The Hairstyles of Turkana (story and video)

By John Ablan

LODWAR, Kenya – A female stylist with hot-pink hair extensions ran her hands over her young client’s curls. She scrutinized the chocolate-brown hair from different angles while R&B hits from the 1990s blasted from the radio. It could have been a salon in Anytown, USA – circa 1992. Only Mama Awi Salon sat in the heart of Lodwar, the commercial hub of northwestern Kenya.

“My salon gives new hairstyles to girls,” said Cecilia Abayo, the 20-year-old owner of Mama Awi. “They like braids and different colors.”

Abayo’s silky black hair was cut evenly around her head, like a mushroom top. Her hairstyle was just one of many on the posters scattered around Mama Awi’s white walls, featuring the hairdos of African celebrities.

“We also have posters of Bollywood actresses because they have long, smooth hair,” Abayo said. “One time, a customer wanted blonde curls like Beyoncé.”

“These styles are normal in other countries, but they are different in Lodwar because people are not used to it,” she added.

In the villages of this remote desert land, most Turkana women wear a Mohawk-like patch of thin, braided strips of hair while the city girls in Lodwar are rocking colorful braids and ponytails. Traditional Turkana boys’ hair is close-cropped on all sides of the head using hand-shaped and -sharpened metal blades. But in Lodwar, the boys now sport vintage 1990s hi-tops or buzz cuts with the hair slightly in front.

Dixon, a 19-year-old barber, said that boys have their own hair role models. “The young men look up to football stars and singers the most,” said Dixon, who cuts hair at The Shack. Though content with his own taper fade, Dixon said he longs to have long dreadlocked hair like Bob Marley. A large framed poster of the reggae pioneer hung in the back of his salon.

Ripped banners of English football clubs adorned the walls; an outdated portrait of a teenaged Usher Raymond with a Jheri curl sat above the open entrance. The pictures were there for inspiration.

Most of Dixon’s clientele are schoolboys. They wear the same white button-down uniform every day. Dixon said each boy wants a distinct haircut to call his own.

“A haircut has a personality,” said Dixon. “Every boy wants a different style to be themselves.”

The hairstylists, both of them young, look forward to building their clienteles and to expanding the local interest in modern style.

“We want to be more creative with hair in Lodwar,” said Abayo. “When more people change their styles, more will do the same.”