EVER wondered where the glamorous hair extensions, weaves and wigs that you see on many black women come from? Or even imagine that these sometimes flimsy synthetics are a pivotal part of what is estimated to be a multibillion-rand industry?
Truth is, us black women will do anything to avoid dealing with our own hair. Most black women that is.
First it was braids that took forever to plait. An average hair stylist would take up to 14 hours to get the hair done.
Recently we discovered virgin ethnic hair. Now there is the weave, which is easier to maintain and quicker to put on.
Demand for human hair that has been cut for sale is increasing, but for those who can’t afford it there is always synthetic hair. With the rise in demand for human hair, black women can buy it “virgin” or “processed”, with virgin being more expensive. The difference between virgin and processed is that virgin hair comes from one person’s head, and processed hair is what falls off during or after the sewing process, and is thus a mixed “byproduct” of virgin hair. The strands are collected from the floor, and chemically washed and processed to perfection.
The problem with such synthetic “hair” is that it is not made to be reused, although it is easy to maintain and can be kept for up to three months if properly looked after.
“The Brazilian hair you are wearing is not hair from an actual Brazilian woman,” says Mbali Mnyandu, manager of Candi & Co Hair & Beauty salon in Randburg Mall.
“The hair we call Malaysian, Brazilian and Moroccan is actually Indian hair, from India. It is called Brazilian hair due to the technique used to sew the hair together, which was established in Brazil. The different ethnic terms are solely used as a marketing strategy to interest people in different kinds of Indian hair.”
Mnyandu says she buys her salon’s hair from Indique in Rosebank, a supplier specialising in virgin hair, for which she travels overseas to personally choose pieces. Mnyandu sells weaves made from this hair at R2,500 per hairpiece. You need three for one hairdo.
Indique sub-Saharan Africa MD Agai Jones says his firm — in the hair business for 25 years — has been hairdresser to celebrities including Rihanna and Lady Gaga, showing that nonblack women can also use weaves, although they don’t do so often.
Indique buys its hair from India, where it is sewn before being sold worldwide. In India suppliers buy the hair from temples, where women sacrifice their hair in a Hindu ritual to eschew vanity and gain renewal. To add intrigue, there is a myth on social media about a curse that comes with Indian hair from the temples. Hair sewing is also done in Brazil and China.
That hair is big business is evident in the seizure, widely reported in December, of a tonne of human hair by Brazilian authorities at São Paulo’s international airport. The hair came from India and was valued at $400,000.
Rosemary Anah, owner of Akumas Global salon in Randburg, buys hair directly from Brazil, Morocco, Peru and Malaysia, and disagrees with Mnyandu that there is no Brazilian hair. She and her sister travel to these countries to buy the hair. They then fly to China or Brazil to get the hair sewn.
Anah shows off different types of hair from different ethnic groups and mentions she does not buy Indian hair as it is “too thin and silky”, making it hard to maintain. Her prices, however, are much lower than Mnyandu’s. The three hairpieces needed for one hairstyle cost R2,800 together, for a length of 50cm. Salons charge for hair by quality and length, although they buy it in kilograms.
A lot of black women prefer hairpieces to their natural hair, for different reasons. Ethnic and synthetic hair is easy to maintain and looks glamorous on a modern woman who likes to explore different looks for different occasions or reasons.
Malebo Thamaga, an intern at the Department of Health, just bought her first weave of 100% virgin hair. She loves it because it’s real hair and should last longer. Black natural hair is tiring to comb and a weave helps with a change.
Thamaga says a weave is an indicator of class, a virgin weave being the classier.
Phumzile Mthimkhulu, who works for advertising company Network WBDO, says she wears a weave because she does not have long hair and “dreads are boring and are a lifetime commitment to the same hairstyle. I do not like them.”
Mthimkhulu was influenced by the media in buying a Brazilian weave, and is looking forward to making her second virgin ethnic hair purchase.
But Getty Simelane, owner and Founder of The HR Touch in Rivonia, prefers her natural hair to weaves. “I have good natural hair; I resorted to dreadlocks instead of weaves, which are still expensive to maintain if you want to keep them neat.” Simelane says her natural hair can still take different styles, and she would “never” consider a weave, as she is comfortable in her own hair and knows that hair does not determine the class of a woman. “My kids wear weaves and I pay for it,” she says — keeping it real and natural is her choice.
Zonke Dikana, singer, songwriter and producer, also keeps to her natural hair. “I do not wear a weave because I feel comfortable in my own hair. It is not even about maintenance and I am not even thinking about wearing weaves at all, well at least not in the next 20 years.” She too doesn’t believe hair determines a woman’s class.
Although it was difficult to get figures on just how much goes into the hair business, it appears salons and individuals spend hundreds of thousands of rand each month to import hair from international hair suppliers. It is the lack of an active overarching association, and the wide variety of ways in which the hair can be obtained, that make it difficult to estimate the industry’s size.
Some women buy weaves online but this is risky as you might end up with something other than what you saw in the photo when you ordered.
Lucy Maratlule sells virgin hair from her car boot. She says she travels to Peru and Dubai every month, to buy Brazilian, Malaysian, Indian, Cambodian and Peruvian hair. The hair is already sewn and washed. She says her hair is grade 7a, which is “the real deal”. She sells it for R1,900 for a full head, and warns against paying too much for what can be fake hair — when burnt, real hair will smell like hair; it can be dyed; and if you run your fingers through it, hair should not fall off or tangle.
Judging from the number of women frequenting South African salons who originate from other parts of Africa, I assume the techniques were first established in Africa before they were formally introduced to SA, but who knows for sure? There is also the US influence.
Black women are spoiled for choice.
• The exhibition Doing Hair: Art and Hair in Africa, is on at the Wits Art Museum until November 2. Entrance is free.