Whilst living in Ivory Coast, my friend suggested that I get my hair braided. My initial reaction was “no..” but the next day I thought “why not” give it a go whilst I’m here, “I can always take it out if I don’t like it”. My friend soon called her hairdresser to arrange my appointment, and the following week I was sat in a salon chair in the corner of a busy marketplace, as potential hairstyles were being discussed and synthetic hair was being matched against mine. I soon realised: I KNOW NOTHING ABOUT HAIR BRAIDS. Fortunately my friend was there to help me understand some of the hair terminology, and I was pleased with the end result. Now that I am a bit wiser I thought I would share some of this knowledge and experience with other clueless soles contemplating getting their hair styled in Africa.
I mentioned hair terminology above, and trust me, you will need to understand the relevant vocabulary to effectively communicate with your hairdresser. As the Ivory Coast is a francophone country, all the words I have learnt are in french. (If anyone wants to volunteer the english terminology please get in touch!)
- Traisses: the plaits/braids themselves. It didn’t occur to me beforehand just how many different ways you can braid hair! You should have an idea of how thick or thin you want your plaits, and in what style.
- Nates: when plaits are “attached” to your scalp. All sorts of patterns can be created with these, which can cover all or part of your head. “Nates” are also a good way of keeping hair out of your face without needing hairbands.
- Meches: hair extensions/fake hair. These can be bought in specialist shops, in markets, or most hairdressers will have a stock of their own. Extensions can be bought already styled and braided: these are designed for women who keep their natural hair very short (though most of the time you wouldn’t know it!). Anyone with a bit of length in their hair should opt for a simple pack of extensions which can then be mixed and plaited in with your natural hair.
2. Bring a picture of your preferred hairstyle
Get yourself on Google, Pinterest and Instagram and bring along a picture of what you’d like your hair to look like. The possibilities are genuinely endless! You might want to incorporate a new colour with your choice of extensions, you might want thin braids or thick cornrows, you might want it ready styled in a ponytail with patterned “nates” or you might want simple braids you can wear either up or down. Bringing a photo will ease your explanations to the hairdresser. Even if you have the terminology down, a picture is always going to be a much better description!
3. It will take a long time
I was told my hair would take about 3 hours… it took almost 6 hours! Fortunately I was prepared for 3 hours, so I had my book, snacks and lots of water with me anyway so it wasn’t too bad. Just be prepared!
4. It will hurt
Many have told me the process itself is painful. It didn’t bother me much whilst I was at the hairdresser’s, but I could certainly feel the pull on my scalp for the few days that followed. I also found it very hard to sleep on my hair for a few days; it was so stiff with the added extensions and I found it difficult to manage my new hair and even to tie it up. Within a few days though my hair became more supple and everything was much easier.
5. The braids may not last
African hair has properties of its own, properties which allow it to “stick” much better than what could be categorised as “european slippery hair”. As such, the braids or hairstyle you choose may not last as long for you as they might last for others. I actually had a few hairdressers refuse to attempt to braid my hair for this reason.
6. You can wash your hair whilst it’s braided
I didn’t actually think about the question of hair-washing until after my hair was already braided, and though not as straight forward, it is possible! The key is to massage soap into the scalp more than into the braids themselves, though you can put some soap in there too for good measure. Shampoo doesn’t “mousse” as easily as in un-braided hair, and the whole process would take me quite a long time, as I partitioned my hair into sections. An easier solution is to go back to your hairdresser, who will quickly wash your braids for a small fee.
7. It will itch
It took about a week, but after that my scalp started to itch more and more, even after a good shampoo. Ultimately, this is what led to the undoing of my braids two and half weeks after they were put in.
8. Getting your braids removed takes time too
This was something I really wasn’t expecting (especially since I have relatively “slippy” hair). For some reason I thought that I’d be able to undo my plaits myself whilst watching TV one evening. Half an hour later and I was still fiddling with the first plait (of hundreds!). I accepted defeat and took myself to the neighbourhood hairdresser (who was fortunately still open) and within 45 minutes all of my braids were undone, and all the extensions on the floor. Leave it to the pros!
9. Your hair may get damaged
After the braids and extensions had been removed my hair felt very thin! (it also was very fluffy, and quite a sight to behold as all my strands of hair had been separated from each other!) I thought this might be remedied by a good shampoo and conditioner, but unfortunately not. A lot of my hair fell out along with the extensions. This is the main reason I haven’t subsequently been to re-do my hair: I don’t want to damage it further, and I certainly don’t want to have too much hair fall out in quick succession. Maybe in a few years when I’m assured I’m starting the process with a full head of hair 😉
10. … but I still loved my braided hair
I really did love my hair for the two and a half weeks it lasted. It was so easy:
- wake up in the morning: hair ready!
- strong wind: hairstyle is resistant!
- hot day: no need to tie hair up, hair doesn’t make neck warm & sweaty, but rather allows for air circulation
- humid day: no need to tie hair up, hair incapable of frizziness!