Sunday means planting day for many women and girls in Sierra Leone. Girls plant to prepare for the school week ahead. Women enjoy planting or braiding for the added beauty, protection, and neatness it brings to their hair. A group of friends and family meet near Patricia’s home late Sunday afternoon to braid hair and spend time with each other. The group includes Ranso, Jalikatu, Gladys, Joyce, Juliet, Francess, and Mariama.
Francess talks about braiding in a historical context. “Women in ancient Sierra Leonean would plant in big, thick braids. The style is called ‘gbenjikawbeh’ in Mende or ‘potcova’ in Krio.”
Patricia and Francess talk about the rules concerning girls’ hair in government and government-assisted schools. “Girls can’t go to school with loose hair. If a girl leaves her hair scattered it won’t show cleanliness, it shows awkwardness. Loose hair is only okay if a girl cuts it really close to the head.”
The two women then discuss the consequences for unplanted hair. “Staff will punish girls either by beating them with a cane or driving them out of the school.” Francess, a JSS teacher, agrees with the disciplinary methods. “African children won’t value their education or respect their teachers without a cane. Other measures aren’t in place at my school.” Patricia disagrees with the flogging in certain cases. “Some teachers don’t know the proper way to beat their students. They wound the children and that’s not fine.”
Ranso makes jokes and laughs. She says comedy makes her so happy especially when she’s feeling sad. Ranso is in senior secondary school three (SS3) special and feels that she’s ready and well-prepared for the upcoming West African Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE). “I’m just waiting for it now and hope to get good results. As soon as I get my six required credits I’ll go straight to Institute of Public Administration and Management (IPAM) in Freetown. It’s a great school for students in the commercial stream. I want to make use of my youth and talents. I want to be an accountant.”
After the other women and girls leave for their homes, Patricia helps explain the differences between planting and braiding. Planting refers to braided natural or false hair that remains close to the scalp—hair is planted to the head. Braids that hang freely, oxpoles, make use of purchased hair added into natural hair. Oxpole braids interweave three small sections of hair into one. Oxpoles change to twists near the end of a braid when there’s not enough hair to form three sections. Twists join two small sections of hair and can be loosed easier than oxpoles. Patricia demonstrates by twirling a section of hair between her index finger and thumb. She then twists it into a second section. Patricia changes subjects and begins to share her story. She explains why she became a hairdresser, talks about her life and future goals, then ends with advice to girls.
I was seventeen years old when I gave birth to my son, Abdul. I lived with him and my mother in Bo, while my father lived in Taiama. She looked after Abdul whenever I went to school. Three weeks after Abdul’s birth, my mother passed away. After that I didn’t have anybody to help me with my child. I decided to leave school and live with my father in Taiama, my hometown. I started doing hairdressing there because my father couldn’t afford school fees.
My man, Abdul’s father, comes from Taiama too. He went to university in Freetown with his brother and they would visit their family during the school holidays. His brother’s wife, Umu, owns a hairdressing salon in Taiama. She took me on as an apprentice.
I helped Umu with take-take styles by brushing and cutting false hair. Umu would then take the hair from me and plant with it. I also kept the salon clean by sweeping and picking hair from the floor. Sometimes I would hang packets of hair on the wall to sell. My apprenticeship lasted for six months, then I started hairdressing on my own around Taiama. After my son began to walk, my father decided to send me back to school. I finished SS3 and sat my WASSCE, but I didn’t pass enough subjects to attend university.
There came a time when I couldn’t stay in Taiama anymore. My father married a woman who mistreated me. She would tell lies about me and sometimes she wouldn’t give me food to eat. One of my schoolmates knew about my step-mother troubles and asked me to visit her hometown during the school holiday. I decided to move out of my house to stay with her family. I didn’t know that my man’s parents moved to the same town. When he found out, he visited me and asked if I would move in with his parents. I agreed and I’ve lived with them ever since. I gave birth to my second child here, my daughter Annet. I started a hairdressing business to help contribute money to the home.
I would like to study either politics or law at the university. I’m so happy because the government has a new program—teachers like my father with ten or more years of experience can send three of their children to university for free! I will use the money I raised from hairdressing to pay for the private WASSCE so that I can enter university. My man now teaches social studies and integrated science to junior secondary school (JSS) students. I want to go to the same university he did.
I want girls to keep faith and know that any problem has a solution. I also want to tell them that education is the key to success—when girls study then the whole world will be better. Let girls learn!