A memory piece on how one hairstyle became an intergenerational expression of identity.

By Natasha Chitimbe-Mukamba

1973. Studio photograph of 13-year-old Regina Munzomoka donning one of her favourite threaded hairstyles named ‘Zaire’ for a photoshoot at the Lilanda Family Studio.
“My mother grew up in Lusaka surrounded by people from the Kasai Tribe ⎼ people indigenous to the Democratic Republic of Congo. They taught her the skill of using cotton thread to braid beautiful hairstyles that she would eventually braid on me and my sisters and her grandchildren over the years. And although this image is a beautiful reminder of my parents’ love ⎼ because he paid for the photoshoot and would eventually keep the picture ⎼ it is a deep reminder of how far my roots and identity go, of not only being an African woman but also her daughter.” ⎼Remembered by her daughter.

A black plastic Afro comb passed through my head as my mother skilfully parted my hair. I sat down with my legs sprawled out as she sat on a bright red Coca-Cola crate with a cushion on top. My 8-year-old self was excited. It pinched a little, but I’d look pretty and turn heads at school the next day.

My mother has always been the best at using thread and yarn to create amazing hairstyles. She, a girl from the Soli tribe, grew up in Lusaka surrounded by people from the Kasai tribe – people indigenous to the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was the 1960s, Zambia had gained her independence and became a refuge to many looking for work and escaping colonial rule, civil unrest, and political strife. When ethnicities live together, cultural exchange is inevitable. From language, to food, fashion and even hair. It would be the Kasai that would teach her the skill of using cotton thread to braid beautiful hairstyles that she would eventually braid on me, my sisters and her grandchildren over the years.

A number of her childhood memories were created around hair as it formed a large part of her community and the friendship bonds she created. I can see them: little girls hurdled in a circle with one or two in the middle being the centre of attention as they got their hair stretched, braided and styled in a trendy hairstyle – most of which involved threading with cotton and twine. Their conversations evolved as they did, from mud dolls and sweets to boys and bioscopes, and eventually to marriage, children and who was moving away to another area or town. These conversations and experiences played a major role in shaping the woman she grew up to be.

Her favourite hairdo was one that involved stretching and thread, yarn or twine. One particular style (seen in the image) called the “Zaïre”, involved parting singular portions of hair then tightly gripping and weaving it with black cotton thread or twine. Depending on the length of hair it would either stand upright or fall if long. This hairstyle is one I would eventually grow to love as a grown woman.

You see, hair has played a significant role in our identity. When we remember our African roots it is hard to leave the hair out of the equation. For many generations it has set us apart from other races and even within our race, it has distinguished each ethnicity. Zambia being a multi-ethnic country with various tribes and inter-marriages has had a wide range of hairstyles each with a story of its own. And the powerful stories behind each style is an individualistic and collective reflection of who and what we are and where we come from.

Till today, I sometimes curl up at my mothers’ feet as she threads my hair because it reminds me of the journey and the feeling of home I get when her fingers intertwine in my curls. It is a deep reminder of how far my roots and identity go – of not only being an African woman – but also being her daughter.

How has hair played a significant role in your identity? Share with us in the comments.