Traveling to Senegal as a US-Born Black Woman Changed My Life, and My Hair
I step off the plane and sun caresses my hair; I feel at home.
It’s a month after my summer in Korea and I’ve just made my first trip to the African continent. I am in Dakar, Senegal and starting to feel free.
If nothing else, I have begun to learn how to fully appreciate my natural tresses. My untamed curls are naked in the sun and blow slightly in the light wind. As I reach up to adjust a stray strand, I catch a glimpse of myself in a window reflection. My hair is big. It dominates the image reflected back to me.
I put my hand down, deciding that there is no such thing as a stray curl, just curls for days. I am reminded of my failed clandestine life in South Korea, and immediately reject that notion for my time in Senegal.
I refuse to hide. Instead, everyone will know. I am here.
I hadn’t realized it before, but now I know: my hair is my identity.
My hair gives life to a me that is independent, opinionated, and brave, all while stamping down a me that is shy, uncertain, and lost.
Who knew curls had so much power?
In this new space and culture of Dakar, my mission is to embrace my newfound sense of self. Authentic me refuses to do anything else. My eyes are truly open and I am really here.
Grabbing my bags, I step into the crowds.
At the airport in Dakar, everywhere I look there is a mirror of me: dark faces, black hair, big smiles.
It’s both new and familiar to me. It’s rare to experience spaces like this, where bodies and hair like mine are the majority. And further, where those bodies are thriving. Where they are the norm.
Honestly, it takes me some time to adjust to this new reality. I am unsure if this is a passing phase — like back home where this reality exists in fleeting pockets — or if it is really the new standard.
One more look around helps to solidify this blackness as both real and powerful. I try to take it all in and etch this blooming space in my mind.
Unlike in Seoul, where I wanted to blend in, here in Dakar I want to stand out.
I step out of the crowd and say “Hello!” to the first natural-haired woman I see. She smiles, and I am encouraged so I say hello to another woman as well. At first there is silence, and I am afraid she will see through me, call out my foreign accent or unkempt curls. Instead, she smiles and says “Hello” back.
Three more people say hello to me without my prompting, and any doubts I have about how this trip will go dissipate.
I learn quickly that greetings go a long way in Senegal, and I have unintentionally anchored myself to a key principle in Senegalese culture: Teranga. Teranga means hospitality in Wolof, one of the native languages of Senegal.
The pleasantries I so readily avoided in Seoul are now essential bridges to connections in Dakar. I jump to embrace the new language of Wolof and integrate all of the greetings into my vocabulary. I try to fold myself into this space, food, language, hair.
In addition to the swift welcoming nature of Dakar, I also learn quickly that there is no real hair norm here.
Women wear their hair in varying states of natural and altered. There are women with large afros, and women with small ones. There are women with weaves or with braid extensions. And there are women with twist extensions. With cornrows, perms, and presses.
The versatility abounds.
Realizing this, I am surprised. Not by the hair, but by how everyone responds to it. No one asks questions, no one makes any comments, no one reaches to touch. These women are confident in whatever hair choice they have made.
In Senegal, this familiarity is so real and raw to me that I have moments where I am on the brink of tears. I had spent so much time worrying about what the right hair choice was and looking to avoid questions and comments about said choice that it’s never occurred to me that it could be a non-issue. This truth is deafening.
In Senegal, my host mother introduces me to the magic of fresh ginger.
Lumbe is a community juice maker. She makes all types of juices from the natural plants around, like bissap and ditakh, and sells them every day. Every time she makes a batch of juice, we taste some and help to bottle the rest.
My least favorite juice to taste is gingembre (ginger) juice. It’s spicy and strong and overwhelming. But Lumbe expects us to drink the whole bottle. It burns my throat, but is satisfying in the end.
One day after tasting and helping to pack the juices, Lumbe tells me to come over.
“Kaay Fii,” she says. Come here. So I do.
Apparently, there is lint in my hair. She plucks it out. But then she notices that I have many white spots on my head. One of the main hair issues I have struggled with throughout my life is dandruff. No matter what product I have used, my scalp is constantly dry and flaking. It’s no different in Dakar.
“Asseyez,” she commands. Sit. So I do.
She brings over a bottle of ginger juice, pours a little in her hand, and has me drink some. She explains that it will help with my dry hair and scalp. I know better than to argue, so I sit and wait for her next move. She puts the juice right in my hair, and it is exactly like taking a drink: strong and overwhelming and hot, but ultimately satisfying.
I had never thought to use ginger this way. But I like the way that I can feel it working.
I repeat this every day. And by the end of the first week, there is no more dandruff.
I am hooked. I use ginger in my hair every day, and I gladly drink my gingembre juice in the evenings. In fact, I get so hooked that I overload my system and end up developing a ginger allergy by the end of my stay in Dakar.
Although I no longer use ginger in my hair regimen, it remains the only product I have found that works for my dandruff.
I discover that it is not just a cliché that travel can introduce you to new ways of using familiar things. I use this new knowledge to help myself thrive.
I try to adopt Dakar’s attitude on hair to bring back home.
Ultimately, the loud statements of their carefree hair resonate with me. I decide to change my mission from trying to stand out to embracing the relief I have felt and being whomever I present to the world. No questions asked.
This relief is restorative. In this safe space I begin to blend.
Now, a spark is lit. Where Seoul was a race to the finish everyday, where I worried about my hair and the story it was telling, Dakar is a walk on the beach. My focus has shifted from my hair to everything (and everyone) that surrounds it.
Every day I add pieces of the culture to myself and carry them with me. Where in Seoul I felt like I was being chipped away at, in Dakar I feel renewed. By the end of my trip, my hair carries little (metaphorical) weight. It is me and I am here. There is no longer a distinction.
My travels had me seeking a physical home for my hair. Instead, what I found was the knowledge that home is not a space you carve out, rather a peace where you reside.
Where you do not have to explain yourself. Where you can be free.
And I do not think I would have experienced this growth without the experience of being in a majority black space.
In my previous travels, I arrived a full vessel ready to be overfilled with more knowledge and understanding of the world. But I had only been in spaces that I was familiar with.
To other states in the US, where the norm is having to defend my humanity and dignity because of my blackness. To Canada, where that dignity and humanity are more reachable but still out of reach. And to Seoul, where I lost and regained the will and need to fight for that dignity. The need to fight for me.
When I arrived in Dakar, I was an empty vessel. I had no expectations. I was fully open to the experience, good or bad. The blackness that surrounded me forced me out of my comfort zone — which until then had been in fighting and clawing for peace in my existence — and into a new world of validation and reassurance of self.
Now when I wear braids or twist extensions, it is not to hide.
I no longer frame the presentation of my hair from the outside looking in. Another culture’s (or community’s) opinion of my hair is moot. I see my hair as a piece of my identity — not the center of it — and I wear it as I please, with no care for comments or questions.
If you are a Black American, specifically an American-born descendant of slaves, I cannot stress enough the importance of an experience like this. Where you can be affirmed and reaffirmed in yourself by people like you. It is restorative in a way that I can only describe as exponential.
In the US, having spent so much of my energy fighting for this reality, it was as if my whole body sighed in relief in Dakar. I wish this renewed sense of self and affirmation of worth for everyone, and I sincerely hope your travels bring you to a new space where that reality is true.
Maybe it’ll be a job that guides you there, maybe it’ll be school. Maybe, like me, it will be your hair. Whatever the method of discovery, I have faith that a place in which you are the norm will restore you and bring you peace.
For me, the vessel was my hair and I am now at peace with it. I build my home in the space that accepts it, and me.
Black American travelers, have you had an experience like this when visiting a majority black space? Share in the comments!