Nigeria is the Promised Land

Written by LIE Contributor Mona Zutshi Opubor

You know what? I have BEAUTIFUL HAIR. It’s shiny and lustrous. I have the kind of hair you see in hair commercials, like this:

I am not actually Penelope Cruz

I married a Nigerian man. When I met him, he had dreadlocks. Now he shaves his head once a week, almost to the scalp. His hair would grow like this if he let it:

John actually is Black Dynamite

We have three children whose hair is unlike their parents… or one another’s. And you know what? They have BEAUTIFUL HAIR.

There seems to be universal agreement that my hair is great. But not everyone agrees with me about my kids. I know the politics are complex but I don’t believe that the more African your hair is, the less attractive it is.

Radha has soft, thick hair. It tangles easily. When it is long and she wears it down—i.e., not now—I have to detangle it for forty-five minutes before we can leave the house. She has tight curls. Her hair grows up into the sky, not down to her shoulders. It grows very fast. It is hard to give her a good haircut but it has been done:

Radha’s hair

Omala’s hair is thinner and finer than her sister’s. Her hair grows down in soft corkscrew curls. Detangling her hair in the morning takes five minutes, tops. Her hair also grows fast. It is hard to give her a bad haircut:

Omala’s hair

Om has the thinnest, straightest, finest hair of the bunch. His scalp is visible in places. He has loose curls that never need detangling. Unlike his sisters, you can easily run a comb through his hair. We keep his hair cut short:

Om’s hair

We went to a Dominican hair salon in West Orange, NJ over the summer. I thought the owner might be able to manage cutting the kids curls. But what I didn’t count on was the ceaseless commentary on the textures they found most pleasing.

“It’s too bad,” the salon owner told seven-year-old Radha. “You don’t have good hair. Your brother got the good hair in the family. His hair isn’t as curly as yours. His is better than yours.”

I was aghast.

“She’s perfect the way she is,” I said.

When the owner’s daughter tried to talk me into getting a relaxer—chemicals that would straighten Radha’s hair—I was MAD.

“She’s just a child,” I said. “She can relax her hair when she’s older if she wants to but I’m not going to put chemicals on her head. I want her to know we think she’s beautiful the way she is.”

The salon owner looked at me like I was crazy.

Now the chink in my armor is this: I have no ability to manage my children’s hair. I can spray them with conditioner and detangle them before school. I can wash their heads when they shower. But I can’t style their hair to save my life. When I braid my own straight hair, it’s a simple process a child could perform.

When Radha got her hair braided in New Jersey, however, it took half the day. The women who did the braiding took hours to pull out her tangles, wash her hair, and blow-dry it. Their hands flew over my daughter’s head, combing out little hexagons, and weaving dozens of thin, identical braids. They were Artists.

They were also Saints for listening to Radha cry, complain, and writhe around in her chair.

My daughters are tender-headed. They can’t stand the pain of someone pulling their hair. Because their hair grows fast and because they think they look gorgeous all the time, I cut their hair short before moving from New Jersey to Nigeria. I wanted to make life as simple as possible for us.

My daughter in braiding hell.

I get all sorts of well-meaning advice I try to ignore:
“Learn to braid it.” I’ve tried for eight years and it’s not going well.
“Don’t cut it. It won’t grow back.” It grows FAST, I swear.
“Too bad you’re not the black one in the marriage. Then you’d know all sorts of hairstyles.” That is not helpful though I secretly agree.

When we were in NJ, Radha had begun crying often because she wanted thin hair like her sister.

Not surprising. Radha has always been our kid most sensitive to matters of race.

When she was one-years-old, she stood up in her crib and stared at John and me, gobsmacked.

“Papa being black! Mama being white!” she cried.

“No, no,” John said. “We’re all brown. Radha is brown. Papa is dark brown. Mama is light brown.”

“Papa being black! Mama being white!” she insisted.

She wanted to know why she was different than her parents. She talked about what colors we were constantly. She couldn’t understand where she fit in.

I told her Papa was dark like coffee and I was light like milk. Then I poured milk into coffee and showed her the lovely tan color it produced. “That’s you, Radha. A mix of both your parents.”

Then—for the sake of full disclosure—I added two Splendas and drank the coffee. I hope I didn’t inflict any emotional damage but it was morning and I needed help waking up.

Omala and Om never struggled with their skin color. They barely seemed to notice. Why would they? They looked just like their older sister. Radha paved the way for them. She beats back a path through the jungle for her siblings everyday. They walk behind her without a second thought to the amount she has slaved to deliver them there.

So… so what? How is Nigeria the Promised Land? What does hair and race have to do with any of this?

Well, after a lifetime in the US, we moved to Nigeria in November. The kids are at a new school in Lagos. Since it’s the start of the semester, I just got a list of extracurricular activities I can sign them up for. There are things like Brownies, the young engineers club, kwik cricket, and Bollywood dance club.

There is also a class called, “ALL THINGS HAIR (braiding, weaving, etc.)”

Wait, let me say that again so it can sink in.

There is a class called, “ALL THINGS HAIR (braiding, weaving, etc.)”

Can you imagine? Once my daughters are in third grade, they can learn to style their hair from the African teachers at school.


In the car on the way home from school, I said to the kids, “Isn’t that amazing? It’s so cool that there’s a class like that. Now you guys can learn all sorts of fabulous hairstyles.”

“Can I take it, Mama?” Omala asked.

“Yes, when you’re older.” I said. “There was never a class like that at your old school in New Jersey. What a cool thing about Nigeria.”

“There never would have been a class like that because most people had straight hair there,” Radha said. “But in Nigeria, everyone has hair like us.”

Did you hear that?

The ease with which my sensitive, anxious daughter claimed Nigeria blew my mind. In this country, people are like us, she said. In the U.S., where she lived her entire life, Radha had begun to hate herself a little. How could she not when so many well meaning people—like the hairdresser in West Orange—told her she should?

I am hoping that by moving here at such a critical stage in Radha’s development, she will see that she is a beautiful child. Instead of lamenting she’s not Indian like her mom or white like Lilly—a girl in her former school she never shuts up about—she will embrace her brown skin and thick curly hair.

And if that happens, I will be right that on that front at least, Nigeria is the Promised Land.

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