Don't dread my locks

After reserving my spot in a tiresomely long ATM queue at a Bulawayo bank, I disappear for a good hour and a half’s leisurely surfing in an internet café. Returning to the fed-up queue is no easy task.

I come back to a spot now close to the money machines. As my turn comes, and I scan the hordes behind me, I am King Mzilikazi ascending to my throne (though less satisfied than royalty with the daily contents of my stomach).
But the bubble bursts when heavy basses shout: “Hey you, Dread!”

What the good people mean is “Dreadlocked one!” - and maybe you wouldn’t be surprised if you saw my photo. “Aren’t you ashamed of trying to jump the queue?” they bellow tunelessly, and by now even the ladies are part of the screaming band.

Swiftly I respond. “People, first I’m not a Dread! Second, I was here before, and third, I am not trying to sneak —” Blah, blah. Anyway, I get the single banknote that applies to everyone as a daily cash withdrawal limit.

I’m flabbergasted that anyone actually thinks I’m a Dread (read Rasta, Jah Rastafariah!). I’ve never thought of myself as a Rasta.

It’s only that I have big hair that dearly misses a comb. Big deal. It’s an unusual style. A colleague likes to say that before I get into town I plug myself to live electric wires. Hah!

Generally in African society, dreadlocks have not until recently been recognised as a hairstyle that people can wear to work. It was a style largely for people in the arts or - as the same colleague remarked - for “permanent residents on Bulawayo’s 23rd avenue”. I laughed along, but later discovered that 23rd avenue houses the local psychiatric institution.

I was reminded of a pan-African conference I attended in Uganda where an Ethiopian lady at our table was talking about her perceptions of dreadlocked people. She explained how she did not like or trust them and described how many she had fired in her organisation for sporting the style. She associated the locks with drugs and other nefarious activities.

The crux came when she got a new boss who - good gracious - was dangling a multi-year cultivation of back lengths. Mortified, she nearly quit. But in the course of her work she had a paradigm shift and realised that her assumptions were wrong.

Here she was, working not with a killer, womaniser or thieving drug dealer, but a kind and gentle soul she is now dear friends with. Ah, the spirit of Emperor Haile Selassie; was it he who taught this lady tolerance? Somebody say Lordfire!

Two years ago a nine-year-old boy was granted the right to wear dreadlocks at school by the country’s Supreme Court. Yay! This meant that locks were at last recognised and could be worn by civil servants.

Given the numbers of us youth in the teaching service just after high school, we had a field day. In the staff room or even during class we could swap beeswax or ask a gifted learner to fix a stray lock.

In my ‘hood the debate rages on about my hair. Just the other day a neighbour boldly claimed I could not feel the scorching African sun because I have a natural helmet. A helmet! Couldn’t it have been a sunhat or a cap or a trilby — A helmet! Anyway, I can be employed like this, neighbour.

It’s a Friday afternoon, I’m heading home and I’m a standing passenger in a crowded bus. As I inwardly curse the conductor (or windie, as they are affectionately known for being perched on the window), shrieks: “Hey Dread! Push further back!”

Oh, how I dread being called Dread.

Jermain Ndhlovu is a communications science student and the leader of a youth development organisation based in Bulawayo

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