Read an extract from Growing Up African in Australia
Compiled by award-winning author Maxine Beneba Clarke, with curatorial assistance from writers Ahmed Yussuf and Magan Magan, Growing Up African in Australia is a compelling and evocative new anthology that brings together the diverse personal stories of more than 30 Australians of the African diaspora. ‘African Mama’ by Sara El Sayed is one such memorable story.
‘We always want what we don’t have,’ my mother said, on our first visit to African Mama. Straight hair being what we both didn’t have.
My neck was cramped from leaning onto the basin, cold and wet, and my scalp burnt from the Dark and Lovely chemical hair straightener that had been left on a bit too long. I tried to distract myself by counting the braids on the women in the posters adorning the purple walls.
‘I think it’s enough now,’ I said to my mother, as I gave up my stoicism and stared at the ceiling through wincing eyes.
‘Just a little longer, or you won’t notice a difference,’ she said from the chair beside me. I wondered how much she was feeling it.
The hairdresser, Mary, returned and turned on the showerhead. I saw my mother shuffle in her chair as she waited for her turn.
‘Water okay?’ Mary’s words gurgled through the stream running down my ears.
I nodded. It was uncomfortably cold, but this was needed to relieve my burning scalp. I felt lighter as I sat up, water dripping down my back. Shuffling over to my seat at the mirror, I heard my mother let out a sigh of relief as Mary turned on the other showerhead.
My hair was flat. Its usual kinks were gone, replaced by limp strands. I was happy. I reached for my hot tea and sipped slowly.
‘Samuel!’ Mary called.
Mary’s Ghanaian accent contrasted with her son’s Australian response. ‘Bring the product, please.’
Samuel, who couldn’t have been more than two years older than me, placed a large tub of product on the bench, took some in his hands and dispersed it throughout my wet hair.
‘So you and your mum are from Egypt?’
‘Yes. So, Africa, but not Africa Africa.’
‘You know – North Africa, not South Africa.’ Brown Africa, not black Africa
‘We’re from West Africa. Still Africa.’ He saw redness on my scalp. ‘That Dark and Lovely stuff looks like it burns,’ he said.
‘Yeah. But I hope it will make me look “lovely”.’ I smiled.
‘Red and lovely. Not dark, though!’ He laughed.
Mary approached and Samuel returned to the front counter. My hair danced around her hands and into the air and she blow- dried it. ‘So lovely!’ she yelled over the noise.
Several years later, I sat in the chair at Shine Salon. It truly was shiny, from the glossy benches to the gleaming women in the posters on the white walls.
I untied my hair and watched the hairdresser’s face grow in concern.
‘It’s so curly!’ she said, trying to comb her fingers through it. The more she did this, the bigger my hair became. ‘Like an afro!’
I fought the urge to argue. It’s not an afro. Not everything that’s not pin straight is an afro. Not everything that doesn’t look like your posters is an afro.
‘Looks a bit like dreads when it’s down like this.’
I bit my tongue. ‘It can be a handful,’ I said.
‘Would you like a drink or a magazine before we get started?’
‘No, thank you, I’m fine.’ I smiled.
‘So, where are you from? Where did you get this interesting hair from?’ She curled a strand around her finger and then tried to pull it free. It didn’t uncoil as easily as she’d thought.
‘Wow! Must be a lot different living here though, huh?’
‘Oh yeah – but I’ve been in Australia since I was seven, so sixteen years has been enough time to get used to it.’
‘Must be so hot there.’
‘Sometimes. Here’s hot too.’
She smiled. ‘True. How do you wear it?’
‘Most of the time. Unless I straighten it. It looks too messy otherwise.’
‘You shouldn’t tie it up so much. You’ve got a lot of breakage where your hairtie sits.’ She lifted a hand mirror to show me the breakage at the back of my head. ‘Try wearing it down more.’
‘Okay.’ I had no intention of wearing it down more.
‘So, what are we doing today?’
‘Just an iron straighten, please.’
‘Do you want to add a treatment?’ The treatment she was talking about, which I had tried before, did as much for my hair as a declawed cat scratching a curtain.
‘No thanks – they don’t really work for me.’
‘Oh, but they’re great! They’ll make your hair much, much softer and will make the straighten last much, much longer.’
‘I’ve tried them before. They sound great, just not for me.’
‘Trust me, I know a lot of people with your type of hair and it works for them.’
I am a person with my type of hair.
After the wash, the blow-dry revealed what I had been delaying telling the hairdresser.
‘Do you do anything else to your hair other than iron straighten? Do you colour it?’
‘No, I don’t colour it.’
She fingered a strand that kinked at the roots but went straight near the ends. Like a heartline going flat. ‘It’s all basically dead,’ she said.
‘It looks like that because I get it chemically straightened sometimes.’
What ensued was a lecture that I had heard from many hairdressers before. Using such harsh chemicals on my hair ruins it. I’m irreparably damaging my hair. The chemicals I’m using are most likely wrong for me. The salon’s products are so much better.
And, my favourite: I should learn to love my hair the way it is, naturally
‘I know. But I’ve done it since I was twelve years old, and it helps me manage it.’
She clutched her chest. ‘Twelve?! I’m surprised all your hair hasn’t fallen out by now! Please tell me you don’t do it yourself.’
‘No,’ I said, although sometimes I did, ‘I go to a place called African Mama.’
‘Their products are probably made especially for African hair, not for yours.’
I hesitated for a moment. ‘Well, I am African.’
‘You know what I mean,’ she said.