From Home Brew to Hair Do

By Algah Ballah

Elizabeth Awour’s life story is one of struggle. But though she waited a long time for good things to happen, her fortunes did change. Along the way there was a youthful career in bootlegging, encounters with police, escape from domestic violence and a new life as a peer educator, hairdresser and dedicated mother.

Awour was just 12 years old when she lost both parents. Her grandmother took her to live in her tiny, one-room house in Obunga, one of the slums in Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city. Her grandmother brewed changaa a local alcohol made from fermented sorghum, barley and maize. Brewing and selling changaa is illegal in Kenya, but nevertheless remains a popular source of income among the poor. Kenyan police regularly threaten to take brewers to jail. To avoid going to jail, changaa brewers pay bribes to the police. Even as a young teenager, Awour understood that if she didn’t have the money to pay the bribes, she would be arrested, and charged and asked to pay hefty fines for helping her grandmother to sell the brew. Their slim profit was not enough to cover all the costs to feed the family. In a country where secondary school is not free to all, Awour was forced to drop out of school just a year before graduation because she and her grandmother could not pay the school fees.

Eliabeth Awour
Elizabeth Awour

When teenage girls in Kenya face financial problems, they often marry at a young age for economic security. Awour got married at 17 to a man who lived in Nairobi who already had children. When he was laid off from his job at Kenya Breweries, the couple had to return to his rural home in Kano because they could not afford life in Nairobi city. There she did odd jobs like selling vegetables to support her family and pay school fees. It took two years, but once her husband found a job, he used the money in his pocket to go out drinking and chase after other women. Every weekend, he was not home. If Awour asked where he was, he would beat her as the children (a girl of 3 and a boy of 6) watched. He stopped sleeping in their bedroom and kept all his money to himself. One day he came home drunk and accompanied by one of his female friends. He asked Awour to look for somewhere else to sleep because he needed privacy with his female friend. Awour decided enough was enough and went back to her grandmother in Obunga, bringing the children with her.

But, finally, Awour’s luck began to change. She was still living in her grandmother’s home when a group from Kisumu Medical and Education Trust (KMET) came to Obunga. KMET’s role is to seek out teenage mothers who need encouragement and information in order to take charge of their lives. In July, 2012, she signed up for a six-week KMET training to become a peer educator who would help other women with family planning, safe abortion and HIV and AIDS. Later the same summer, she enrolled in a KMET-sponsored hairdressing and beauty program.

KMET’s array of services includes programs for youth, orphans, school drop-outs, teen mothers and other vulnerable girls. The program seeks to provide vocation training for girls in skills ranging from tailoring, to catering, hotel management and hairdressing. KMET also offers counseling to girls on reproductive health. Always, KMET provides peer education training for adolescent girls who have reached reproductive age, and encourages its young, female clients to return to school.

KMET also provides psychological counseling for girls who have gone through trauma. KMET youth coordinator, Jennifer Namasaba, said most of these young women have lost hope because they have been sexually abused. Many are teenage rape victims who must now raise the children resulting from their assaults. Others have contracted HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases as a result of rape. KMET also provides counseling for sex workers and battered wives. KMET offers a youth-friendly clinic as well as a shelter—or “Freedom House”—where young women in crisis can find safety and solace.

Elizabeth Awour in a KMET  training salon
Elizabeth Awour in a KMET training salon

The program has met mixed success. Namasaba says 500 students have been able to live independently since 2006. But she concedes some students drop out of school because they cannot adjust to this kind of formal structure after life on the street. Some young women return to even worse situations because their husbands are not comfortable with what they call “the wrong influence,” meaning the new confidence their wives gain from the KMET programs.

Elizabeth Awour is now a 31-year-old single mother of Tan, her 11-year-old son, and Nou an 8-year-old daughter. She is training at the Cypa Salon in Kisumu, and soon will become a full-time hairdresser, where she will undoubtedly offer the popular “Obama” hair style to her clients. Her earnings allow her to send her children to school. She hopes that one day she will own her own business and relieve her grandmother from brewing the illicit brew. Amour proudly proclaims:

“Life was not that easy, but now I have got work in my hand and my children cannot go hungry.”

Doing the Obama-do

By Beatrice Anyango with Elizabeth Mehren
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The “Obama” hairdo

The twists and turns of U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term are nothing compared to the serpentine swirls of a Kenyan hairdo named in his honor. The Luo ancestors of the first African-American U.S. president hail from the village of Kogelo in Nyanza province. These days, the town is known as “Obamaville,” and the presiding celebrity is Mama Sarah Obama, the third wife of President Obama’s late grandfather.

Sporting the gorgeous, sculptural coil that is known now as the Obama-do, PamojaTogether fellow, Beatrice Anyango, shared the intricacies of creating a coiffure that marries stateliness with practicality. Beatrice said it took her hairdresser only about an hour to craft the braided bun because she had braided the necessary hair extensions in advance. As Beatrice explained, “the style is unique in terms of the number of braids used since it takes at least six packets of braids, depending on how thick the customer wants it to be.” The more packets, the more braids, the longer the process takes.

The hairstyle came into fashion just as Barack Obama was surging to prominence. At first, the look had other names, such as “omedomedo,” a Luo word for “addition,” reflecting the fact that when it is completed, many braids have been added. Others called it “pencil” because of the sharpness at the tips or its thinness at the start of the braids, and the thickness as they continue. But most just called it “Obama,” the name that has stuck.

Typically, the hairstyle will set its wearer back about 1,000 Kenyan shillings—approximately $11.70, U.S. But that amount varies, depending on the number of packets of braids that are used. Compared to many other popular hairstyles, such as “rusters” (which can take a whole day to achieve), the Obama look takes the shortest time possible to complete. Maintenance is also inexpensive, Beatrice continued:

“You don’t need to apply lotion or hair food to it except spray, which is not a must as compared to styles like weaves that requires hair food and lotion daily and at times spray.”