in school about American history, Kenyan history or anything other than Ethiopian history, which is the common standard in each individual country in the world. There is no way for the average Ethiopian to learn, in school, about the African-American experience. Before I moved from Kenya to attend school in the US, I knew nothing about Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Ralph Ellison and others that feature prominently within the African-American historical context. One can argue that all he has to do is pick up a book, google the history of that word or for information on the slavery experience within the Americas but consider that, for him, with Ethiopia never having been officially colonized like the rest of the continent, his ability to relate to that experience is limited. His own learning priorities may not extend past trying to survive daily and earn his birr (currency). I tried to explain to that young man that that word cuts and is not a positive word. However, he listens to hip-hop and rap and hears Jay-Z and others throwing it around in what seems like a casual manner so for one for whom English is not a primary language, the n-word and other words used in these rap songs are similarly ‘normal’ and ‘hip’. I shudder to think if they use the b-word as well…