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Afro hair tips are gratefully received by a white mum with a mixed-race daughter

When I was a girl, my straight-haired mother used to complain that she didn't know how to look after curly hair.

During tearful nights of combing she would whisper in my ear: "You have to suffer to be beautiful." Eventually, she resorted to Princess Leia plaits.

Now, with an Afro-haired daughter of my own, I understand better what she was dealing with. Only, she had it easy.

Afro hair needs a lot of maintenance, but as a white mum of a mixed-race daughter living in a mostly white neighbourhood, I didn't know where to find advice. My in-laws are in Uganda, and Grace's Dad wasn't much help. I did accompany him to a barber in east London once, but it was a very macho place and I couldn't imagine taking my daughter there (unless she wanted a grade two).

ImageNherts' Roxanne Enemokwu with three-year-old Grace. Picture: Vikki Lince
ImageNherts' Roxanne Enemokwu with three-year-old Grace. Picture: Vikki Lince

I was thirsty for knowledge. Grace was born with a lot of hair and in her first summer she started scratching at her heavy mass of curls. A lady at the supermarket checkout advised me not to cut it, but I wasn't sure what else to do. Then a neighbour suggested I put her hair in tiny bunches to get air to the scalp. It was a small comment for her, but a revelation for me. But when I asked her where she got her own hair cut, she said east London. Which seemed far to go on my own when I didn't know what I was looking for - Should I ask for braids? What is a weave?

After posting holiday photos on Facebook, my niece in Uganda enquired about how I was managing the tangles in my daughter's Afro. Mbabazi's question was very sweet, but it made me realise I needed to do something – and fast.

I found an Afro hair talk in Broxbourne and signed up. It wasn't specifically catering for people like me - the main focus of the talk was about avoiding the damage of harsh chemicals and heat damage that much Afro hair has to contend with - but it was nearby and I contacted the organiser who was super friendly and who encouraged me to come along.

I quickly discovered I wasn't alone. Sitting next to me at the event was a black mum of two daughters who told me she was terrified when she discovered she was having a daughter, because she didn't even know how to care for her own hair. I was about to discover how much I had to learn!

On the practical side of things, I had been doing all the wrong things. I now wash Grace's hair no more than once a week, spritzing water on her hair and using leave-in conditioner when I comb it out in between.

What I hadn't appreciated at all, however, was how others might view my daughter's hair. I'd read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Americanah with my book group and discussed her assertion that the book is about hair. But I thought the debate was about liberating the Afro rather than taming it with harsh chemical straighteners. I didn't realise it went deeper, to notions about what the world tells you is beautiful.

The event organiser, Titolami Bello, spoke about challenging the headmistress of her daughter's school when she called her daughter's hair 'wild'. Since then, I've seen my own stepson struggle with school regulations, which fail to account for the way Afro hair grows.

Roxanne working on Grace's hair. Picture: Vikki Lince
Roxanne working on Grace's hair. Picture: Vikki Lince

Immediately after the talk I began searching for a hairdresser. I was preparing to make the long trip to a London hair salon when someone asked if I knew about ImageNherts on the Hockerill crossroads in Bishop's Stortford. I had passed the salon many times without understanding that what I needed was so close. I pitched up the next day and was warmly welcomed by salon owner Roxanne Enemokwu. Then I watched in horror as she brushed out Grace's hair, revealing the full extent of knots.

"I'm sorry darling, Mummy's not been doing a very good job with your hair," I said, looking forlornly at my daughter in the mirror.

Roxanne waved my regrets away. "You didn't know," she said. "This is just the start of your Afro hair journey."

Grace shows off her new look. Picture: Vikki Lince
Grace shows off her new look. Picture: Vikki Lince

Roxanne's top tips for top tips...

  1. Use a comb. Use a wide-toothed comb, not a brush. Curly hair is fragile and each curl is a potential breaking point. A wide-toothed comb will be more gentle and won’t disrupt the natural curl pattern.
  2. Detangle. Section hair into four parts so the scalp looks like hot-cross bun. Working in sections will allow you to manage your hair/your child’s hair better. Use clips to keep each section in place.
  3. Always comb your hair from the bottom up. Starting at the bottom allows you to gently detangle each knot from hair tip to root.
  4. Trim regularly to avoid split ends. If you want healthy curls that look bouncy and fresh, book an appointment with your salon every six to eight weeks for a quick trim.
  5. Don’t skimp on products. Cheap products weigh your hair down and don’t allow movement. Avoid chemicals or harsh products and stick to natural ingredients where possible. I recommend the L’Oreal Mizani True Texture range, Design Essentials Natural range and Kera-Care Natural Textures range – all stocked in our salon.
  6. Customise your haircare regime. Did you know that you can have two to four different types of curls on one head? Given this variety, maintaining and styling curly hair is not a ‘one size fits all’. Develop your own product cocktail, for example by adding a smoothing or frizz-free serum with other moisturising products. If your hair is really dry, try adding coconut oil or Jamaican castor oil to your hair and a dollop of styling gel/mousse for supreme hold without leaving your hair dry and crunchy. For kids, skip the gel/mousse. Remember the hot cross bun? It works really well when applying styling products too.
  7. Not a wash day, but your hair is dry and frizzy? No problem. Using a small water bottle spray, spritz your hair until it is slightly damp, then apply a leave-in conditioner, followed by your choice of products (serum, curl pudding, curl enhancing lotion etc.) This will help lock in the moisture and keep your curls thick, lustrous and bouncy and reduce frizz.
  8. When shampooing your hair, remember to detangle it first. Wet hair, apply sulphate-free moisturising or hydrating shampoo on your palm, emulsify and apply to your hair. Make sure your hair is well covered, then wash out in sections (if hair is long). Next, apply conditioner, rinse, then follow with a leave-in conditioner. Style as required and don’t forget to apply moisturising products as recommended above. Psst! Curly hair doesn’t need to be shampooed as frequently as straight hair. Frequent shampooing can stretch and stress out fragile strands and dry out thirsty curls. However, conditioner is your friend, you can apply conditioner even if you don’t shampoo your hair.
  9. Have a bedtime routine. If you want to spend less time detangling your hair, then put it up before you go to bed. Pineappling #1: This is a technique which basically means loosely gathering hair at the highest point of the head. For extra protection, cover your hair. An old pair of (clean) tights will do the trick. Sectioning and twisting #2: Divide your hair in sections – see the hot cross bun tip. Secure each section with tiny professional rubber braiding hair bands or loom bands. Divide each section in two strands, then twist them around each other. Rough cotton pillowcases can cause your coils to tangle and frizz. Outfit your bed (or at least your pillows) with smooth satin pillowcases. Or wrap your hair in a satin scarf or bonnet to keep curls sleek and intact.
  10. Lay off the heat. Blow dryers, flat irons, curling irons - all of these thermal tools lead to breakage. Try to air dry your hair when you can – either naturally or in twists or on foam rollers. If you do use tools, look for ones that are made with tourmaline or ceramic. Always apply a heat protection product prior to styling. If you must style with heat, consider a diffuser. It minimises frizz by evenly distributing heat, and it’s much gentler than direct heat from a blow dryer. Start at the roots using circular motions, keeping the dryer at a 90-degree angle to your scalp. When your hair is just about dry, hit the cool button on your dryer to lock in shine.
ImageNherts in London Road, Bishop's Stortford. Picture: Vikki Lince
ImageNherts in London Road, Bishop's Stortford. Picture: Vikki Lince

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