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Of ‘cool’ Mike Sonko and politics of hair

By By OYUNGA PALA | December 2nd 2013


KENYA: I have no intention of opening a barber shop, but I spent a whole afternoon talking about hair with an acquaintance.

I got dragged into this hair debate when an acquaintance popped up a dated picture of the Nairobi Senator Mike Sonko, with brightly coloured dyed hair. I try to keep updated on Sonko’s latest trending hairstyle but I somehow, missed out on the dyed look.

The acquaintance stores images of Sonko’s hair styles on his phone to show off to his foreign colleagues who jet into the country on consultancy contracts just for laughs. The reaction from most foreigners is often, “You can’t be serious…there is no way this guy can be the senator of Nairobi”. 

Take the debate of Sonko’s hair to the public space and the responses will be split right down the middle. Older folk will insist that political leaders must maintain and conform to a simple standard of a neat crop and are dissuaded from the thought of styling let alone dying hair in bright colours.

Corded meanings

The other half, probably younger, will view hair as a social statement with deep corded meanings that imply there is more to a man than just his hair. Women do have a lot of leeway when it comes to wearing hair. They can pretty much do what they damn please. It is all in the spirit of vanity and self-image and everyone stopped hiding the obvious fact that they wore plastic hair. Sadly, guys do not seem to notice the difference anymore.

However, in the male world, adventurism with one’s hair is discouraged. You either wear your hair short or go bald. Long hair is seen as case of defiance.

For Kenyan men, hair is a social and not merely a fashion statement.

We have to untangle the knots to get to the roots of the politics of hair. In pre-colonial Kenyan society, hair had its own cultural symbolism and the cutting of hair often carried ritualistic and spiritual connotations.

 The British introduced the cosmetic standard where fashion and vanity become the overriding factor for hairdressing. Wearing hair short and neat was associated with conformity and modernity. Those who resisted this persuasion expressed it by growing their hair into locks and displaying full beards.  The Mau Mau resistance fighters wore dreadlocks as a symbol of resistance to colonial rule.  In Kenya’s reform history beards always represented defiance. The reformists in parliament of the 70s and 80s were generally easily identified by their beards. In the early 80s, there was a young group of parliamentarians who formed a formidable opposition in a single party era.


They labeled the seven bearded sisters by the Attorney General Charles Njonjo. The culprits were James Orengo, Abuya Abuya, Koigi Wamwere, Mwachegu wa Mwachofi, Chibule wa Tsuma, Wasike Ndobi and Lawrence Sifuna. Practically all the radicals of the 80s spotted beards. When Raila Odinga first appeared on scene as a political activist, he had untrimmed facial hair.

Therefore, where does one place Sonko’s flamboyant hairstyles in the context of a social statement? Perhaps, this is the liberal Nairobi emerging where individuality is celebrated and hairstyles are no longer sufficient criteria to judge competence.  As it is, we have CJ who dons a stud. The freedom to wear your hair in a manner that reflects your personality is a right. 

Or it is just a straightforward case of a man trying too hard to look cool.

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