Mornings at my brother’s house is a hectic battle of wills between my niece, her mom, and a comb. My three-year-old niece winces and wails as her little body is trapped between her mother’s legs, who with a wooden comb, the best weapon for this kind of war, tears twisted knots of her hair apart, in an attempt to make it straight, and neat.
My niece, like me, has what we call kipilipili, hair that doesn't blow with the wind, which sits on our heads like a thick forest of thorns. And after the triumph of making her hair somewhat presentable, she stands in front of the mirror, beaming at her reflection. She runs her tiny hands on top of her hair, and in her childlike voice she brightly says, “Aunty Neema, my hair is beautiful, just like yours”.
Beautiful! I smirk. She mustn’t know what beautiful is. I understand that she is yet to see beauty the way I do. The beauty in glossy magazine covers, chocolate models with long flowing ponytails. Commercials with hair that bounces with a soft rhythm, not ours. Extensions, weaves, synthetic hair is deemed better than ours. What is ours then, if we need to buy human hair wigs?
My niece is a long way from sin, bleach, hate for blackness and all that it births. She sees herself without preconceived notions of what beauty should be. She thinks my hair is beautiful. She thinks I am beautiful. Not just inner beauty, or how much my poetic soul outshines physical appearance, but some kind of beautiful children see.
I wonder what beauty must have been before I let someone define it for me? What, in my innocent eyes, was beautiful? When did I lose it?
My niece, ever so determined to get me to comment on her hair, pulls me to her side so that we are both facing the mirror. She tugs my floor-length skirt and looks at me expectantly. I look at her reflection. Her bright round eyes light up her lovely face in a way only a child’s face can light up. A patch of hair, a mix of black, brown and red shades sits firmly on her head. I look at my reflection. A candid smile curves on my face. I have never seen myself like this before. I slowly run my hand through my kipilipili. It appears tough and rough, but it is soft to a touch. It is not the kind of hair that you comb in a hurry. You have to tease it, and slowly untangle it strand by strand.
I look at my niece earnestly looking at me, confused by my long silence, and for the first time that morning, our eyes meet. I see me, twenty-four years ago, and with a shaking voice say more to myself than to her, my hair is beautiful, just like yours!