In a series exploring the complicated relationships we, as women, hold with our hair throughout our lives, All the Pretty Birds introduces ‘Our Hair, Don’t Care’, an installment series of women we love sharing their personal beauty journeys.
Meet Lebohang Masango
Lebohang Masango is a South African poet, award-winning author and anthropologist currently completing her PhD at the University of Witswaterstrand in Johannesburg. In 2018, she launched her debut book called Mpumi’s Magic Beads, a children’s book focusing on a young Black girl finding magic, self-esteem and learning to love her natural hair – and it’s available in all South African national languages. She’s since gone on to author another book in the series, Mpumi’s and Jabu’s Magical Day and recently co-authored Grow to Be Great: South African leaders with Dr. Judy Dlamini.
We spoke to Lebohang about her hair journey, her earliest memories, and discussed the natural hair products on her shelves.
ATPB: Our relationship with hair starts at a young age – do you have any vivid childhood memories surrounding your hair?
LM: I lived with my grandmother in Ekangala for some of my younger years, when the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) was terrorizing Johannesburg and my parents had to defend the African National Congress (ANC) headquarters. I think my earliest hair memory is from when I was 4 years old. My grandmother would call me over to where she was sitting on the couch where she had a comb, a ball of black wool and a small, dark brown bottle of MPL Oil beside her. She would make me sit on the floor between her legs and she would start to comb and section my afro into lines and then block by block, wrap a length of wool around it and lay it down in the middle of the next block.
She would repeat the process into what I realized is now called, a “Benny and Betty” hairstyle. Back then I just called it moloho or plaits. The worst part of our weekly routine is when I would grow impatient or my scalp would itch a bit, prompting me to reach my hand up to feel how much hair was left and she would quickly hit my hand away with the handle of the afro comb.
ATPB: You’ve been natural before South Africa started stocking natural hair care products at large – what prompted you to start that hair journey and what was that like?
LM: I was fortunate enough to attend the National School of Arts (NSA), an amazing high school in Johannesburg. I successfully auditioned to join their dance department and I was really excited because it was an art school and it was radically different from the strict primary school I had previously attended in Pretoria.
In that school, chemically processed or relaxed hair was a norm for African girls because of the school authorities’ obsession with our hair being neat and tidy. My first few days at NSA were filled with wonder and one of the first things that struck me was that so many of the girls and boys there had natural hair! There were afros in all shapes and sizes, cornrows, locks, afro puffs – everything! The older high school kids looked so cool with their hair that the next year in Grade 9, I cut all my hair off and started my natural hair journey. By the time I was in Grade 10, my friends and I all had afros. We were a crew of girls with gorgeous hair. I really enjoyed that.
I also started being drawn to people in the media who had hair like ours so poets like Lebo Mashile and singers like Thandiswa Mazwai. This was all pre Youtube so I cared for it the way I had cared for my relaxed hair: washes, treatments every now and then, lots of blow-drying so that it could be “manageable”.
The only thing that really sucked was that hair stylists were so against our hair! It happened often that I would walk into a salon and I could see the disappointment in the eyes of the stylists when I rejected their offer to relax my hair and I told them that I had come in for a wash, instead. The immediate reaction was for the other stylists to make excuses about being busy and the one unfortunate woman who would be left with me would irritably tell me that it costs R20 more “for natural” and then she would proceed to fight my hair with the comb and blow-dryer .
I definitely prefer the golden YouTube years that we are in now; I have a better sense of what is and isn’t healthy for my hair and am skilled enough to do it myself, thank goodness!
ATPB: How has your relationship with your hair changed as you’ve gotten older?
LM: As I have gotten older, I am less fixated on length and I am focused on health now. I am now also more interested in styling my hair at it’s particular length instead of sourcing extensions. I follow a good routine and I have become more loving toward my hair, without feeling resentful toward it for not doing particular things: for instance, I have very tight curls that do not blow in the wind and that’s perfect.
ATPB: Any major hair “mistakes” you’ve made over the years?
LM: Coconut oil! I finally let it go after many years when I realized that it dries my hair and makes my scalp itch. A definite mistake was all of that violent combing and blow-drying that I subjected myself to before I had the skills to do my hair myself. Another one was not having my hair trimmed regularly and ripping out knots.
ATPB: You’ve written a children’s book called Mpumi’s Magic Beads, celebrating hair and the joy of finding magic in your hair. What inspired this journey and book?
LM: The book was inspired by something Toni Morrison said a long time ago; that we should basically write the book that we want to read. I never grew up with this kind of book and I would love my future children to have a childhood colored by amazing books that truly affirm them. One of the highlights of my childhood was constantly and consistently reading, reading, reading – everywhere I was and whatever I had to do, I always had a book with me so that I could withdraw into it as soon as possible.
Having also gone back to my old primary school to conduct some Anthropology research about hair, African girls’ understandings of hair policies and the attitudes of authority figures towards them in 2015, this book became a dedication to myself and every little girl who has experienced any kind of discrimination or nastiness about our hair or, ever felt that our hair was not good enough. However, that isn’t at all the premise of the book because that’s way too sad and inappropriate for children.
The book follows three girls with beautiful afro-textured styles who realize that Mpumi’s braids have magical beads in them so they begin to make wishes and fly all over Johannesburg, discovering all of the amazing, child-friendly spaces in the city. This city often wears the label of ‘dangerous’ or ‘grimy’ and I just wanted to highlight some of the things that make it wonderful for children to grow up here.
ATPB: What’s your hair type and what does your wash day routine look like?
LM: I honestly do not think that the American hair typing system necessarily applies to African hair because so many of the YouTube tutorials that have claimed to apply to 4C hair really haven’t worked for me. For that reason, I sometimes joke and say my hair is 4Z, if anything.
The pandemic has been awful, but one thing it has done is allowed me to seriously work on my wash day routine. Typically, I start early on a Saturday morning by like 10 AM with a full laptop battery to catch up on all my series and all my essentials set out before me. I detangle carefully section by section, leaving each section of hair in twists and after that I shampoo it all out and wrap my hair in a microfiber towel.
I then sit down once again to apply some deep conditioner section by section and twist each section too. After wearing my microwaveable hot cap for however long, I wash that out and start to apply my leave in conditioner, hair butter and grape seed oil, section by section, leaving my hair in three-strand plaits because twists take way too long. I usually finish by 11PM (with lots of breaks in between to eat and text and and and…)
ATPB: Any particular holy grail hair products you love?
LM: I really enjoy Nilotiqa’s Replenishing Conditioner and Deep Moisture Hair Butter as well as Jabu Stone’s Anti-Dandruff Shampoo. So far, these are the products that I love with some American favorites as well but I am working on having a holy grail of local South African products because I love supporting our entrepreneurs.
Want to keep up with Lebohang’s work? Check out her official website.
Images courtesy of Lebohang Masango