Matuta: Managing afro hair abroad

So most of you know that I have had dreadlocks for the last ten years. Those who don’t have any experience with dreadlocks probably believe that my hairstyle maintenance is a walk in the park.

No, it’s not but thankfully I have all the tools to maintain and keep it looking better than Dedan Kimathi’s hair. Not that I have anything against that man. Ok fine, I have something against the guy who took the only photo we have of him. Never mind, the guy was a hero. Damn! This is getting awkward!

So, anyway what do do if you live away from home, where hair maintenance will cost you an arm and a leg. And thus, this mini guide for managing your hair while studying abroad was born. This article is for women with afro-textured hair, whether they are relaxed, natural or in transition.

Know Your Options

When thinking about this challenge, first consider how you want to wear your hair. There are essentially two categories – out or not. Some women prefer to wear their hair out, while others like to tuck it away in braid extensions, weaves or wigs. The choice is entirely up to your preference. When making your decision, keep these factors in mind:

  • How long will you be in-country?
  • What is your level of experience or comfort in maintaining your own hair for an extended period (without stylist assistance)?
  • How physically active do you expect to be while abroad? Do you plan on hiking, swimming, or anything else that requires additional hair maintenance?
  • Does the country you’re studying in have a large Black population?
  • What type of climate or weather do you expect to experience while you’re there?

Braid Extensions

For many, it might be easiest to wear braids – it’s a style with relatively low maintenance and can last for up to two months. If you’re going to a country with a large Black and/or African community – especially, if you are visiting the UK – it probably won’t be very difficult to find someone who can redo your braids for a reasonable cost. If you aren’t sure how your braids will get redone and you plan to stay in-country for longer than two months, be prepared with products and styles that you can do to your hair once you’ve taken out our braids. Another important thing to remember when wearing braids is that they too require care, although not as much as your actual hair.

Sew-In Weave

Weaves are similar to braids that your hair can be tucked away for months at a time and therefore protected from the natural elements as well as styling damage. As weaves are meant to mimic the appearance of hair in a way that braids do not, they require more upkeep.

As with braids, weaves have to be taken out after a certain amount of time – the exact timeframe can be determined by you and/or your stylist. For that reason, it may be best to use a sew-in when you are staying in a country for two months or less unless you know that you will be fine with wearing your hair out or having your sew-in re-installed in-country. When selecting the hair used in your sew-in, consider the climate of the area you will be living. For example, straight hair may not be the best idea in a humid place.

To prolong the life of your sew-in, take care of it at night. For curly hair, braid it and tie it up. For straight hair, wrap or pin-curl it before going to sleep. Try to use a satin scarf, pillowcase or bonnet when sleeping.

Wearing Your Hair Out

If you opt to avoid wearing your hair in braids or weave, there are still ways to ensure that your hair remains healthy and happy while abroad.

Protect Your Hair

Some of the simplest protective hairstyles are two-strand twists, flat-twists (or their cousin, cornrows), Bantu knots and mini coils. For tutorials and styling information, YouTube is your greatest resource! When wearing your hair in protective styles, you can also wrap your hair in scarves or turbans to be ultra-low maintenance with added style. This is especially true if you can find great scarves in-country – or bring your own!

Finding a Stylist

Look for a beauty salon frequented by other Black people or ask the Black people on the streets where they get their hair done. This is easiest in countries with a large population from the African diaspora, such as France, England or Brazil. You can also search online to see if any other travelers have recommendations. Look into local US Military Bases – Many bases have women who specialize in afro-textured hair in order to accommodate soldiers who would not be able to find experienced stylists in their area. If you have a relaxer and are worried about finding a stylist, look into relaxer stretching techniques to maximize the time between treatments. This way, you may not need a touch-up while abroad. F

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