7384 Tales of Hair for My Cousin without Hair – Michigan Quarterly Review

7384 Tales of Hair for My Cousin without Hair

Published in Spring 2024 Online Folio

How to Survive the Weekend

Make Saturdays for braiding hair. On Friday night, we map out our strategy. Get hairstyle from the social prefect, loose, wash, and plait. We even have a formation. Favour sits at the top of the dining table and Onyinye beneath her on the chair, then I would sit on the floor. The three of us simultaneously loosen braids while watching Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles and gossiping about Minna from school. We switch places until everyone’s hair is fully loosened and prepped for Iya Ola’s dexterous fingers on Saturday.

“The hairstyle for next week is . . .” the social prefect announced at Friday’s assembly.

“Drum rolls please . . .” She waited till the drums reached a crescendo. “. . . Senior Girl!” The crowd cheered.

“Let me show you.” She handed the microphone to another senior and grabbed a student from the front row to demonstrate.

“Bend your head,” she said.

“Everybody look here! You will plait All Back on the sides like this and Patewo in the middle.” She pushed the student back into the crowd and grabbed her mic.

“If you come on Monday with another hairstyle, you will kneel throughout the assembly and Mr. Kingsley will punish you.” She pointed to the eager short man brandishing a cane and the assembly hall groaned.

The culture of dictating weekly school hairstyles evolved from grooming practices initiated at the foundation of formal secondary education in many British colonies. Female students at most public secondary schools did not even have the privilege of weekly hairstyles like their private school counterparts. Every head of hair must be shaved below two inches or risk suspension. This is just to ensure that everyone looks nice and tidy. You never know what could be growing inside a fourteen-year-old’s hair, especially the thick, coily, afro kind.

“What hairstyle did they call for you?” I asked Onyinye and Favour the moment I entered the school bus. They had just been picked up from Aquinas Primary School.

“Patewo,” Favour replied, chewing her nails and trying to balance a book on her lap.

“What did they call for you?” she asked with her eyes still fixed on the book.

“Senior Girl.”

“Is that not like Patewo in the middle and all back on the sides?” Onyinye asked. “You’re lucky. The hairstyles for secondary school girls are more interesting.”

“Forget that thing. Everything is scam. If they call hard hairstyle, Iya Ola will charge me more. Money that Daddy will remove from my university savings,” I hissed and turned to the front.

In order to be the first person to get to Iya Ola’s shop the next day, we had to make sure our game plan was tight. Onyinye mapped our strategy to execute the plan. It’s always the same plan but it felt good to say it.

“We have to get there at 7 am,” Onyinye said.

“It sounds great . . . but Favour,” I pointed to Favour who was picking her nose and tracing the lines on her book as we went over a speed bump, “she will mess it up.”

We both turned and stared at her till she met our gaze.

“What??” she asked. 

“We need your cooperation. No distractions. If we don’t follow the plan and get to Iya Ola’s shop by 7 am tomorrow, we will spend the entire day there,” I said.

“We will get there on time. I’m almost done with the book.” We kept looking at her unsatisfied with the answer. “Don’t worry. I won’t stay up late,” she answered and waved us away. I sighed in relief. There’s nothing worse than sitting in a hairdresser’s shop the entire day waiting your turn.

How to Survive a Relaxer Burn

During midterm breaks, we add Wash and Relax to the routine. Mummy had tried to do this at home, but the hair was never cooked through with lye. The hairdresser would always complain that our hair was not soft enough. She decided to take us to Aunty Tina, the relaxer expert.

Every salon is a haven for married women to drama-dump about their notorious husbands and wayward children. Aunty Tina applied the relaxer to my hair about an hour ago, but now she was chatting with Mama Chukwudi about her stubborn son. 

“This boy did not come back last night. Can you imagine?” Mama Chukwudi said.

“Aunty,” I said, “my hair is itching.”

“Don’t worry. Let me finish this quick quick,” Aunty Tina said.

“Tina, I have suffered. Yesterday, neighbors found him in the gutter. Who drinks and falls in the gutter? And that foolish husband of mine, I will cut his tro tro one day,” Mama Chukwudi said.

Aunty Tina was so invested in Mama Chukwudi’s plot to castrate her husband that she forgot about me. My butt itched from two hours on solid wood and my feet tingled with electric ants. I stayed on her high stool till she finished installing Mama Chukwudi’s weave. A burning sensation spread from my hair to the back of my head. I could hear my blood vessels fighting for their lives. Combustion was inevitable. Suddenly, my ears popped and expelled exhaust fumes. I cried out and held my ears. Aunty Tina saw my distress and dismissed Mama Chukwudi. She rushed me to the washing table and tried to undo the damage. 

As Aunty washed away the relaxer, I felt sores at the back of my head. We both ignored it. She made sure to rub extra Vaseline on my hairline, a peace offering and an invisible agreement to never speak of the accident.

Two months after the second Aunty Tina episode, I changed schools, and all the girls were mandated to shave their heads. The sore from Tina’s relaxer had not faded, and I did feel good about my exposed scalp.

 My father was excited about this new rule. “All of you should shave your head. Do you know how much we spend every week in this house to plait hair for three girls?”

“My baby girl!” he consoled, “Fresh skodo fits you. See as your skull is shining.” He rubbed my hairless head and laughed. I slapped his hands away and growled at him.

Shaved hair era became a vibe. There was no maintenance except hair oil. The barber shop became my new hub till he started licking his lips and smirking at me.

How to Survive Christmas

Christmas hair is like Christmas clothes. It must be new, shiny, and the very best. The first step to win best in Christmas hair is to book Aunty Nana a month in advance and choose your date. Aunty Nana is at the top of the Coker Compound hairdresser food chain. No matter how pretty your hair looks, Aunty Nana could have done it better. She’s a witch like that.

Mummy came on Nov 15th to book our appointment and ended up kneeling. What was our crime?

“You’re not my regular customer. My regular customers have already booked all the days.” Aunty Nana turned the head of the girl she was braiding and grunted in frustration.

Iya Ola, our regular braider, was scheduled to have her baby during the Christmas season and could not handle her clients for the holiday season.

“Please.” My mother knelt. “Please! We will leave Iya Ola and move to your side.”

“This child!!” She tapped the head of the girl she was braiding and turned her around, “This child no dey hear word. Mama Delight, right?”

“Yes ma.”

 “You go pay new commer fee.”

My mother stood up and cleaned her knees.

“New commer fee??”

“Or bye bye.” Aunty Nana waved her hands like she was shooing away street cats.

“Thank you. No problem. Which day?” my mother asked.

“Make I see.” She turned to the big calendar behind her while still gripping the girl’s hair. The girl on the stool was straining and holding her neck.

“Nov 25th na the only date I get.” Aunty Nana continued her braiding without looking up to see my mother’s reaction.

There’s no way I was letting them do my Christmas hair a whole month before Christmas. School would still be in session. Christmas hair is supposed to be new and shiny. I tried to tug on my mother’s blouse, but she brushed it off.

“I have 3 girls. All of them that day?”

“You dey do abi you no dey do??” Aunty Nana’s irritation was visible.

“Sorry . . . Sorry.”

Aunty Nana looked me over.

“Your child get plenty hair. Put better relaxer creme for her head. No be that fake America one. Better creme.”

“Yes ma!!” My mum dragged me out of the store before Aunty Nana changed her mind.

 On the 25th, I got to Aunty Nana’s store at 7 am with my braiding hair, a plate of rice, and lemon Fanta. My mother let me decide which braid colors I wanted, and I went with a safe red and black.

Aunty Nana gathered the braiding hair, and we began the journey that would last the next couple of hours.

“You have not finished?” Onyinye asked when she came at noon.

“No mind your sista. She no fit keep her head one place.”

Aunty Nana sighed and bent my head so she could continue.

“Is Odera still at home?” I asked Onyinye.

“Is it that neighbor who goes to your school?”

A semi-hidden agenda for this hairstyle is that I want Odera to see it. Somebody told me that he told somebody that knows somebody that he likes red. I need him to see it today while it’s still new and shiny, but the timeframe for afternoon soccer was slowly slipping away.

“So na because of man you no gree keep your head,” Aunty Nana spanked my shoulder. “Children of nowadays, una too like bad thing.”

 I started tapping my feet as soon as Aunty Nana finished the last braid. She cut off the excess hair and trimmed it. I stood up to leave.

“Sit down one place before I burn you!” she shouted.

She lit the kerosene lamp and held its open flames near my ear. “If you burn, na you cause am.” I sat still as she picked up each individual braid from my head and lifted it to seal its ends in the fire. I sighed in relief when she turned off the light.


I jumped out of my stool in excitement, packed my food, snack wrappers, and excess braiding hair in my bag, and ran off. I walked by the soccer field, and he was not there. I went by his house, and the veranda was empty. I climbed the railing and looked inside. The house looked empty, but buckets were missing from the front. I ran to the backyard and spotted Odera fetching water.

I slowed down as I got closer and patted my head. The new weight was painful, but the sheen on my face was gleeful. He heard my footsteps and turned.

“Hey . . .”

“Hey! Your hair. It looks nice.”

“Thank you.”

“What are you doing here?”

I looked around for a quick alibi and spotted an aju.

“I forgot my aju.” I grabbed it and ran away.

It is okay if my hair is dull by Dec 25th. Odera saw it on the first day.

How to Enjoy a Bald Head

My father shaved my hair for reading. At this point, it’s routine to go bald once a year. He was walking past the bathroom at midnight when he noticed a torchlight flickering. He called out to Mama Delight and together they banged on the door and shouted for me to exit the bathroom. I hid the book behind the tub and opened the door. My mum grabbed me by the head and demanded to know what I was doing in the bathroom at night with a torch. They searched the bathroom and found the culprit, The Slipper by Thomas Elmer Huff. She ripped the book to shreds and threatened to shave my head. Her hesitation annoyed my father who grabbed a pair of scissors and sheared me to the scalp. The clumps of hair fell next to the torn pages. I grabbed my hair on the floor, cursed out my parents, and cried myself to sleep.

 I wore my patched hair to school the next day and the next day and the next. I refused to get it nicely cut. My determination to embarrass my father outweighed my self-consciousness. People asked me what happened, and I told them that my father was a wicked man who shaved my head for fun. Neighbors were appalled and promised to talk to him. I wanted as many people as possible to trash-talk him.

On the second day of wearing my patchy hair to school, Ms. Ebere called me to her table and asked me to shave that head properly or forget about coming to school.

“Is this how you want to represent us, eh?? Next year you will come and apply for prefect. Who do you think will vote for you if you keep looking like a mad woman?”

My old barber was delighted to see me. Yes, The creepy one. After the cut, I poured cold water on my head and cried in the bathroom. Bring out the fertilizers because graduation is in a year, and I am not going to be the bald valedictorian.

Out of guilt, Mummy followed me to Alaba market and bought all the hair growth fertilizers we saw. One old woman told us she had the perfect product. She brought out a scoop of black soap.

“Beta shampoo,” she said. She kept pulling products from her shelf.

“This one dey work well well. E get igbo.”

You would think marijuana was out of the question, but Mummy paid for the product after the old woman kept reeling out the health benefits.

The old woman advised that I lace my hair with the creme every night and keep it plaited in didi. Iya Ola is the only one we know that can do the traditional didi. Mummy and I conspired and cooked the tastiest pot of Abacha you could imagine and get a pack of soft drinks to seek mercy after our Christmas betrayal. She took us back, but Aunty Nana never forgave me. I get vicious stares whenever I pass her stall.

How to Survive Afterbirth

Iya Ola has seven children. There are the twins Taiwo and Kehinde, Ola, Papilo, Marriam, Shetty, and the baby. They sleep at No. 6 where half the area boys breathe, smoke, and wait for the next election so that they can steal ballot boxes for the next politician. No. 6 is also home to the best artisans in Coker Compound: Mama Nneka Tailoring and co, Baba Righteous Plumbing, Beatrice Nails and Tins, and Sabo Electrics. It also has the best Well; the water tastes like spring and gushes out of a rock on the ground. The entire street lines up at No. 6 to fetch from this basin. No. 6 is the center of Coker Compound, the heartbeat of the street. Mummy was never happy whenever we stayed out there till dark because anything that wanders into No. 6 never comes out the same. 

I sat outside nervously waiting for Iya Ola to come out of her kiosk and attend to me. My eyes never left the drunk men playing drafts in the corner or the little girl staring at me while pooping in her blue elephant potty.

Iya Ola finally came out of her kiosk wearing her newest baby across her chest. She sat down and opened her legs, then gestured for me to place my head between her laps. I expected didi to involve acrobatics but not this kind. I refused.

“You wan do your hair or no?” This was my first time doing didi and this must be part of the rules.

I placed my head slightly to the right to avoid the entryway, but she adjusted it back to the center and began parting my hair with her wooden rattail comb. Three hours later, I resurrected with my hair braided in an upside-down pattern with intricate traditional basket weaving details. My hair felt longer but my breath shortened. She bid me goodbye after I paid. My feet did not smell the ground as I ran away from No. 6 with notes of marijuana and vag.

How to Choose the Best Hair Stylist

Iya Ola comes from a long line of women who could weave your hair into anything. The Igala people have a rich history of braiding intricate hairstyles. Whenever Iya Ola came to plait Mummy’s hair, we would all marvel at the dance she managed to choreograph weaving and turning strands over and under.

After seven children, hairdressing became insufficient to sustain Iya Ola. She left the kiosk during the week to join her husband in his obscure business, and her children were left to fend for themselves. Her twins, Taiwo and Kehinde, took the mantle and recruited all their mother’s clients. While Iya Ola was knowledgeable about traditional braiding methods, the twins knew all about the trendiest styles and subtle ways to differentiate you from the pack by adding subtle swirls to your hairstyle.

Taiwo would tug you on one end and Kehinde would pull your head on the other. Their collaboration sped up the process and brought more customers till the business warranted that they move their family out of the kiosk. They took up the family business with fervor and rose to the demands of adulthood without flinching.

I was apprehensive about letting them braid my hair cause they seemed so green even with the conservative prices they were charging. When I saw the trendy hairstyles my classmates and sisters who patronized them were wearing, I shut my mouth and joined the queue.

The twins attended a different secondary school, and we traded stories while they made my hair. They taught me how to finesse money for more school supplies, how to iron uniforms without light, and how to put a bully in their place. I gisted them which latest school belle was knocked up, how to skip assembly, and how to avoid school punishment. There’s nothing sweeter than a hairdresser who speaks your language.

They braided my hair till I left for Uni. One morning we were talking about jamb scores for Uni admission, and the next month I was learning how to calculate class credits. The twins and I lost touch, but I saw a graduation photo recently. These girls braided their way through life.

How to Be a New Natural

In case you want to indoctrinate a new natural, I have some insights.

“Is that your hair?” someone asked me on the road. The natural hair movement was booming in 2016. Everyone was linking relaxers to fibroids and doing the big chop. Every woman on my street was doing the high puff thing. I was enamored. I watched a couple of YouTube videos and asked girls on the road till I figured out how to do it. After successfully imitating the hairstyle, I dressed in monochrome yellow and went to the programming school Mummy enrolled me in till I heard back from universities. This was the post-secondary school but before university season when everyone was learning a skill. It’s hard to call computer geeking a skill but that’s what happened.

Grandma lived at home with us at that time, the cusp of Papa’s death. They were annoyed at my parents’ executive decision to unsettle their rural trading lifestyle by moving them to Lagos where they shared a sterile urban flat with the rest of us. Mama’s mouth was always itching to say something, and my new unruly, untamed puff was an easy target.

“Kedu ihe i ke n’isi gi?” Grandma asked me.

“Ichafu,” I answered.

“Me ka i dozie ntutu gị,”she expressed her dislike, but Grandpa was digging it. You can’t win them all. 

The learning curve for a new natural is a whole ass octagon. I was learning so much from the streets and on YouTube, and I was excited to create, collaborate, and share my insights but after a failed social media presence, I stuck to liking other people’s pictures. I also learned quickly that some people will curse you out while others will mute you.

Dear Future Hair Guru,

Since you were a little girl, you have been told: “Oh your hair is too hard. Ndi Ocha have nicer and softer hair.” What nobody ever told you is that you are moisturizing wrongly. They never told you that you’re pulling too much and applying unnecessary tension to your hair. They did not tell you that the shampoo at the hairdresser’s salon contains ridiculous amounts of sulfate that strip all the natural oils from the hair and neither did they tell you that conditioning is an integral part of maintaining the crown on your head. They just told you that, “Your hair is problematic. Chop it off or hide it under weaves.”

You have unlearned all this and started a healthy hair growth journey. This now brings about a complex problem of finding effective affordable products. Every black woman in the world deserves the opportunity to love her hair, and it’s difficult to do that when it is difficult and expensive to maintain.

I have a business proposition for a holistic woman salon where money is not a hindrance to haircare. I am even thinking of a hair care book that celebrates curly hair with stunning photography accompanied by poetry. We should partner and create something like that. This  may lead to launching a website, promoting the products that we work on, and finding ways to make them affordable without compromising effectiveness and health.

Please hit me up with a response whenever you can.



How to Defeat Shrinkage

It is a dictatorship. There’s no defeating shrinkage. The quest to conquer shrinkage is what led to relaxers and hot combs. To dominate a creature with a mind of its own, you have to exercise intense oppressive tools to break its will and chemical bonds. Lye and heat strip curls of their keratin bonds, cut off their limbs, and leave them out to dry and shrivel in the cold.

Evolution naturally selected folks on this side of the equator to have a mop of tightly bound coils on their head to protect their skulls from the intense rays of the sun especially during the Stone Age. Our hunter-gatherer grandfathers were protected from the worst of the sun with heavily melanated skin and curls on their heads. Unlike their Scandinavian counterparts whose biology preferred them for long winters.

Fighting shrinkage exposes our desire for uniformity. Why would I want a shapeshifter to look like everyone else when it wants to decide its appearance? There’s also a layer of discontent attached to the fight against shrinkage. Straight hair girls are doing perms to get their hair curly, and curly-haired girls are doing perms to straighten their hair.

I have accepted shrinkage. I can do whatever style I wish, and my hair will show up as 50% of its length. She’s the boss. I just wear her.

How to Curly Hair

The mirror was foggy from the bathroom mist. I wiped it down and sat on the floor, the towel, the only barrier between my butt and the occasionally sanitized floors. I had every tool needed: a tub of curl pudding, rattail comb, clamps, rubber band, and Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles playing in the background. Part, twirl, clamp, repeat, part, twirl, clamp, and repeat till the end.

The popularization of the natural hair movement brought the curl hierarchy. The C curls and racially ambiguous girls were at the top of the pyramid. Everyone who fit those standards got the Shea Moisture and Carol Beauty sponsorships. Racial ambiguity was commodified because it was a canvas that any identity could be built on, and this was appealing to big corporations. The S curl people right underneath them got whatever was left from the master’s table, and the zzzzz curls people weren’t even allowed into the dining room to sniff the cake. These descriptors are necessary absolutes and caricatured stick figures. Both things can be true. Why do curly-hair products sell for twice the price of “regular” hair products?

How to Perfect Hair Growth Super Food

Remember those avocado recipes my mum learned from YouTube and couldn’t stop talking about? I watched more of them till I became addicted and learned every hack in the book. My favorite one was the #proteinchallenge.


2 cups of mayo

1 overripe avocado

1 soft banana

2 egg whites


Blend and strain.

Apply to freshly washed hair.

Leave to sit for 30 minutes.

Rinse and style. 

After finding chunks of avocado and banana in my hair, I abandoned that one and did the #ricewaterchallenge for stronger hair.

Wash a cup of rice for 5 minutes.

Soak in cold water for 36 hours.

Strain and transfer to a spray bottle.

Apply daily for maximum effect.

There was a new trend or rave in the natural hair community every day. All the YouTubers rushed to pioneer the trends by creating endless videos about them for the consumers. There was Avocado mask, Sweet Potato mask, Aloe Vera pre-poo, Bentonite Clay, Henna, Fenugreek, Ayurveda, Onion Water, etc.

How to Travel Hair

At home, I had a routine. I had my hairdresser, Onyinye’s map, and my drug dealer from the hair market. Outside, I had nothing.

We spent Christmas in the village like any sensible Igbo family. My father took me to the plot of land he inherited from his father. His brothers already built their village mansions, but he spent his own money educating his children.

“This is our land; the land my father left me,” he said. “You will finish school and come back to build your father’s house.” I assured him that my mansion would be such an edifice that Umuoji people would come and gawk at it for entertainment.

After a month in the village playing with cousins and climbing trees, the freshly done braids I brought home looked more like the buttocks of a wet chicken than a bird’s. I was in limbo. It was almost two years since I finished secondary school and I was yet to start university. I had tough luck with UME exams and the public universities were so full it felt impossible to secure a spot. My mates whom I graduated from secondary school with were in their second year of Uni  and I was running around the village with my cousins.

We were waiting for an offer letter to come and determine  if I would get a scholarship to study abroad. The letter came so close to the new year and my family went into a frenzy trying to make sure I was ready to resume school in January. I was scheduled to leave for Atlanta, Georgia at 10pm on January 2nd. My hair was undone. My hairdressers were all the way in Lagos and we could not find anyone to do my hair in the village on such short notice during the festive season.

My mother was so terrified, she dreamed that I traveled overseas without getting a proper hairstyle. At the dawn of Jan 1, we piled into my father’s Highlander for the day’s trip back to Lagos from Umuoji. My sisters helped me take out my braids in the car while my father defied the speed limit to the horror of the policemen at the checkpoints. The moment we drove into the city, my father drove my mum and I to a hair salon before he dropped the others at home. This hairdresser was a new one. Neither tried nor trusted by us but recommended by a good friend in a time of desperation.

“What is the hairstyle?” the hairdresser asked.

“Rainfall,” I answered.

“Why do you want to plait rainfall to go to Obodo Oyibo,” my mother asked.

“I can pack it anyhow I like,” I answered. 

After hurried goodbyes and frantic packing, we made it just in time for my flight. At the airport, the security woman was surprised at my twists. “Who will do it for you like that in America?” I was surprised by the question. “Don’t they have hairdressers over there?”

“You will see,” she answered.

I soon found out what she meant. There’s no Iya Ola, Aunty Nana, Aunty Tina or random lady across the street who does hair. There’s no gossip about husbands lying in the gutter. I missed having a braider every few feet. I experimented for months and stumbled around till a new set of twins blessed with the gift of drawing patterns across a scalp transferred to my school.

This piece is from our Spring 2024 African Writing Online Folio, an online-exclusive extension of our special issue, “African Writing: A Partial Cartography of Provocations,” guest edited by Chris Abani. You can read more from our Spring 2024 issue, available for purchase in print and digital forms here.

Delight Chinenye Ejiaka is an emerging fiction writer whose works chronicle the African experience and history. She studies melodramatic women and is curious about how the marketplace environment shapes people. Her short story “Market Craze” appears in Isele Magazine. She was a finalist for the 2022 Frontier Global Poetry Prize and the Ray Ventre Memorial Creative Nonfiction Prize. Her work has appeared in Isele MagazineDesert CompanionWhat You Need To Know About Me anthology, Whale Road Review, and Vindagua. Her work has been supported by Black Mountain Institute, Tin House, and Kweli Journal.

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