A short story By Rumbidzai
There once was a girl, a dark brown girl who lived somewhere at the bottom of the earth. Her skin was browner that milk chocolate, richer than the bronze of all medals, and as smooth as the first well roasted peanut butter her grandmother made each August. On her head, grew some very knotty, kinky strands of hair. They would tangle and tangle as they grew out of her scalp. And her grandmother, a very clever woman, assured her it was the loveliest hair she had ever seen. And the girl was happy. She would smile, content.
But then came a time when she went to school, and many of the girls did not keep knotty hair. Their hair was straight, and from the look, it seemed to grow out of their heads too.
She asked one, “How come yours is straight like that?”
“Beautiful like this you mean? Hairdresser Tsitsi straightens it with a relaxer for me. I can shake it, and it bounces up and down as I run.”
And it did bounce all over the place when she ran. And she had called it beautiful. Was this what beautiful was, meant? Had her grandmother been wrong about hers being beautiful too?
She must have been. Because soon after, she realized not many girls wore their hair like hers. She realized no one thought hers beautiful. And now she sought the real beauty of hair. She wanted hers straightened too.
One day, on a bright afternoon, soon after school, she took three stones, and went into the kitchen to heat them on the stove to straighten her hair just as she’d heard her aunts did back in their days. She had seen the pictures. They were beautiful, like the girls in school with straightened hair. Even her late mother stood tall and elegant in the picture with her lovely, lovely hair, stone straightened. Maybe if she were still alive, she’d have bought relaxers for her too, the girl thought. And maybe, she’d look as lovely as the girls at school.
When the stones, had heated very well, she lifted them off the heat with a wet towel. She did not want to burn her hands. She gently straightened the first of eight small sections she’d made. She wanted it to be easy. And as she’d expected, the portion she ironed with the stone immediately began to relax its tension, the hair straightening, and seemingly growing in length. It was exciting to see all this in the small piece of a broken mirror that she laid on the kitchen cabinet to check on her progress.
Now, with more confidence, and excitement, she began to stone iron the rest of the hair, quickly and with precision. It was to look better than all those relaxed girls’ hair. Hers would shine, and bounce up and down, and no one would ever look down on her hair again, and on her as well. This was her hot stone passport to popularity, or at least, out of the invisible girls’ corner.
Each portion took long to straighten, as she had thick strands of hair. But she kept working with it, not giving up or getting tired. When she had done half the hair, she took a small hair scrunch, that she’d made out of her aunt’s old pulling stockings, and tied the straightened portion. It was straight and beautiful, and looking at it in the mirror, at the sleekness and smoothness, she knew she wanted to wear this look for the rest of her life. No more kinks for her. She’d look just like the ladies on television, just like all her teachers, and those girls whose mothers had money to get their hair relaxed by Tsitsi the Hairdresser. She got so excited she forgot how hot the stones were, and she got so greedy for the look and she wanted even the roots straighter looking than they did. So she let the stones heat some more. If they could, she wanted them to turn red, red with heat. After a while heating them, she took one and pressed right from the root, making sure to go deeper than before. But as she moved carefully, down towards the roots, the stone slipped and burnt part of her scalp, and she yelped, letting go of the stone. And the stone landed on the back of her neck before rolling off to the floor. She let out another scream and jumped up and down, making sure the stone had really fallen off her.
The burns hurt really badly. They stung painfully, but she was determined to finish. She was more than half way there, and with a little more care she could pull this off with no more burns. But the girl was unlucky. Stone ironing the second half of the head proved to be more difficult, and she burnt her self over and over again. She burnt the neck a couple more times, and her ears, and the scalp uncountable times, and the hair became more and more difficult to work with. It was hard to reach for the back. It was hard to be precise working the back of her hair. The hair did not straighten as easily as it had when she worked on the front section. Even her determination did not deliver this time. Her hands hurt from burns. Her neck, her ears, her scalp and a portion of her face all stung with pain from burns.
She started to cry.
She cried until her grandmother walked in. “Munaku, why are you crying? What is…?” Her grandmother stood frozen at the kitchen door, taking in all that was going on.
“Munaku, what is all this? What has gotten into you child? Do you realize you can burn yourself? You can burn the house? Munaku!!!” Her grandmother was obviously disappointed, very disappointed and shaken. But with her usual cool temperament she asked her again, to explain exactly what it is she had been trying to do. She sat her down, and the girl started to explain. She told her all about the girls in school with long straightened hair, about the lavish hair the news ladies wore and that she so envied. She told her of all her insecurities, all through tears. Munaku’s Grandmother was hurt.
“Munaku, do you know why we called you Munaku, why your mother and father called you Munaku?”
No Grandma. Why?
“Munaku, because you’re beautiful!!!” Her grandmother answered with an exasperated look, clearly frustrated by her grand daughter’s lack of confidence, and of faith in her. “The nurses handed you over to your mother and said, oh Mama, she’s beautiful. How can a baby be this lovely? Your mother held you too and in her weakness concurred with the nurses. She said she had never seen such beauty. And when your father walked in he just held you in his hands and could not say a word. He was speechless. The question of the name soon came up and your father said, she is beautiful; we must call her the beautiful one. And your mother agreed. And Beautiful One you were named. Munaku!” She sighed and touched the girl’s cheeks, moving her hands gently towards her chin.
“And now you want to doubt it? You want to doubt the beauty that was agreed on by your parents and even strangers? And you are beautiful Munaku. Everywhere I went with you when you were a baby, everyone asked about your beauty, and that thick lavish hair you wore on your head. And I always smiled and told them you took after your mother.” She stopped again briefly and gave the girl a long hard, pitying look “You can do all you want to your hair Munaku mwanangu, but you must know, beauty is not defined by hair or all these things that the young women of today seem to believe in. Beauty is deeper that skin and hair my dear.”
Munaku started to sob even harder. She stood from where she sat and walked into her grandmother’s open arms. She cried more, with heavy sounds from her chest. And her grandmother held her quietly patting her hair, sometimes hurting her burns. They were silent for a long while, till her grandmother spoke.
“Never let anyone define your beauty for you. You’re the only person who holds the power to do that. You are beautiful Munaku.”
Munaku went to bed thinking about her grandmother’s words. She tied her hair with an old t-shirt and slept soundly till morning, dreaming of hot stones chasing after her to get a feel of her scalp and skin, to burn her. She ran and ran, and always in the end, they caught up with her and burnt her, and she’d scream, and open her eyes for a moment before falling again into another variation of stone-straightened-hair nightmares.
The next morning, she washed and got ready for school. When her grandmother walked in, she was surprised to see Munaku’s look. “Aaah Mamoyo, what have you done to the hair you worked so hard on yesterday? It has all shrunk?”
“I now like it this way Ambuya, just the way it grows out of my scalp. And you were right, I am beautiful. I looked in the mirror after combing my hair and I saw it.”
Her Grandmother smiled, a deep smile that showed all her wrinkles. She scratched the scalp of her own graying kinks, and Munaku smiled back, her young polished face and skin agreeing. She was a beauty, a natural beauty. And she knew it now. And she’d show the entire world, just in case they hadn’t seen it before when she hid, not knowing it.
Munaku, the beautiful one.
Rumbidzai is a freelance writer, blogger and storyteller. She writes a blog www.everythingamum.com and runs a Facebook page For Us Natural Hair Divas . Munaku is a Shona description of a beautiful girl.