Colgate Personal Essay

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When the cool metal blade of the razor touched my scalp, I realized I had died. I watched with veiled eyes as my mother cut the last, straggling clumps of hair. The girl I glimpsed in the mirror afterwards was an apparition. If I puckered my lips and blew, she would easily have dissolved into nothingness. I shut my eyes, instead, and tried to recall a former life. Yellow hues expanding into a fiery orb; the sun beating down on my back as I knelt beside my grandmother to bury food wastes underneath the soil. Darkness, sharp and sudden, turned the day into a night in the bedroom I shared with my younger brother. I was writing furiously in my journal by the aid of a bright candle. My brother tossed underneath a thin fleece blanket, reiterating sulkily that my work could wait till morning. In another vision, we wriggled through the gap of our home’s rusty iron gate and fled down the dirt road our mother warned us not to explore.

I had been inquisitive, happy, perhaps too opinionated for my own good. Who would I become now? Certainly not a young woman captivated by the facets of womanhood. My mother had cut my hair at age twelve, as was the Nigerian custom, to suffocate my budding ‘adolescent’ interests and rebellion. I was to be a reticent, obedient child until I was released into the world as a reticent, obedient wife. Although seemingly stifled, I continued to thrive in stories written and carefully tucked underneath my mattress. Words, powerful and ripe, came to the fore to challenge older male relatives who often asserted that my intrinsic value lay in the execution of wifely duties. I left magazine articles that highlighted the role of women in traditionally male spheres spread across the coffee table when I was called to attend to a domestic chore. The ensuing disappearance of the magazine merely strengthened my resolve. I was a young woman: happy and inquisitive; shorn yet opinionated.

I write with my hair pushed back from my eyes in a loose bun. My hair is thick and wilful, and I loathe the distraction of loose tendrils when I am engaged in serious work. At other times my hair fans my head in a wide halo: during basketball games with my brother and meticulous grooming sessions my mother would have formerly denounced as conceited and, therefore, immoral. I am many things: anglicised and traditional, literary and scientific, pedantic and carefree. I refuse to subject my personal advancement to the limit imposed by any mould. My hair journey has taught me that neither sticks, stones, nor speech can mark the human spirit. And so I forge a path through college and beyond that my nieces and daughters will flee across, light and graceful as nymphs.

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