Author: VOA Contributor

Going to great lengths for beautiful hair

Soon after Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980, my parents bought a house in the suburbs in Bulawayo. This meant that I began my primary education in a school that was formerly reserved for white kids. I was in such close proximity to them that I was able to touch their hair. I marvelled at how soft it was and how different it was from mine. My hair was the same as all the other black children around me: short and ‘natural’, not straightened with the help of chemicals. It was thick, tough and difficult to comb; very different from the hair on white girls’ heads which was soft and often grew down their backs. Advertising didn’t help my perception of my hair either. Even black women on television and in magazines boasted long, straight hair. To me, that was the epitome of beautiful hair and I aspired desperately to have it.

Enter high school. I was sent to a boarding school about 300km from home in a small town called Masvingo. It was a mission school run by Catholics so it was quite conservative. The policy at this school was that our hair had to be kept short and in its natural state. If our hair grew too long, the school teachers would cut it off for us. Us girls would plait it up at night and then undo the plaits in the morning. We would comb our hair and then pat it down so it would pass a cursory length test. We bought all sorts of gels and hair food which we used on our scalps daily. My friends took great care to hide any increased hair length from the school authorities, but my hair never grew past my shoulders.

I moved to a school in Harare for my A levels. One of the perks of studying in the capital was being exposed to the latest and trendiest hairstyles. This particular school allowed us to use relaxers on our hair. At 17, I saved up all term to be able to afford my first ever relaxer which cost $30. I was one of the happiest girls in Africa that day! I felt it was a rite of passage into adulthood. Almost all the girls in my school had relaxed hair too but no one had taught us how to care for it. We styled our hair using hot combs and hot brushes and, as a result, most of us had damaged hair.


 I was constantly broke at university because there were just too many hair products vying for the little money I had. I still used a relaxer in my hair but relied on friends for help in applying chemicals and styling it. No matter that we were pursuing ‘higher’ education, we never followed the instructions that came with the relaxer kit and we constantly burnt our scalps. The instructions stipulated that we leave the relaxer chemicals on our hair for no longer than 15 minutes but we would keep them on for much longer, thinking it would make our hair silkier and straighter. Instead we ended up with over-processed and badly damaged hair. We’d sit squirming until we could no longer bear the burn of the relaxer chemicals, then run to the sink and have a friend assist in washing the chemicals off. It was self-inflicted torture. When I think back to those days, it’s a miracle I have any hair today. “Beauty is pain,” the saying goes. I experienced enough of it over three years of trying to grow my hair but I had nothing to show for it: mine stayed stubbornly at my shoulders.

It wasn’t until I was well into my thirties that I began questioning what the hell I was doing to my hair in the name of beauty. Thanks to the internet, I discovered other black women in other countries who were just like me but with hair that reached their waists. I didn’t even know that this length was possible for black women! I discovered hair blogs and hair forums (,,, relaxedhairhealth.blogspot) where thousands of women gathered to discuss all things hair. I was hooked.

I realised that I had been making mistakes with my hair my whole life. From these forums and blogs, I learnt a number of things: hair styling comes secondary to hair care; buy a few key products that work instead of spending a fortune on tons of products; stick to a regular regimen. One thing almost all the bloggers I read had in common was that they took care of their own hair. They hardly visited hairstylists.

I adopted this approach too. It was more time consuming but much kinder on my pocket. I now spend approximately R100 a month on hair products, which is much cheaper than a salon visit. The most dramatic change for me came when I introduced regular deep conditioning and daily moisturising into my hair care regimen. My hair responded and began to grow longer. Blogs and forums taught me about the use of castor oil to encourage hair growth. I began to use it religiously and for the first time in my life, my hair grew past my shoulders and down my back!


I now have a seven-year-old daughter and I make sure to care for her hair properly. She is growing up in a world where there are so many examples of black women with beautiful hair in many forms, whether natural or relaxed. Straight hair is no longer the only standard of beauty when it comes to hair. She comes across black women with bald heads, locks, natural hair and relaxed hair on a daily basis, at school, on television, in the malls. I have envied many a beautiful afro worn by girls at her school. What makes me proud is that my daughter’s hair is already down to her waist. She knows that her hair has to be taken care of properly so that it can grow even longer. Waist-length hair is not something she sees on white girls only; she already has her own.

Tendayi Kunaka writes about her journey towards long, healthy hair at Connect with her on Twitter

Not your average bikini wax

When talking about Africa, many people still wax lyrical about vast, empty savannahs, The Lion King, flies, drums and naked women. And then they share their fears of violence, disease and crime.

By far, my greatest fear in Kenya is Njeri.

She’s the mobile “beauty therapist” who makes sure my lady bits – and those of many other expats and foreigners – are under control. Call her anytime you need her and she’ll take a matatu (taxi) and come to wherever you are, with her equipment.

When she arrives at my house she immediately sets to work. She puts her pot of wax – which she’s made with sugar, water and lemon juice – on the stove, and takes off her top. The heat along the Kenyan coast is brutal and standing over a hot stove with no fan or air-conditioning is hard work.

The process is the same every time: Njeri tells me to place an old sheet on the bed and to drop my pants and lie down on it. Then she politely asks me to spread my legs.

She moves the boiling hot pot from the stove to the bed, places it between my legs, and tells me not to move. She dips an old rusted butter knife into the pot and blows on it in a feeble attempt to cool the wax slightly. Then she spreads hot wax, like butter on toast, onto my lady bits. I can’t move or scream without knocking over the pot between my legs. I have to stay deadly still and scream on the inside.

Njeri then takes a scrap of material that she cut up the night before. Her wax strips are cuts of fabric from old bed sheets, clothes, jeans, whatever she can get her hands on. She spreads it over the hot wax, rubs up and down, and starts making clicking, clucking noises and shaking her head.

It’s her way of preparing her client for the pain to come.

She rips the fabric and wax off my bits, and immediately pats my skin and shushes me, like a mommy placating a crying baby.

“Oh, shhhhh, shhh, shhhhhh.”

And she does it all over again.  Once she has used up a strip of fabric she throws it on the bedroom floor, for me to walk around collecting afterwards.

(Graphic: Kenny Leung)

When she is done, it’s time for my legs. Half an hour later she showers my body with baby powder and tells me what a good girl I’ve been. She puts her hand out for her 400 Ksh (about R40) and heads out, leaving me on my bed, still sticky with remnants of wax, surrounded by strips of dirty fabric, and covered in powder.

Fast forward to the evening.

When my husband gets back from work, I tease him a little and tell him about my bikini wax.  He doesn’t need much teasing and follows me into the room. Just as things are getting hot and heavy, Disco, our psycho cat (named such because she fell out of the thatched roof of the local bar and landed head-first on the dance floor), attacks me.

Turns out there is a stand of string from Njeri’s fabric strips still stuck to my butt. At first I didn’t realise that it was Disco who was clawing at me to get to it … so I scream.

I’m on my husband, the cat is on me, and in an epic climax (not quite the one I had in mind), in runs the security officer with his rungu (wooden baton) because he’d heard the commotion and thought something was wrong.

So much for a romantic night with my man.

Bash, from South Africa, is a freelance project development analyst based in Kenya. She spends most of her time snorkelling, is obsessed with giraffes, has too many tattoos and loves travelling. 

Culture, patriarchy and the Shona woman’s curtsey

Dating back four generations it has been customary for Shona women in Zimbabwe to get down on their knees or at the very least curtsey when serving their husbands a meal. This custom is prevalent in Shona households. Kneeling is a sign of humility and respect. Some women in my family embraced this practice from the early 70s – they still do.  However, the more educated and westernised women do not follow this custom, which has patriarchal overtones linked to the subjection of women.

Shona women are forced into submission by patriarchs in many Shona families where the man is regarded as the head of the household.  When I was ten years old my paternal grandmother warned me: “You better learn how to cook and clean because if you get married and can’t perform your duties as a wife, you’ll be brought back to the family.” To be returned to your family for not being submissive, for not kneeling, for having a voice, would heap disgrace on them.  Worse, when a girl is returned/divorced, her mother is often blamed for not raising her properly.

I have an African male friend who’s been living in New York for 15 years. He still believes it’s important for his wife to kneel when handing him his food. “It’s being respectful and following her culture,” he said. I was shocked. How do the sexes evolve with such hindrances? One would think a highly educated man who has been living in a western society would adapt to his environment.

I recently interviewed Shona women for research on my upcoming book that documents the lives of women in Harare. Many of them spoke frankly about their marital problems, problems that sprouted from subjection, a lack of independence and their husbands’ refusal to accept them as equals in their marriage.

One woman had divorced a Shona man after living in Canada with him for ten years. He expected her to cook after a ten-hour work day. When she suggested getting a housekeeper, her husband accused her of being “indoctrinated” by western culture. He threatened to “get” another woman from Zimbabwe. A few months later she discovered he was making plans to acquire an obedient wife from home.

Rudo, who got married fresh out of high school, had big dreams about her career but her husband didn’t share them. “I wanted to become a pharmacist or a doctor. My rich husband kept promising to send me to university. It’s been eight years and nothing. I am not a doctor, I’m just a housewife. All I can do is dream, raise my two children and regret marrying this man.”

Angie, a newly married woman from an impoverished background, goes down on her knees for her husband but feels bad because this is something she would only like to do while praying. “There is nothing I can do. In our culture the man is like God, I guess. If I don’t kneel while serving him then that makes me a disobedient and rude wife.”

Helen is the owner of a high-end clothing boutique. She and her husband are well off, but “miserably married”.

“I make my own money and my husband is into mining gold. He pays all the bills and even gives me a healthy allowance but he openly has a mistress. He’ll send me a text saying he is not spending the night at home,” she confided. “I can’t leave because I’d be an embarrassment to my family.When I took my complaints to my mother, she told me to be a good subservient wife and not speak up because his father was the same way. She added that when these Shona men reach a certain age they’ll start respecting you as a woman.”

This kind of advice from women to other women, although shocking, is not unusual. I got some myself when I was dating a 27-year-old Shona man last year. A successful businesswoman in her 30s told me to never air my views and opinions to a man because he will feel disrespected and challenged. “A good African woman knows her place and keeps quiet no matter how much anguish she may be festering,” she said. I did try to take her advice but I couldn’t sell my soul to the devil known as the “subjection of women”. I believe in mutual respect and communication.

I ended my relationship with him because he thought it was normal to subject me to societal norms I had not been accustomed to. When I opposed his views he called me “an uncultured disrespectful woman”. According to him, a woman should never say what she really thinks if it opposes her man’s views. “Do as I say without questioning me,” he would often tell me.

I was born in Europe, grew up in Africa but left for North America just after my eighteenth birthday. Kneeling for a man is part of my culture, but I refuse to. I could certainly kneel for the patriarchs in my family but not for a partner. Respect comes in many forms but kneeling for a partner takes away from the emancipation of women.

The act of kneeling when serving a man food is symbolic of respect but it also symbolises putting down a gender. If a woman decides to kneel and curtsey for her partner out of her own volition then I commend her because that’s her choice. I support actions that are based on love/choice because they have more sincerity than culturally set norms.

I’d like nothing more than for African men and women to be on an equal footing. As the generations pass, there will be a cultural evolution but I doubt I will live to see the day a Shona man kneels for his wife while serving her food.

Mandy Nembs is a writer who enjoys exploring her African heritage. She was born in England, grew up in Zimbabwe and lived in Canada for nine years where she attained a BA from Concordia University. She is currently based in New York.

#263Chat: Taking Zimbabwe’s pulse on Twitter

The use of social media in Zimbabwe and amongst Zimbabweans in the diaspora is increasing all the time, especially between the two groups. We have tools like blogs, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp to thank for this. The internet is still one of the few places where we can freely air our views with the advantage of anonymity.

Back in January 2012 I used the #Twimbos hashtag on Twitter and asked fellow Twimbos if they were interested in participating in a regular Twitter chat revolving around our beloved country. (Zimbabweans are commonly known as Zimbos; Zimbos on Twitter are therefore Twimbos.) I received a multitude of responses, but I was left a little unsure about it all so I shelved the idea. However, in late September, I embarked on what #263Chat has become to date. #263Chat evolved from a proposed fortnightly Twitter discussion on five different topics to the current format, which is a weekly discussion every Tuesday at 6pm CAT with one main focus.  To gauge the Zimbabwean pulse on Twitter, search for the hashtag #Twimbos and #263Chat.

The #263Chat journey so far has confirmed many of my perceptions about fellow Twimbos:

  1. We generally want to engage in discussion about Zimbabwe and/or Africa with other Zimbabweans and get an idea about what others are doing;
  2. We often seek to maintain relationships with family and friends scattered across the globe;
  3. Given our high literacy rate, we yearn to exchange ideas about other opportunities in business or generally about other Zimbabweans across the globe through robust discussion.

Why #263Chat?

I started #263Chat for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I love engaging with others. Secondly, I believe that to tackle any problem (and Zimbabwe has many), a conversation is the initial step. #263Chat was created to have that national conversation, but more importantly to crowd source solutions to challenges that we face in our own daily lives. I believe that local problems require local solutions. There are often solutions we can implement if we work together. Sometimes #263Chat is about gathering new ideas from Zimbabweans based all over the world or from those in different parts of the country. The topics are set by the community depending on the current issues of the week and they vary widely: we’ve discussed the recent referendum on the Constitution, as well as indigenisation, women and bullying.

(Graphic: Kenny Leung)
(Graphic: Kenny Leung)

I suspect that some Zimbabweans don’t discuss issues openly, but issues we discuss in private regularly affect us all. We may know someone who has suffered from domestic violence or wondered how others feel about gay rights in Zimbabwe. The challenge is that we rarely discuss these issues with complete strangers. I have always thought that perhaps we are afraid of the consequences, whatever those are, so we believe talking won’t help. What I have since discovered with #263Chat is that there is a genuine need to talk as a nation, and not just on social media. We have issues we need to resolve! Not to suggest that we don’t already, but #263Chat taps into the minds of those in the diaspora and links them with someone living in Masvingo, for example. I believe creating that link is powerful. The exchange of ideas from that connection is ultimately why #263Chat exists and continues to grow.


As expected, not every Twimbo is going to accept and/or participate in the conversation. Many view #263Chat as ‘all talk and no action’. Some have suggested that perhaps I set up this initiative as a way of entering politics or that I have some other hidden agenda. I find that quite amusing. Some are tired of talking and want to see visible change in society. I can understand that. I maintain that change is a process which takes time. If we band together, change is easier to implement. We can achieve simple things like teaching our kids about bullying or informing our helpers at home about registering to vote and what the referendum means in real terms. Simple things like that.

The future

Three weeks ago, we held our second #263Chat live event, which focused on tourism. We partnered with The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, NewsDay and C1rca 1964, and hosted the Zimbabwean tourism minister, Walter Mzembi, and the Zambian ambassador to Zimbabwe, Ndiyoi Mutiti. They, together with Barbara Joziasse, the Dutch ambassador to Zimbabwe, were keynote speakers. This event reflected an increasing awareness of the importance of social media in Zimbabwe and indeed how useful it can be in creating a space for much-needed dialogue.

Our website will be launching shortly, and more 263Chat live events will take place later this year including community initiatives such as ‘Adopt a School’. Meanwhile, our Twitter conversations continue – I invite every Zimbabwean online to join in!

Nigel Mugamu is founder and host of #263chat. Visit his blog and connect with him on Twitter

Have blade, will operate: Kenya’s jigger bugs

I woke up this morning to a strange sensation in my baby toe – a cross between an itch and a sting. On closer inspection, I noticed a transparent, pea-sized blister with a black dot in the middle. Living and working in some of the more dodgy areas of this wonderful continent, I am quite accustomed to insect bites and itches so I didn’t pay it much attention.

A few days later, my husband and close friend observed that they had similar ‘blisters’ on their toes. We had a group inspection in which we all spent a few minutes seated outside studying each other’s toes. Our investigation revealed that a) I still have blue paint on my feet from a project I worked on a few weeks ago; and b) our little blisters were identical: same colour, same size and the same strange sensation.

We called one of the local fishermen who was walking past and showed him our toes.

“Jigga Jigga Jigga!” he exclaimed. “You remove now before she gets more happy in your toe. She is not a good guest for your toe. You need to remove now.”

We decided that we did not want a non-paying guest staying in our feet and tried to find out how to remove them. We did a bit of research: these buggers are parasitic fleas called jiggers. They live in soil and sand and feed intermittently on warm-blooded hosts like cats, sheep and … our feet.

To reproduce, the female flea burrows head-first into the host’s (my/our) skin, leaving the tip of its abdomen visible through a tiny hole. This orifice allows the jigger to breathe and defecate while feeding on blood vessels! In the next two weeks, its abdomen swells with up eggs, which it releases through the hole to the ground to hatch and lie in wait for the next unsuspecting “host”. They need to be removed whole or they will spread.

Is that not the most disgusting thing you have ever heard?

The most fascinating discovery for me was that jiggers are a common and serious development issue in East Africa. A local NGO, Ahadi, is  committed to creating jigger infestation awareness. Established in 2007, it has established 42 help centres in Kenya, and provides services like education, treatment, fumigation of homes and schools, and medication to hundreds of thousands of jigger-infected people. Without treatment, they can lose their ability to walk and work. Kids drop out of school, and stigmatisation and low self-esteem are common effects. There is also the risk of HIV being passed from person to person when needles used to remove these buggers are shared.

The more we read about jiggers the more we wanted to get rid of them, immediately.

In Kenya, there is “a guy” for everything you need. You want fresh octopus, you know “a guy” to call. You want to fix your roof, your toilet, your car, just call “a guy”. I was not surprised that there is a “”jigger guy” too. He was summoned.

He looked like Mr T, complete with the gold chain and signature haircut. He showed us how to remove the bugs. His method involved using a pin and blade to cut a circle around the infected area. He then lifted the skin off, somehow it gave without much hassle. Suddenly, the white egg sack was visible. He carefully dug out and removed the sack without piercing or damaging it. It is bloody sore and left a pea-sized hole in my toe. He made me bite down on a chapatti while he did it. I guess this is a form of Kenyan anaesthesia I had not heard of before.

A health worker at the Good Life Orphanage in Kenya treats a child's jigger-infected toe. (Flickr/The Good Life Orphanage)
A health worker at the Good Life Orphanage in Kenya treats a child’s jigger-infected toe. (Flickr/The Good Life Orphanage)

Mr T had to leave after performing my surgery. He was quiet throughout my mini operation, and as he left he said: “Now you see me do it, now you can do the rest. Just do.”

Just do. With those words, I became the designated jigga removal service provider. I had my two patients bite down on a chapatti and attempted the same procedure on them. Since it was dark I did it with a head light and the torch on my phone. Cut circle, lift skin, remove sack (try not to let the eggs spread all over), clean, cover. Easy breezy.

I am pleased to report that I removed both egg sacks intact. It felt like quite an accomplishment.

This is why I love Kenya and my continent. It is constantly schooling me in lessons I would never receive anywhere else. There are lessons of survival everywhere – even under my toe.

Bash, from South Africa, is a freelance project development analyst based on the south coast of Kenya. She spends most of her time snorkelling, is obsessed with giraffes, has too many tattoos and loves traveling. She misses Nik Naks and Mrs Balls chutney.