The recent order made by a High Court Judge Zione Ntaba to the Malawian government to allow children with dreadlocks to be enrolled in public schools is an act of ingenious and bold move in shacking off colonial misconceptions of beauty.
Children in African schools have for years been forced to wear straight hair or cut it. Straight hair, especially for girls, is made to mimic European hair. This has been a major deprivation of Africa’s culture of self-expression embodied in dreadlocks and thick afros.
The court order was issued after there had been an application from a pupil who sought admittance at Blantyre Girls Primary School but had been denied because she had dreadlocks. Makeda Mbewe is an eight-year-old Standard 5 pupil. She had been denied admission from the school unless she was prepared to cut her hair.
The court stated in its order that the child should be allowed enrollment at the school and the school should make efforts such that extra classes are scheduled to allow the pupil to catch up on the time that was lost. The High Court order allows children to be enrolled in any governmental school which had not been happening previously. The case is currently ongoing and a final judgment is yet to be made, according to the Nyasa Times news website.
For years self-expression and individuality in African schools has been shunned. An accent or style that is close to African roots is deemed not to be academic. Teachers, policymakers and most Africans inherited systems that looked down on African culture and have continued with the colonial master’s ways.
These colonial perceptions of beauty are still perpetuated in the way society regards light-skinned women against their darker counterparts. Colorism refers to discrimination against darker-skinned people that grants economic, cultural, and social privileges to lighter-skinned people within the same racial or ethnic group.
For example, a study released in 2011 found that light-skinned black women receive shorter prison sentences than their darker-skinned counterparts.
Malawi’s Ministry of Education authorities argued that they only refused to have dreadlocked children into schools because they were aiming to keep in line with education policy which aims to have uniformity among pupils.
Uniformity? It is the 21st century, where we are trying to preach innovation on podiums yet stamping down creativity in all possible ways with such policies. Uniformity affects children’s thinking process, making them believe being creative is stepping out of line and they should stick to old ways.
Parents have had too cut their children’s dreadlocks so as to have them be enrolled in public schools. Previously according to Makeda’s lawyer, Chikondi Chijozi, who also serves as deputy director at Centre for Human Rights Advice Assistance and Education(CHREAA), the organization had received a complaint, almost 80 parents who complained of their children’s infringement to the right of education.
Chijozi presented that the government policy of requesting all learners to have trimmed hair was unreasonable and resulted in discrimination. A constitutional lawyer, Edge Kanyongolo who is a constitutional lawyer at Chancellor College of the University of Malawi also argued he saw no reason to ban dreadlocks.
“Our constitution guarantees various rights including the right to freedom of religion as well as a right to equal treatment. Now the only time you can limit those rights is if somehow the exercise of the rights harms the rights of others. In the case of Rastafarian children, I cannot see how allowing them to keep hair in dreadlocks harms anyone at all,” he said.
African governments have to take time to rethink policy and rethink some of the rules that were inherited from colonialists. Being progressive does not mean a nation has to be Westernised. Africans can reform without losing touch of their identity, we can achieve growth without having to speak, dress, eat and act like Westerners.
Beauty or civilization should not be defined by how closely we imitate our former oppressors.