I am my hair:
The effects of colonization on hair and beauty practices in Namibia and Sierra Leone
Tina Terrell Brown
Georgia State University
Tina Brown, Department of Psychology, Georgia State University
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Tina Brown, P.O. Box 5010, Department of Psychology, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia 30302-5010. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Statement of Topic
There are silent colonial repercussions that exist in the form of diminished self-identity, self-esteem, cultural value and camaraderie among African people due to apartheid and various forms of colonization (Hocoy, 2000).
A deep survey on the perceptions of hair, beauty and self-identity among colonized and traditional African cultures may reveal the deprivation of positive self-identity for those whom have been forced to adopt or conform under Western influence. This proposal will validate the anticipated research of hair beautification and self-identity for African women in non-colonized areas in contrast to colonized areas that were and still are much more subject to Western influence and power.
Hair happens to be a form of significant cultural value that is shared and highly valued among most African women. In a 2000 exhibition review, Sieber and Herreman explain African hair styling is extremely significant in tribal distinction, ceremonies, social status, mating practices, aesthetics, ethnicity or even personal reflection. Distinct hair braiding practices and styling such as cornrowing originated out of western Africa, specifically the Nok civilization of Nigeria (History of Cornrow Braiding, n.d.). In Radiance from the Waters: Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art, Sylvia Ardyn Boone explores the culture and practice of hair braiding and styling as a traditional grooming technique. She also reveals the relationship hair has to the perceived notion of a woman’s status, hygiene, femininity and even fertility for females of the Mende culture in Sierra Leone.
The Mende people of Sierra Leone remained independent of direct colonialism influence, and several adulthood rituals, rites of passage and beautification practices involving hair maintenance, treatment and styling remain intact today. Other southwestern African states such as Namibia that were widely and rigidly colonialized by German settlers, lost value of their traditions as well as the freedom to practice them.
African hair also represents a constant query and interest of outside groups. There has long been an obsession with the variety of African hair texture. Books such as Man by Dr. R. Ruggles Gates has an entire chapter devoted to the an intricate table and breakdown of hair types observed in South Africa. A table less involved but with added racial hierarchy context can be seen in a research study titled Table for the General Shape of Negroe’s Hair by Júnior & Rodrigues.
An analysis of data collected through in depth surveys in both Sierra Leone and Namibia would bring a deeper understanding of how colonialism affects not only hair practices but overall beautification and ultimately the relationship it has to self-image and self-identity.
A direct comparison of self-identity has not been made between African women who experienced the depletion of their traditions and those whom are free to practice as they see fit. An investigation of hair and grooming practices of the colonized region of Namibia and the non-colonized region of Sierra Leone can be the first among several steps to explore culturally relevant themes of beauty and self-perception. It is important to understand the relationship between self-esteem and self-worth and how that is connected to hair styling and beautification for African women.
In his 2000 study, Hocoy explains that although many negative consequences may be born out of harsh colonization and diminished cultural practices, many positive responses such as esteem, coping skills and racial identification are developed unconsciously.
An attempt to more accurately assess the psychology behind African beauty practices and the effects of colonization is necessary in developing a more culturally aware system to address problems specifically in Africa (Hocoy, 1999). Another study in 1999 conducted by Elirea Bornman found a strong link between the perceived status of an in-group such as race, skin color or hair and the level of satisfaction with self.
Self-image can be defined in many different ways. In Radiance from the Waters, Boone beautifully describes the culture and practices specifically for Mende women. Hair styling and grooming plays a significant role in self-identity, group inclusion, societal and cultural status. The air tight secret societies for both men and women in the Mende culture allow sacred traditions to be passed down and practiced by future generations.
For other populations, such as the ancient kingdoms of Northern Namibia, most of their traditions have been lost through the force of German colonizers that considered the ancient practices to be barbaric and savage like behavior. A European standard was set and enforced to achieve what was thought to be “civilized” practices (Shigwedha, 2006).
Aims and Significance
This study intends to find the relationship of colonization to self-identity for Africans as it regards their hair and beauty regimens. Hair being an extremely important cultural phenomenon will be the basis for a contrasting comparison of Namibian women and Mende women. The goal is to bridge the gap in research by comparing two historically different (colonized and not colonized) groups for a better understanding of how colonization destroys not only cultural practices but unwillingly divides and segregates groups and families. Thereby limiting the traditions carried forward using fear, intimidation or even death, certain eccentricities can be lost along with healthy self-identity and esteem.
Research conducted by Dan Hocoy and Elirea Bornman separately in 1999 was a great contribution in the field of cultural psychology, specifically for South Africa. This research proposal aims to add value and significance to this same field of study. By collecting a new body of data, we can begin to understand on a macro level what it really means to have positive self- identity and self-image. On a micro level, a deeper and culturally relevant understanding can begin about the construction of these ideas for diverse individuals.
Background and History
Northern Namibia and the Ancient Kingdoms
Set in South Africa, Namibia's west coast sits along the Atlantic Ocean. With inhabitants since 14 A.D., Namibia has a long a jaded past of being ruled and controlled by outside forces. In Namibia Under German Rule, Helmut Bley describes in detail the catastrophic impact of multiple wars, colonization, economic and political ruin that took place in Namibia. In 1884, German colonialism came into the region and Namibia remained within the grasp of harsh control and dominance until the end of World War I. It was then mandated over to South Africa by the League of Nations in 1920 (Bley, 1996 ; Dore, 1991). During this time, the rules of apartheid were enforced. What was left of this country after the internal wars of Nama and Herero, was then salvaged and divided among European settlers. Bley also builds a strong argument to explain how the brazen acts of the German settlers caused divide among the native people.
Building on this societal breakdown is Lovisa T. Nampala, co-author of Aawambo Kingdoms, History and Cultural Change. Perspectives from Northern Namibia. This book gives extraordinary detail and historical reference to the original Kingdoms and social circles of Northern, Namibia. Nampala brings focus to three major kingdoms that all experienced colonialism, but at different times and to different degrees. Her research hypothesizes that there may have been a difference in the amount of colonial interference and therefore cultural shifts based on the country invading, the amount of contact with the invading country, and the political systems in place.
Co-author of Aawambo Kingdoms, Vilho Shigwedha explains in vivid detail along with imagery how important and significant cultural costumes and beauty practices were to the Aawambo kingdoms. His thesis examines how and why Christianity and colonialism changed and displaced the traditional culture of the people from the Aawambo kingdoms which we now know as Northern, Namibia. He also details the link between the construction, value and identity of these societies to their traditional costumes and practices is very strong. Although colonialism gave strong influence and direction to abandon these practices, they were extremely well developed and the equivalent of any modern civilization today.
Hair styling for Aawambo women was seen as a significant source of communication to the inner circles of society. Age, class and gender all had distinct hair rituals that spoke volumes about the person's status and affiliation. In a blog by Cosmic Yoruba, she provides amazing images of West African styles of pre-colonial eras. Girls starting at the age of six wore differentiating hairstyles from childhood through puberty onto adulthood. Hairstyles were used to signify the different stages of development from maturation, fertility, preparation for marriage, initiation and full womanhood. Men also had hairstyles to signify their age, affiliation and social status (Shigwedha, 2006).
Hairstyling also served as a marker of kinship between wives and husbands, mothers and daughters, elders and younger generations. Generational wisdom and traditional values were communicated and connected through hair practices (Shigwedha, 2006).
The Secret Society and Mende Culture of Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone is a West African country bordered by Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean. There are fourteen districts within the four administrative regions. There are roughly sixteen ethnicities throughout, each with a native language and set of customs. The two largest groups are Temne and Mende. The Mende society is a highly elaborate and discrete culture. Highly guarded by an initiated group of members, its practices are rarely researched and as Boone elaborates in Radiance, research that has been completed, somehow vanishes from archives.
The Mende are described as a very strong and vibrant group with both political and cultural dominance. They managed to take control over several regions of Sierra Leone, currently spanning the entire southern region. The Mende were also triumphant in battling the British and keeping out other infiltrators of colonialism. There was a short period of British rule from 1898 to 1961 but the Mende people were able to keep their customs and traditions intact and carried them forward even still today (Boone, 1986).
There are two groups within the Mende. Those that have been initiated into the secret society are known as harlemo. The others that have not been initiated or are from outside cultures are considered kpowa, usually know as ignorant and simple-minded (Boone, 1986).
The initiated society has access to all knowledge of human nature and science. This enlightenment process is a necessity for Mende. The female population of this group is known as Sande. The Sande woman is one that possesses knowledge, power and responsibility. She possesses all knowledge of caring for her home, children, beautification, ethics and healing practices. The good name of the society is upheld through the grooming and etiquette practices of Sande women (Little, 1951).
Hair is intrinsic in its value and status especially among Mende women. Men wear closely shaven hair and are thought to not possess hair at all. Women on the other hand bask in the glory of their hair. The more hair you have, the more feminine and beautiful you are viewed. Abundant and plentiful hair is directly related to a woman's beauty, value and esteem as Boone has investigated. Presentable hair is always groomed extensively. Washing, moisturizing and oiling of the hair is a standard practice as well as making sure the hair is jet black in color. Other colors indicate uncleanness or not being properly groomed (Boone, 1986 ; White, 1987).
The Sterilization of Namibia
A German instrument called the Haarfarbentafel was a color and texture hair chart manufactured in the early 20th century. In the introduction of The Archaeology of Race: The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie by Debbie Challis, it explains this chart, similar to a hair color swatch seen in salons to today was used to create race hierarchy, determine worth, oppress and even justify killing African people. Its target was specifically those in the Northern Namibian kingdoms that were thought to be of mixed-heritage. Hair texture was used to determine if individuals needed to be executed. A recent lecture and film event title Death by Hair was presented in London at The University of Central London (UCL). The UCL museum actually owns a rare Haarfarbentafel that was developed and designed in the early 20th century by Eugen Fischer. The item known as a “killing machine” in the Archeology of Race was used as part of the eugenics cleansing movement in which Fischer promoted and carried out racial sterilization of mixed heritage populations in southwest Africa, known today as Namibia.
According to Michael Williams in the article Hitler’s Holocaust Blueprint, the tragedies that occurred against the Namibia people would later set the foundation of what Hitler would us against the Jews.
Although, these practices are long gone and would seem unacceptable today, the lasting effects can more than likely be seen in the self-identity, esteem and cultural norms among men and women and their ritual of beautification practices today in those regions (Bornman, 1999).
Justification for Study
There have been many studies looking at the effects of apartheid on South Africans. While this period in history has caused much trauma and cultural breakdown, there have been other detrimental colonial events in which psychological damage has been done to the native people of Africa. Conducting a comparison survey will allow more knowledge to be acquired towards understanding the real effects of colonialism as it relates to psychological trauma. This work will posit to fill a gap in determining just how different self-identity and self-image develop when there is deep rooted colonialism and when there is not.
Adequate and extensively thorough research does not fully exist. Cultural psychologists and anthropologists need expansion on macro meanings for self-identity and self-esteem. Part of the end goal is to create a broader interest in how self-identity and esteem is especially fragile and endangered for groups when fear, anxiety and inferiority influence beauty practices.
Research Plan and Methods
This research will be conducted in two parts; the first setting being in the southern region of Sierra Leone amongst the Mende population. The second part of the study will take place in northern Namibia, in the capital city of Odangwa.
Sample and Recruitment
100 women from both regions will be asked to participate through snow-ball sampling. Age minimum will be based on cultural standards of adulthood.
An in-depth interview using a 50-item cultural self-identity scale (CSIS) will be used to collect the data. This likert scale modeled similarly after the Rosenberg self-esteem scale (RSES) will have a five point system measuring from strongly agree to strongly disagree. A follow up interview will take place as well with open-ended questions allowing the women to express more freely their thoughts or ideas. During the preliminary cultural immersion phase of both regions, language study and culture phenomenon will be deeply studied in order to adapt the cultural self-identity scale and its questions to be as accurate and relevant as possible.
Self-esteem, self-identity and hair beauty will be the focus of this interview. Sample questions will include:
How important is your hair?
Do you like your hair?
How did you learn to care for your hair?
How important is hair for women?
Do you know the history of your hair techniques?
How does your hair make you feel?
Women in both regions will have one of four research team members facilitate the interview. The primary investigator and one fully trained research assistant will conduct all follow up interviews to insure integrity of the questions asked as well as tone and delivery. All sessions of interviews and follow ups will be recorded. Both the scaled interview and follow up interview should take 30 minutes each.
This cross-sectional study will produce results that will be adjusted for proper analysis. Results found will be qualitative data that will be transposed into quantitative data. The data collected from the likert scale results will be analyzed using ANOVA method. After numbers have been computed, they will be tested again for significance.
Mende Women have higher self-esteem and self-identity relating to their hair than Namibian women due to the lesser effect of colonization.
At least six months of cultural immersion will be needed to gain trust among the initiated society of the Mende people, specifically to build relationship with the women of Sande.
· Refinement of research method – 3 months (part of 6 month cultural immersion)
· Collection of data – 3 to 6 months
· Analysis of data – 3 months
· Execution of final research – 3 months
· Dissemination of findings via publication and lecture – 6 month
This same process will be duplicated for the research conducted in Namibia with the exception of the cultural immersion period. This can be reduced to three months. The total amount of time needed is a maximum of two years to produce a significant contribution of empirical research.
Expected Outcomes and Benefits of Study
The benefit of this study includes an analysis of data to determine the effects of colonization on self-identity and esteem and the needed development of African psychologies (Hocoy, 1999). The psychology in acceptance of self is highly indicative of overall positive self-identity (Bornman, 1999). The more research that can be completed in this area will also fuel the need for other cultural relevant studies to be done. The expected result is that the Mende women, being from a non-colonial region will have higher self-esteem regarding their hair as opposed to Namibian women who were once under harsh colonization (Lovisa, Shigwedha, 2006).
Implications & Future Research
This research study has the potential to contribute towards cultural psychology and anthropology. It will also serve as a step in the direction of cultural balance in the awareness of self-esteem and self-identification. Individuals within collectivist cultures often have different views of self and familial relations. This is important to understand before researching or collecting data. This area of study will also provide new research opportunities to add to this body of work. The data will also be relevant to global and local clinicians, counselors and educators.
In addition, this will give a better foundation to research conducted involving the complexities of self-esteem for African-American women. Although this is a study of African women, it is important to understand the influences of western beauty standards on all women of the African diaspora in the both their native land and in the United States. Research by Noliwe Rooks in 1996 and Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson and Ronald Hall in 1992 began to uncover the stigma and standard that was created for women of African descent in the U.S. post slavery.
In multiple blogs by authors such as Yaba Blay, Kemi Ogunniyi and Jackson Biko, the discussion of colonial mentality often surfaces. This is the idea that although someone may be in their native land, they still act and practice accordingly per the western influence that was pervasive during colonization. This adds to the need of additional research in studying the after effects of colonization. Interpretations of beauty involving skin color, hair texture and styling are the focal point often, shedding a light on the damage Western beauty standards have done.
There are more discussion as well being had about the current state of self-esteem in South African people and the concept of collaborative self-esteem versus individual self-esteem which takes center stage in the U.S. (Volpe, n.d. ; Lumumba, 2014). There is much work to be done to help foster positive identities and a lot can be accomplished if self-esteem issues are addressed (Michel-Ange, 2014).
This study is intended to collect valuable data as it concerns the advancement of African and cultural psychologies. All appropriate privacy and patient confidentiality procedures will be followed to insure integrity. Written consent will obtained by all participants in the study. Local government approval will be applied for before research begins and the Institutional Review Board from my home institution will provide approval for this study as well.
Limitations of Study
Limitation of this study will include using a new self-esteem scale that has not been tested before. We also face the limitation of missing cross-cultural references that may go unnoticed due to our unfamiliarity of the culture. Adaption of the measures will be done to the best of our ability but still may be flawed. Given these limitations of measure, findings of the research will be analyzed and disseminated accordingly.
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