“Imagine a lawyer or doctor with dreadlocks.” 
– Peter Kaluma, MP Homa Bay Town Constituency.

What is hard to imagine is how and why in the 21st century, the ‘hairy’ fallacy alluding to the supposed ergonomical misalliance between locs (hairstyles) and certain professions persists. It is difficult and disappointing to imagine how 60 years into supposed independent Do It Yourself decolonisation and 13 years into the implementation of the progressive Constitution of Kenya 2010 – premised upon the celebration of diversity and the protection of dignity, privacy, expression, and non-discrimination – the place of superficial markers such as dress and hair (locs) in the professional space have found bandwidth within the psyche of a people trying to forge a Kenyan nation whose foundation is the victimhood of discrimination. 

It is very hard to imagine that even with the guiding ubiquitous wisdom from sages such as Martin Luther King Jr. (a Church Minister) that “content of character” resides beyond epidermal and retinal illusions, the nomenclature of ostensible markers as bona fide excuses of exclusion, still make it into governance stances and policies of institutions of higher learning, more so those birthed out of an institution whose foundation is inclusion (Christianity and Church).  

It is even much harder to imagine that with all the (mis)education, travel and exposure, information and experiences available to the modern human being, judgement of character (morality!) and suitability (professionalism) is hitherto synthesised through Lombrosonic stereotypes and superficialities – skin colour, sex, gender, height, weight, dress and locs (hair). Who would imagine that a few weeks after and as announced through the institution’s website, “The Nobel Prize in Physics 2022 was awarded to Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser and Anton Zellinger “for experiments with entangled photons, establishing the violation of Bell inequalities and pioneering quantum information science…”, an anachronistic debate about locs, grooming, and professionalism is what is gaining traction in soon to be 60 years old Kenya? 

It is however not hard to imagine this because in the very countries and nations where Kenya apes its educational (formal/classroom) and spiritual (Christianity) blueprints from, similar disputes persist. This is why in 2019, the CROWN Act was initiated and thus far enacted in more than eighteen states of the United States. CROWN, which stands for “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” is a legislative intervention that was started in the state of California to “forbid discrimination based on hair texture and hairstyles”. The law was devised out of the experience that, similar to skin colour, hair stood out as a marker for discrimination especially in the workplace. As the originators of the legislative proposal lamented, “Professionalism was, and still is, closely linked to European features and mannerisms, which entails that those who do not naturally fall into Eurocentric norms must alter their appearances, sometimes drastically and permanently in order to be deemed professional.” 

Equating “Hair discrimination as a proxy of racial discrimination” while successfully urging her legislative colleagues in the Minnesota House of Representatives to pass the CROWN Act, on 11 January 2023, Rep. Esther Agbaje observed that hair and hairstyles are veritable expressions of individual dignity and self validation, and should in modern times, be tolerated and respected.

“In 2023, we should not be asking people to tamp down their identity or their culture…” she said, adding that “The purpose of the bill [Minnesota’s version] is to allow more people to show up as their authentic selves in school or in the workplace without fear of repercussions because of their hair…”

Observing how hair remains central in neo-colonial political sculpturing of people of African descent, in the article Hair Has Always Been Political, Rudi Lewis hit the nail on its bald head when she wrote that “Our hair is one of the ways we tell the world who we are, which group we belong to, what music we like, what kind of world we believe in. The hippies let it all grow out to emphasise their emancipation from convention; the punks used their hair to shock a conservative, conformist society out of its cultural stupor; feminists cropped their hair in a rejection of patriarchal objectification; and Black Power activists embraced their natural hair and Afros to express their refusal to conform to white beauty standards.”

In Hair Discrimination and Global Politics of Anti-Blackness, Adele Norris opines that “Within the context of anti-African racism, the politics of Black hair is situated as a socio-political space rooted in the Africana experiences of Western chattel slavery. The regulation of Black hair corresponds to Fanon’s analysis of the ideological structure of colonialism.” 

That is why it is not hard to imagine why the incessant modus operandi born of the illusion that ‘‘I can tell who you are by the way you suit’’ stubbornly resides in this day and age of (mis)information, hyper-sensational, fast moving and consuming world. Coupled with a mentally colonising Christo-Western (mis)education (with its graduation gowns and crowns), and using Frantz Fanon’s metaphor of ‘Black Skins, White Masks’, it is not hard to imagine why ‘white masks’ (professions, education) which the colonised use to deal with the psychosis of a compromised identity, seem to have permanently gotten stuck on ‘black skins’. 

With this background, the recent edict by the Kenya Methodist University (KeMU) of banning ‘dreadlocks/Rastas’ from its hallowed premises of higher education, is parochial (pun intended) and prejudicial considering that inasmuch as the institution and those who wish to attend it have choices, Article 27 (4) of Kenya’s Constitution sanctions that “The State shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against any person on any ground, including race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, health status, ethnic or social origin, colour, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress (my emphasis), language or birth” and that this prohibition also applies to individuals and institutions, the addition that “(5) A person shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against another person on any of the grounds specified or contemplated in clause (5). Article 10 on National Values and Principles of Governance flag “ human dignity, equity, social justice, inclusiveness, equality, human rights, non-discrimination” as central pillars of Kenya’s society. 

If stereotypes are to go by, and considering prevalent and self-evident data from news items pertaining to those perpetually paraded and arraigned in courts on suspicion of spiriting away oodles of public funds and other high crimes, then what our institutions of education should be prohibiting their students from looking like and wearing, in the name of role modelling towards good morals and ethics, are men and women in well-manicured haircuts and hairstyles and expensive suits and dresses! Similarly, as a person who has proudly donned locs for over 18 years (university and career), and happens to be a lawyer, I can testify that there is no hazard or connection between the ability to imbibe and apply knowledge and hair texture or style. My manners, good or bad, are despite my locs. I wear my locs for political, cultural, spiritual, and grooming (imagine that…and like everyone else and their hairstyles, I also feel good when I look at the mirror and see myself in locs). 

I, therefore, find it pitiful that the first lesson of higher education that some of our children and young people shall receive, is that books are to be judged by their covers. If memory serves me right, this is against Christian and Biblical teachings which guide that we should not judge based on appearances (I emphasise) but righteously. Additionally, African folk wisdom teaches us to celebrate and tolerate diversity through proverbs such as akili ni nywele na kila mtu ana zake (brains are like hairs, every person has theirs).  In conclusion, as Africans, we must be careful not to use the same epidermal markers traditionally used to oppress us, against ourselves. We should take heed of what Jameela Nasheed wrote about Afrocentric hair –  “Our gravity-defying hair is unique, oftentimes misunderstood, and when left in its natural state, it stands out – it stands up. Black hair is political.” At the end of the day, perhaps it is not locs but minds that need unlocking. 

Author

  • Bobby Mkangi

    Bobby Mkangi served as a Commissioner in the nine-member Committee of Experts for Constitutional Review (CoE) in Kenya that delivered the Constitution of Kenya, 2010 (CoK-2010). In that process Mkangi convened and chaired the human rights, and civic education and public engagement sub-committees of the CoE. Thereafter, Mkangi worked on various transitional justice constitution-making processes in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and The Gambia. In 2012, Mkangi spoke at Tokyo’s Toyo University on Constitutions as Platforms of Change in Africa: The Kenyan Case, and is concluding a semi-autobiographical book, provisionally entitled It Was Written: Personal Reflections on Constitution Making Process in Kenya. A children rights advocate, Mkangi participated in an Experts’ Meeting convened by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Violence against Children and the Office of the UN Commissioner on Human Rights (OCHR) on Legal Framework for the Prohibition, Elimination and Response to Violence against Children in Geneva, Switzerland in 2012. On the same issue, Mkangi has finalised two manuscripts provisionally titled The Legal Framework for Child Protection in Kenya and The Anatomy of Child Sexual Abuse: Kenya’s Silent Monster. Mkangi is affiliated to the African Network for Constitutional Lawyers (ANCL) and serve in various boards including the National Democratic Institute (NDI)/Kenya Board (Secretary), the Kampala based Eastern Africa Centre for Constitutional Development (Kituo Cha Katiba -KcK) in which he chairs the board, and Moyo Children’s Centre (MCC) where he sits as Chairperson. Mkangi previously served in the board of the African Network for Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN) – Kenya Chapter as Treasurer. In 2010, Mkangi was awarded the Member of the Order of the Burning Spear (MBS) by the President of The Republic of Kenya for exemplary service during Kenya’s constitution-making process. In similar context, Mkangi was awarded the Shujaa Wetu (our hero) Award by the National Council For Community Based Organisations. In 2004, he was awarded Honorary Membership (2004-2006) by the International Society for the Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect (ISPCAN). Mkangi works as an independent legal consultant, and lives in Nairobi, Kenya.