Sistine Chapels

For the past thirty odd years, my mother has been responsible for the shaved heads of dozens of baby girls. I believe it started with me because my older sister, judging by previous conduct, most likely emerged from our mother’s womb with a perfectly coiffed Afro. While her earliest hair memory might be having her tresses gently stroked while being fed her favorite selection of puréed vegetables, mine is stumbling around a room trying to get away from my aunt, who swayed back and forth on her feet like a lion tamer, a pair of scissors in hand instead of a whip. 

I was no match for a woman who had had use of her legs for decades, so I was swiftly caught. And though I don’t remember much about the shearing, I know that within minutes, my mane was no more. This was the first of many hair traumas I would blot out of my memory with the voracity of a neurotic government agent; but the proof is in the photos—or lack thereof. When I reemerge in the family albums, my hair is a puffy black halo, like the Afroed angels painted on the walls of our ancient churches. 

It is unclear exactly where my mother picked up this blade-happy habit, but I believe it is something her people do back in Gojjam. Evidence of her influence has appeared again and again throughout our lives on the bare scalps of relatives’, friends’, acquaintances’, and neighbors’ babies. By the time I hit my twenties, my mother had amassed an army of bald headed children under her belt. That this habit persisted for decades after my own shave was apparent when I moved back to Addis Ababa. On my return from university, my mother insisted I visit our neighbor, Saba*, who had had a baby in the year since I’d been home. Like any good Ethiopian, I went over there with a kilo of unripe oranges and a pleasant smile. 

The baby was unremarkable, as most are. She had a small button nose, big wandering eyes, and a pouty little mouth—everything you’d expect from a one year old. Except, she had a large, shining, bald head and a pair of pierced ears that smacked of regret. 

“Aw she’s so cute,” I reassured her waiting mother, who beamed and stroked the child’s baldness like a crystal ball. I knew it was my mother’s doing, but if I needed confirmation I got it a few months later when Saba came around to coo about the child’s hair.

“Amsale,” she said to my mother, “you were absolutely right!” And my mother grinned like a Cheshire cat and stroked the little girl’s fuzzy head, thoroughly satisfied.

From left: me, my sister Mignote

Needless to say, hair is the joy and terror of Ethiopian girlhood. In my grandmother’s time, my great grandfather would mount a horse and take his only daughter out of nine children, miles to the best hair braider in the area. To our mother, my sister’s hair and mine might as well have been the seat of our souls. If we had nothing else, at least we had our hair. Our tsega, she called it, our blessing. It was the cornerstone of our weekends. Every Saturday, my sister and I would take turns getting our braids undone, our hair washed, and braided again. 

“One shampoo and one conditioner,” I’d negotiate on my knees at the tub.

“Two, one” my mother would counter, and I’d calculate the time I would spend bent over the side of the tub, which felt very much like my very own guillotine. Turn by turn, my sister and I would be scrubbed down, our heads bobbing to our mother’s rabid fingers. A significant portion of my childhood memories is made up of the bathmat getting closer and farther, closer and farther. The blue bathtub appliqué bears smiling maniacally: closer, and farther, until the shampoo burnt my eyes. 

After the deep wash, Mignote and I would put in our style requests, and no matter how complicated or absurd, our mother would oblige. Weekends were for making Sistine Chapels of her daughters’ heads. Box braids and cornrows woven like stories of creation. It was the bane of all our existence. If our father could manage it, he would conveniently be out of the house when the time came to sit between our mother’s legs and be yanked every which way. If not, he would be given the task of wrangling his daughters with his booming baritone. Either way, we would find ourselves in the braiding cushion, our mother’s knees occasionally knocking our temples.

During this time, there was not much by way of entertainment. There was no possibility of reading because at any given moment, our hands were needed to hold sections of hair. And the work demanded you bow and turn and crane your neck to any given position at any given time so mostly, we told muffled stories we made up with our heads bowed. “Teret teret,” we’d start, the way our ancestors began stories. “Ye lam beret,” the listeners would respond. And we would spin tales while our mother spun our hair into intricate styles. That all ended when she discovered Days of Our Lives. After that, my sister and I spent years watching various actors in various stages of hysterics through curtains of our hair.

From left: Mignote, me

When we moved to Tanzania, our mother, who previously had a relative or on occasion, a hairdresser to help manage our hair, was on her own. Smelling blood in the water, my sister and I demanded fewer shampoos, thicker braids to cut down time, and less hair oil. We held heated debates for the other one to go first; we created a rotation system in the name of fairness and humanity. If you had asked me then how to achieve world peace, I would have suggested a rotation system. 

 This era of thick braids is well documented in family photographs. We had taken full advantage of our mother being overwhelmed by the move, which included taking nightmare-inducing chloroquine on account of the threat of  malaria. These were the days we went from twenty to thirty braids apiece, to two or four held tightly with ball hair ties in a variety of colors. Each morning all the fly-aways would be gathered with a dab of water, into the hair ties. It was the hair equivalent of sweeping things under the rug. 

Unfortunately for our scalps, it didn’t take long for our mother to find her feet, and soon we were back to straining our necks and being ping ponged between her knees. From then on, nothing threw our hair off track, unless you count two unfortunate events that involved my sister. 

The first incident can be traced back to our mother herself. In those days, she kept rollers in her hair through breakfast. They bulged from her scarf like rock formations so we wondered how she slept. Every evening we watched her roll her hair, piece by piece in the bathroom mirror, and contemplated the glamorous life of grown women. Sometimes, she’d close the toilet seat and one by one, my sister and I would climb up onto it and have a go at rolling our mother’s hair. 

When we were done, our mother would unfurl the two rolls and redo them in a cinch. Then, she would shake her clothes clean and wispy soft strands would float from her shoulders to the floor and she would sweep them up with a square of toilet paper. In the morning, she would undo the rollers and brush the sections carefully, twirling her brush so the curls stayed intact. This was when my sister started getting ideas.

One summer day, Mignote, having been witness to our mother’s ritual and to the bouncing curls (which were actually  made with heat) decided to have a go at fashioning her own. We heard the sniffling before we saw the girl. And when she rounded the corner and entered the kitchen, her fair skin blotchy and pink, I thought for a moment she’d been shot through the head with an arrow. It quickly became clear that in her quest for curls, my sister had ended up twisting a brush until it tangled in her hair. The brush dangled from her scalp, bounced off her forehead as she walked. My mother gasped as though she’d seen the devil himself floating above my sister’s head. She lunged for the brush and out of sheer panic and disbelief, pulled at it.

If my sister yelled out in pain, no one heard it. It was drowned out by our mother’s guttural “AAOUHHH!” And Mignote, realizing that the adult in the room was filled with terror, turned an alarming color. She didn’t wail or scream but her face crumpled up, tears rolled down her cheeks, and her jaw flapped as though she were gasping for air. I watched the two of them from over my juice box, one in silent hysterics, the other beyond it, and wondered what would come first, a spanking or a nervous breakdown? 

My mother spent the next two hours alternately cursing her luck in life, pleading with the Almighty, and comforting my sister while trying to undo the damage. It wasn’t until hour two came around, and my sister’s hair was still clutching the brush tightly against her head, that I realized it was not going to end well. At hour three, my mother’s friend arrived to do what our mother didn’t have the nerve to: cut the brush out of my sister’s hair. 

Our housekeeper Leah sharpened the scissors with the knife sharpener, each slash sending a chill through our mother. And when her friend took the scissors to the bristles, it was the first and last time I would see pure, unadulterated terror on my mother’s face. She wore it the way a heretic might at the pyre. And though my mother’s friend cut the bristles carefully, by the time it was over, my sister was sporting a short puffy little patch of hair that she insisted on calling “bangs”. For years, this hair would be braided into the undamaged hair, nurtured, pleaded with, and prayed at. But that wouldn’t be the last of Mignote’s hair calamities. 

From Left: my mother Amsale, Mignote

The second incident: Sometime after the brush incident, my sister came home with half a braid missing from the back of her head. A friend of hers, a girl with a permanent scowl by the name of Rosemary, had walked up behind my sister during art class, picked up a braid, and lopped it right off. I don’t remember much of how our mother reacted. What I do remember, is her frantically reaching for the back of my sister’s head while still attempting to control the moving car. Everything goes black after that. 

The next day, my mother marched straight to the principal’s office, and told on Scowling Rosemary. Sure, she was just a mischievous eight-year-old, but to our mother, she might as well have been Delilah. I’m sure she had nightmares of the kingdom falling, her great chapels and all. 

From left: me, my mother, my sister

Over the following years, our hair grew bigger than our bodies. It had a life of its own; it surrounded us. And during that time we spent watching our mother’s knees wobble in our periphery, we loved her the way one might love a captor. We became experts at feeling time: we could decipher by the thickness of a section of hair in our hands, the amount of time it would take for our ordeal to be over. And though we moved from place to place, what never changed was the feeling of our mother’s fingers lightening as she finished the last braid. And the habit she had of running her hands over her creation before we ran to the mirror. 

There is absolutely nothing like the joy of getting up from that cushion. Or the comfort of your favorite style, executed to perfection. To me, that was box braids, medium thick. That was my home. To my sister, who has always been good at suffering in silence, it was our mother’s own interpretation of Fulani braids. Nothing I’ve found in adulthood compares to that feeling of our mother removing the towel from our shoulders and giving us a gentle nudge. We weren’t just free; we were beautiful too.  

From left: me, my sister

On my first day at Marymount International School of Rome, one student asked me if there were schools in Africa. Sure I spoke better English than she did, but logic never got in the way of ignorance. I should have known then that things had changed, but I didn’t. 

Up until our move to Italy, I hadn’t been the minority and here I was, one hour into my first school day, having to explain that yes, we had clothes and houses too. A few months into the school year, the braiding would be over. No more Saturdays spent peeking at the television through our hair.  No more neatly curated scalps in the land of art and the Sistine Chapel. 

The first day I went to school with my hair out in curls I was mobbed at the door. White fingers made their way to my head like curious little prodding sticks. I wasn’t the only black student at the school, but maybe the few others—who had been there from a younger age—had already been initiated. Explored and forgotten. After that, it never happened again. But in the eighth grade another student, a boy this time, asked with the utmost curiosity, if my pubic hair was fashioned into an Afro. 

It wasn’t long before I noticed that all the black girls I knew in Italy had their hair relaxed. It was a fearful proposition; up until then, the only scary stories our mother told had to do with relaxers gone wrong. Those were our cautionary tales, our version of folklore. There was the woman who went bald by way of a relaxer, a little girl whose scalp was burned red and raw. These were the stories our mother told while we flinched between her knees. But I was willing to risk it, even if it broke her heart.

I remember the day I relaxed my hair because that week, I had asked my mother to braid my hair the way Alicia Keys had hers in the “Fallin’” music video. We found some beads from the old days and put them in. It was my last attempt at holding on to the past. When I sat in the Italian hairdresser’s chair that weekend, she looked at me in the mirror at me and asked who had done my hair. I told her it was my mother, and she smiled before getting to work dismantling them and I thought that my grandfather would roll over in his grave if he knew we were cavorting with the Italians. 

I would spend almost ten years separated from my natural texture. But it did nothing to make me go unnoticed in my new environment. It was a spring night in Rome, when I was about thirteen, that this was made clearer than it had ever been. A few friends and I, lost on our way to a teenage “discoteca,” happened upon a group of boys our age. The flirting ensued, and I stood back hoping to go unnoticed. One boy teased that another liked all of us. The accused, laughing, shook his finger at me: “No!” he said, “la cioccolata, no!” The others must have taken notice of me then, because moments later, I heard a flicking sound behind me, followed by giggling. When I turned, it was to see two snickering boys trying to set alight my ponytail with a small blue lighter. They laughed and scattered, disappointed that they had been discovered before the deed could be done. 

Once in a while I think about what might have happened if that lighter had caught a flame. If that flame had caught a strand. If my tsega had gone up in smoke. The hair my mother slaved over, breathed blessings into. Worshipped and praised because we don’t wear crowns, we wear shrines. Sometimes that image plays in my mind: A head of hair, a head of fire. Flames licking the night sky. Boys and girls lined up to watch, La Cioccolata. I can see my mother now with a good razor, ready to start over. 

Liyou Mesfin Libsekal

Liyou Mesfin Libsekal is an Ethiopian poet living in Addis Ababa. She won the Brunel University African Poetry Prize (now the Brunel International African Poetry Prize) in 2014. Her chapbook, Bearing Heavy Things was part of the 2015 African Poetry Book Fund’s New Generation African Poets series. Her work has appeared in Elsewhere Lit, Expound Magazine, Cordite Poetry Review, and other publications.