The Time Traveler: Hugh Ellis

The Namibian media last week reported that about sixty pupils who were sent home from Outjo Secondary School for transgressing the school’s rules on hair had returned to school.

Said one of the boys: ‘We shaved our hair. Some of us did not want to return to the school but we didn’t have a choice so we shaved it.’

It was rumoured that one white pupil with long hair had not been sent home like black pupils were. The school principal, however, said, ‘that was not brought to my attention.’

The situation reminded me of a prestigious school in Pretoria, South Africa, which went viral in late 2016 after students protested against school rules which described afros as ‘untidy’ and ‘un-ladylike’. The school was forced to recant such policies after a public outcry and an official investigation.

The veracity of the claims about the white pupil in Outjo notwithstanding, it should come as no surprise that historically discriminated-against people bear the brunt of these officious rules.

Just ask all the people with dreadlocks who are constantly told that their hair style must make them Rastafarians, or weed-smokers.

In any case, the way our society sees hair, and attaches meanings way beyond what a natural organic substance should have to endure, is nothing short of weird.

Around the time of the South African case, a copy of the Pretoria school’s uniform code made the rounds on social media. The rule book read almost like a set of prison regulations, and brought back some unpleasant memories.

In the 1990s, I was lucky enough to attend Windhoek International School, then one of the few schools in Namibia that did not have a mandatory school uniform.

At first this seemed strange to me – I wondered if that meant pupils were just allowed to do anything. How would they maintain discipline? How would they instil a sense of pride in their school if learners just wore whatever?

On the contrary, it turned out learners didn’t misbehave simply because they dressed differently. The pride we have in our school endures to this day, despite not having a uniquely patterned tie to identify us. Schoolgirls, and some boys, wore their hair in a variety of styles, including Afros and dreads and coloured braids, and if you had told me at 16 that some of these were untidy or demeaning, I’d have laughed at you.

Alas, that school only went as far as Grade 10 in those years, and I had to endure two more years at another school that did have a uniform code a kilometre long, where having a bit of braid on the edge of your blazer to commemorate winning a basketball league was a high honour, and where a male better keep his hair short, or else.

I dare say that’s nothing new to most Namibian learners, and no disrespect is intended, but to me, if felt like a move back to the Stone Age.

I rebelled just a little bit as a young adult by growing my hair to shoulder-length. Even as an adult even in a supposedly liberal society, this marked me out as a ‘hippie’, and I was careful not to show up at official state events without my media card – doing so with hair like mine would have gotten me cast as a ruffian and shown the door.

My hair is short, now, although I doubt short enough for my erstwhile principals and prefects, and I’m at least lucky that the university world does not frown upon beards.

If Namibian society could be that picky to me, I’ve no doubt it’s ten or twenty times worse for people of colour. A recent ad campaign by the Tresemme company, aired by Clicks, in which Afro-hair was described as ‘dry’ and ‘damaged’ but hair like mine as ‘normal’, shows how deeply ingrained these attitudes are.

I feel we all have a lot of growing up to do. With regard to hair, with regard to race and gender, and with regard to personal appearance generally.

Recently even a scholarly medical journal saw it fit to complain about female doctors posting bikini pictures on Instagram – as if one’s choice of swimwear impacts on one’s ability to perform surgery or conduct a gynaecological exam. I was once told by some students that, as a lecturer, I’m a ‘pillar of society’, whatever that means, and posing for social media in a pair of cycling shorts was not an appropriate look.

I’m over it, to be honest. Human beings have bodies.

Not all those bodies look like a 1950s magazine advertising spread: short cropped hair for the gentlemen, straight long blond tresses for the ladies, smart suits and dresses all around, only one size and body shape, no men dressing like women or vice-versa, and of course, all as white or close-to-white as possible.

Society has moved on. It’s time some of our ideas about clothing and hair and ‘uniform’ move on as well.

Hugh Ellis is a Namibian citizen and Lecturer in the Department of Communication of the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views he expresses here are personal views. Follow Hugh’s blog at http://ellishugh.wordpress.com