by Olympia Swaby
The very first line of interaction between me and Narda, my host mother, was not exchanging names and hometowns but rather a comment on the style of my hair. Flavio, my host brother, was trodding along to my side as we walked up Sucre towards the house. The streets of Urubamba were busy, especially as we neared the market. A woman advertised her cart of Chicha while her daughter snacked on a pack of Casinos, but I didn’t really pay much attention as I was riddled with anxiety and anticipation to see where I would be spending the next three months.
“Mira a tu pelo, que bonita!” Narda exclaimed pointing to my scalp.
“Ya, puedo tocarlo?” Flavio begged.
When I reached down to let Flavio, my eight year host brother, feel my braids for the very first time, I had yet to realize that my hair duo would garner so much attention for the following three weeks. As we sat at the dinner table that night, Narda’s colleague had asked how long it took to complete my braids. After admitting that it took about 6 or 7 hours, she hammered on with fascination, asking more questions about the processes and characteristics of my natural hair. All complicated questions that I fumbled to answer with my limited expertise of Spanish. It was difficult enough trying to explain braids to someone in the States, yet there I was giving a detailed lesson about black hair on my very first night with my host family. I was not as much overwhelmed, as I was confused by why anyone was so interested in the first place. Narda later explained that my style of hair was really uncommon and that you were most likely to find someone with braids in Lima. What she also meant was that there wasn’t very many people who looked like me in Urubamba. This became abundantly clear after making several trips around the city. Men would stare. Women would smile and nod. Every now and then, young girls would point and ask questions about my braids. Sometime during my second week as I was passing a Botica, a little boy grinned and pointed so urgently at me, shouting for his mother to look before I had passed. Another time, I was on my way to Spanish class when I had noticed that I was being followed by a group of preteen girls who had tracked me down only to give a quick compliment and go off on their way. Though being the minority in any given place never really phased me, I realized that my appearance would surely shape my experience throughout the next three months. Towards the end of the night as we sipped on Mate, we moved on to talk about the school system in Urubamba and the upcoming parade in Plaza De Armas. I breathed a sign of relief to have the attention not be on me. However, the night was only brought to a close after I had promised to reveal my natural hair to everyone, whenever it was that I decided to take out my braids later in the month.
Today was that day. My extensions were getting old and my natural hair was peaking out on my scalp, so I announced that I was most definitely going to take out my hair this afternoon. As Sundays are dedicated to family time, I had usually spent my Sundays making trips with Narda to the market, playing escondidas with Flavio, or having a movie night. This Sunday was going to be different. As I had to explain that morning over breakfast, the process of removing braids was a long, exhausting one.
“Cuanto tiempo?” Abuelita asked.
“Para mi, cuatro o cinco horas,” I answered.
Everyone shook their heads in bewilderment. I was not looking forward to taking my braids out whatsoever. But I was excited to share apart of myself with my host family. Though I had Monday free, I had specifically chosen this Sunday so that everyone would be home to observe. I had started promptly at 10 am. Every now and then, Narda would come in my room to check on my progress and ask questions. She would repeatedly ask if I needed any help or simply watch attentively in silence. Around lunch, her brother had arrived to visit and see Narda’s new apartment. By the end of their apartment tour, they had stopped at my doorway and I got the chance to introduce myself. It was never my intention for my first interaction with Narda’s sibling to be with half a head of braids and half a natural updo, but I took the opportunity to share about the strenuous process with someone new. Similar to the rest of the family, he seemed shocked by the length but gave a nod of encouragement for the 3 hours I had left. Later on the in afternoon, Flavio popped in to share a celebratory dance for the appearance of my natural hair. By the time I was finished, it was 4 pm. I decided to rest before dinner and give my sore fingers and back a break. That night at dinner, I had debuted my natural hair and received an abundance of love and kindness. After an hour full of chatting and feasting, we closed dinner and Narda had told me that having a feature so unique was truly beautiful. In that moment, she made me feel special though I was doing nothing other than being myself.
Throughout my whole life in the States, I had never received as much kindness surrounding my braids as I did in the three weeks that I had been in Peru. It is always a little bit overwhelming and intimidating to feel eyes on me as I walked from place to place, but it feels rewarding to share a piece of myself with my family (or sometimes random people on the street). What I see in the people I have come encounter with is genuine curiosity and an intent to learn. I feel kindness rather than judgement. Though my hair is what gives me an entryway to teach about myself, I would like to share other parts who I am and where I come from with others as well. I don’t want my braids to be the endpoint, and I’m confident that it won’t be.
During orientation in Huaran, my group was instructed to write from the viewpoint that the semester had ended so that we can identify any goals that we had never really recognized. In my journal entry, I had written that I wanted to make the effort to connect with my host family through sharing. I yearned to give them something in return for caring for me for three months. I wrote that I wished to share a variety of things that signify by Nigerian-Jamaican-American background: my jerk chicken, my cocoa butter, my Cantu, my jollof rice, my Marley, my love for family, and my braids. I am proud to have checked something off the list, and I look forward to checking off many more.
Originally posted here.