Not everyone can take flattering photos of you. Most of us know when we look our best and when we don’t. When I first shaved my head a few months ago, I could not bear to have my photograph taken, I kept thinking I looked more like the alien life form I’d once been accused of looking like when my forehead started resembling a small airport runway with a clump of trees next to it. It really was a shock to my system to have to admit defeat, and that my hairline was actually receding after years of over-braiding and tight pulling during various hair manipulations in order to “look pretty”. The results, however, were not at all pretty and I ended up with traction alopecia. Not long ago I had stared at photos of Naomi Campbell and wondered why she hadn’t taken care of her hair and insisted on putting in weave all the time. Meanwhile, back on the ranch, yours truly was doing all kinds of wrong to her own rapidly fading hairline. Hairdressers I went to interview looked at me cautiously, wanting to be kind. One of them (thank her!) was blunt and said “I can clearly see you’ve lost your hairline. I see that kind of thing all the time. It might not grow back.” The wind was kicked out of me when a dermatologist confirmed that I would need cortisone injections to help re-growth. Friends started offering advice, creams, expensive foreign lotions that didn’t quite help their mothers…but it was too late. I didn’t want a doctorate in sparse-ology of the hair, so I got educated and finally said “I am not going to let this hair rule or ruin me.”
Once the decision was made to cut it all off as there didn’t seem to be any chance it would grow back, I just got it done. This after perhaps a year and a half of denial. I was in love with my natural hair, had been for the almost 13 years I’d vowed never to relax it. Yet there I was over-styling and not listening to my scalp when it said enough was enough. I’d seen the signs, but continued to do the damage. Oh vanity.

Fast forward to the present and here I am loving what South Africans call my ‘chiskop’ which is a word combination of kop in the Afrikaans/Tsotsitaal to mean head and chis meaning cheese – a proper bald head should shine like cheese! This is the term for a woman’s bald pate, and widely used among black folk here, because chiskop is such a common sight. So much so that famous women, like the poet and TV presenter Lebo Mashile and the soap actress Tsholofelo Monedi are now known for having bald heads. In fact, when Tsholo the soap actress started growing her hair back and wearing cornrows, I was a little disappointed. We have such ownership over women’s looks don’t we?

I used to wonder what I’d look like with a chiskop, or what is known as a brush cut, when you leave a little bit that you’re able to brush. I surmised as long as I didn’t have President Jacob Zuma’s shape of head, I’d be okay. Thankfully, it turns out my head shape is ordinary. I look just as South African as anybody else, even though I am Malawian.

When you go bald in South Africa, Malawians ask why you’re doing what you’re doing because it’s not really our culture unless a close relative passes away. The emails roll in “I hope you haven’t decided to do this South African thing of chiskop!” Then you explain and the “It actually suits you” quickly follows. Two Malawian women I know embrace the style, and they are close friends. Taweni Gondwe Xaba, former editor of the Oprah Magazine South Africa, says: “I think nothing major of it since I regularly cut my locks down to the scalp and get nothing but compliments on my face which now has no competition from the hair!” You can’t beat that for confidence! It really isn’t a common thing in our country, but in such a conservative place, I’d give folk kudos for being understanding. Well, the pats on the back will wait as Taweni explains: “In malawi I’ve had chiskop twice and people didn’t even begin to know what to do with themselves! My male colleague at work asked if my husband “allowed” me to do that, saying he would never “allow” his wife to do that…” Oh dear.

– Luso Mnthali

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