Natural hair love: How 4 Reginians are untangling the stigma around Black hair
REGINA -- As conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement and racial biases continue to gain steam in our society, some in our community are sharing their journey to self-love through reclaiming and celebrating their hair culture.
Historically, Western society has not empowered the cultural expression of Black and Indigenous people of colour. In this two-part series CTV News will explore the complex personal journeys some in Regina have embarked on to reconnect with their identity.
Chilombo Mwela moved to Regina with her family in 2006. She explained that at six-years-old, she was already aware that her sometimes bald or short hair was different to that of her classmates.
"Whenever I would go out to restaurants and stuff like that people would be like 'How is everyone doing?' and referring to everyone as "she" and then they would [look at me] and then they would be like 'Oh, and he!"" Mwela recalled. "All of my friends and cousins and my sisters would look [at me] and just start laughing and I would kind of laugh but it kind of hurt a little you know?"
Chilombo Mwela is reclaiming her identity as she regrows her natural hair.
The fear of being mistaken as a boy prompted Mwela to wear earrings often when she went out. By the time she got into high school she was wearing wigs to hide her natural hair.
"I didn't want anyone to think I was a boy. I was wearing wigs religiously. I felt ashamed to have my natural hair out,” she said.
In 2017, Mwela was ready to start fresh and re-grow her hair to ensure its health and improve her self-esteem. Unfortunatey, that came with some hurtful and ignorant comments.
"I shaved everything off, I was just bald and some people asked me if I was sick," she said. "I was just like, 'Wow, I just can't catch a break!', like you can't just assume because somebody is bald that they have cancer."
Matthew Nash-Awanyo is originally from Ontario, but his family relocated to Regina when he was still a kid.
He became aware that his curly hair stood out amongst his classmates in his early years of high school. He started getting questions about his hair. He remembers some of them being hurtful insults veiled as jokes.
He recalled peers saying "I heard Black people don't really wash their hair or it doesn't get wet."
"At the time I had my hair in braids and I also had a lot of white friends," said Nash-Awanyo. "You know how it is with friends, you kind of adopt their mannerisms, you kind of dress like them and because I was young and impressionable I kind of wanted my hair to be like theirs too."
He asked his mom if he could relax his hair, a task that can be a routinely difficult and onerous process as it requires killing hair proteins to make curly hair lay straight.
"My mom was super against it. She said 'you know it's going to damage your hair, it's going to get all dry and brittle,' but I felt like this was something I had to do to not be a target of those sorts of comments and feel more integrated into my group of friends,” he said.
Matthew Nash-Awanyo is pictured with his hair relaxed. (Courtesy: Matthew Nash-Awanyo)
Throughout high school Nash-Awanyo went between relaxing his hair and leaving it natural. Once he was in school at the University of Regina he started locking his hair.
"But again I found my mom warning me 'don't do your hair this way,'... she was worried people might judge me based on my appearance and my hair alone," said Nash-Awanyo.
BRINGING BLACK HAIR SERVICES TO THE COMMUNITY
Lucky and Ediri Okurame have softly opened their new salon on Quance Street aimed to provide products and expertise to customers of all hair types in Regina.
The inspiration for the salon was two-tiered: knowing there were limited salons with knowledge of how to handle textured hair in the city, while also getting genuine joy out of making people both feel and look good.
When Ediri first moved to Regina about four years ago, she wasn't aware of any cultural stigma when it came to her hair; however, it was the harsh cold weather that was the real culture shock for her.
"With afro-texture for women, when it's winter you have to put on protective styles and cover your hair until it's summer again," said Ediri Okurame.
The frigid Prairie temperatures can actually result in some hair types to break off at the root, resulting in bald patches or uneven hair.
Ediri had a group of friends that helped her with her hair, but even then, their knowledge was limited and salons specializing with her kind of hair were in short supply.
"I started doing pony-tails all the time and then the middle of my hair pulled out one day so I'm just like 'everything has to go!' so my husband cut it for me."
Ediri's husband, Lucky Okurame, moved to Canada five years ago from Lagos, Nigeria to attend school at the University of Regina. It didn't take long for him to realize Black hairstyles in the city seemed out-of-date compared to the looks worn in his home country.
"I noticed a lot of people in Saskatchewan don't have the right fade," said Lucky.
He decided to visit a local barber shop to see how they would style hair like his.
"The way he was picking up my hair, I knew I could give a better hairstyle on myself than the hairstylist of 12 years of experience could give to me."
It inspired Lucky to pursue hair as both a passion and a profession and the start of his new salon "Lucky Hair and Beauty Studio" combines both his and Ediri's knowledge of hair and makeup .
While there is still work to be done when it comes to empowering ones natural hair, all the people CTV News spoke to for this story are starting to see encouraging signs of change and increased awareness.
Lucky Okurame said he has had multiple white hairstylists reach out to him directly, eager to learn more about textured hair. He has also received an invitation to the Style Academy, a hairstyling school in Regina, to be a guest educator.
"It makes me proud," Okurame said. "Saskatchewan is steadily growing and it's becoming a diverse community, it's filled with a lot of different people from all over the world. If we are promoting different people from other parts of the world to come live here, they deserve a better style as well. They need professionals that will deliver that service."
For Mwela and Nash-Awanyo, both are focusing on their continued hair journey's, knowing real acceptance can only take root by starting with self-love.
In both Hollywood and on social media, Mwela is noticing that more diverse looks are being accepted with actresses like Viola Davis and Lupita N’yongo coming to mind.
"It's nice to see people who actually look like us Africans!" said Mwela, who currently wears her hair in locks. "I'm kind of very happy with the way my hair is going now and I feel like this is the most comfortable I have been with my natural hair and not needing to hide it."
Nash-Awanyo can appreciate the concerns his mother has about his hair being in locks and that there is still a stigma that exists that perpetuates that hairstyle as unprofessional or "dirty", as he has dealt with those situations first-hand in his studies to become a registered nurse.
"For school I work in a hospital once a week for clinical and I had a patient make a rude comment about my hair as I was giving care to them," he said.
However, he's not letting misinformed comments stop him from embracing his hair and his identity, a move that if continued by other people in the BIPOC community, could one day remove the stigma entirely.
"I'm proud of my hair, I think my hair is beautiful. It's the hair I was born with, my parents were born with and their parents were born with, so why should I be ashamed of something that is naturally me?"