I had my first haircut when I was three years old. My parents had discovered earlier enough that I had a preference for my natural self. I rejected body creams and hair extensions. My mother loved to buy us a big body lotion before the old one was finished. I would pretend to dip my finger into the lotion, spread it on my palm and then quickly scoop a big lube of Vaseline or Shea butter when my mother looked away for five seconds, mash it into the lotion before I applied it into my skin.
Shea butter is very popular in Nigeria. For scarce supply of avocado butter, and the expensiveness of it when seen, shea butter was the one that toured every part of Nigeria for its legendary use in the treatment of Arthritis. It is what we refer to in the major ethnic groups as Ori (Yoruba), Okuma (Igbo) and Kandaya (Hausa). My mother kept Okuma in a cup in the living room to mix with python oil for massaging her legs after a bath. It was how I got my first license to the butter/oil.
My mother found me, on an ordinary morning mixing Okuma and Vaseline, and insisted vehemently that I massaged my skin with the lotion. ‘It was expensive,’ she said. ‘It won’t waste’, she chanted. I would obey and would go through the rest of the day avoiding the sun like it was a plague because my body burned under the sun. Before my haircut, I was the child that cried for days whenever a new hair was made.
When girls paraded the compound during the festive seasons, they tried as children to shame the girl that cried because she made a new hair. I would stand, tightening my grip on my sister’s hands and force a smile out to tell them that they were pain, that I knew, and that I understood. More often than not, when I returned from fetching water, I heard praises showered by neighbours, not about how strong I was as a child but about how I had the strength of a boy. It was enough justification for me. A reason. A plausible reason to abandon the female world of pain and paint.
As I grew, it was expected of me to outgrow my pain and detachment with hair and body attachments, to drop the natural sensation I employed and enjoyed and to take on the culture of the western world. At eighteen years, I went online to research the benefits of shea butter (Okuma). Before then, I used a glossy oil Glycerin but it made my already soft skin softer. The internet allowed me a peek into different natural oils abounding in my environment and local markets — their advantages and disadvantages.
My mother did not support my choices. I was a child. I did not know as much as she did but yet, it seemed my soul wanted to return to the days of the old when we did not use so many chemicals on our bodies. A few of the warnings I received was that Okuma would darken me, give me a charcoal complexion. It was a trend and still is, for boys to like girls with fairer skins. I objected to the use of calling them light-skin because it felt like I was being insulted for my melanin by being referred to by my darker skin. ‘Light’ denoted a meaning for which I considered all complexion shades to possess. It scared me as it would naturally scare any young lady who loved her skin that the things she could afford to buy were going to make her darker than she already was.
My elder sister liked lotions. She would tell me stories of how a boy, Chekwube, mocked her most slightly by calling her Blacky and calling the girl he liked better My Color. She chorused stories of possible rejection from guys to me, told me that I needed to tush up. It was the era that beheld the cheap bleaching creams. Everybody could be fair now. Ours became a community paraded with women with green cheeks, black dry knuckles, vein-filled thighs, scanty hair and a sour smell. Before long, cosmetics companies forgot about the existence of brown and black-skinned humans and focused on everything fair, white, light, bright and clear. What was wrong with black anyway?
I remember the day I had a jarring experience. I bought Okuma of N500 from a vendor at the market. She was an old woman. Before I bought it from her, I asked her if hers was the original. I did not have a way of determining which was authentic or not. This was before I learned on the journey that there was no fake, only bad processes. When I melted a lump through double boiling, I found out to my utter disappointment that there was a lot of impurities entrapped in the thick butter. I defied the odds and allowed my skin to absorb the oil after every bath. On the contrary, it did not darken me, I simply sweated a lot. But I learned an important lesson in the process – determining a good one. It was simple. The butter must not look brown or dirty; it should be rarely white, usually yellow because of the fruit from which it is processed; when felt, the feel is smooth like neat oil; it possessed no strong alkaline smell and it did not break, it melted.
I let my hair grow after my final year at the university. It was a tough decision because I always preferred the simple and easy life, I had my low cut from my Primary 3 when my mother had enough of my crying, washing the plaited hair and fighting other children, into my final year in the university. I sometimes spent days wondering what precipitated this decision. But I was met with encouraging and discouraging comments alike. Altogether, I was told that I could not do it, that natural hair was stressful and that I had a low tolerance level for hair pain. The discouraging comments inundated me. I spent days finding the right motivation to not head to my barber’s choice.
It was the indecision on whether to cut my hair again or whether to allow it to grow that set me on the right path. A hard road. At first, it was easy to manipulate my hair. I used the normal hair creams ubiquitous in cosmetic shops. I began to experience breakouts. I washed it daily and I used palm kernel oil (ude aki) as the lubricant it needed. It had a shine and it grew fuller. The next challenge was set in soon by the management of my hair.
At this point, I would proudly accept the title of Shea Butter Connoisseur. I had found something that worked on all parts of my body and I held it tight, loved it, never to let it go. I soon switched to Okuma once again to retain the softness for enough time as allowed me to pack it into a bun or to twist it. Okuma was the holy grail I drank from. It catered lovingly, as a mother would for a child. As exhausting as it had been, it has more so been fun. I have learned in the simplest ways to be as much African as we are slowly losing our identity to westernization.
Colonialism can no longer be blamed for the denials of this generation to their cultural identities and languages. We are more exposed and enlightened than we could ever hope for. Our complacence and assimilation of different cultures other than ours are strictly in our hands.
A lot of the things that we have been naturally gifted have slowed withered away in our time. The nagging need to gratify the inferiority we feel to a white-skinned person would continue to gnaw at our souls and tear us apart. The herbal processes, healers and doctors have slowly shifted into the chalk doctors of paracetamol. Technology has inadvertently made it easier for skincare merchants to manipulate their photos, and sell falsehoods based on unrealistic beauty standards.
Pronounced colourism in the African community has produced hypocrites who are most likely to preach the gospel of loving your dark skin on the internet, only to go ahead to purchase an ‘organic lightening lotion’ afterwards. My personal belief is that if we tried, if we understood, that a little more refinement in our herbal and natural resources could have the potential to do wonders to our melanated skin, perhaps it may reduce the rate at which black women feel the need to lighten their skin to be more attractive. Brands like Arami, R&R Luxury, Olaedo Naturals are on the path of creating sustainable skincare products using natural ingredients from Africa.
Onyedikachi Ottih is a budding, female writer who’s yet to carve a niche of her choice in the literary sphere. She enjoys eating, movies, reading and writing and has a few published works.