- Issue March 18, 2017
I can’t seem to find the book now. It was an old text book approaching dilapidation, the back cover clinging loosely to the spine with the help of a thin, transparent piece of tape. It was filled with historical information about Rwanda. I was 5 or 6 years old. Even then, I was struck by the elegantly shaped hairstyles of the Rwandan men and women I saw in the black and white photographs. ‘Amasunzu’. It looked like something out of a legend, it was an old, distant age. I turned the page.
Much from the Rwandan culture can fill you with nostalgia if you’re of Rwandan descent. The hair, the high jump, the dancing, the physical appearance. Our ancestors were elegant, proud, wise. And then: oblivion! It is perhaps because they didn’t write (they recorded historical data using spoken word poetry) that it is almost impossible to understand their philosophy well. But we can come close, after all, they did tell stories. ‘Amasunzu’(the word is always in plural form) was a hairstly worn by Rwandan men and unmarried women. For the men, it represented might and prestige. For the women, purity and virginity. The hairstyle had many variants.
Amasunzu had more than 30 forms and was common among teenagers, the youth and, in some cases adult men. The style is designed by cutting some of the hair sideways, towards the middle, then leave it to grow.(The EastAfrican, 2014)
‘Amasunzu’ have an undeniable aesthetic to them, marked by simplicity, flexibility, and precision. Today, it is nearly impossible to see anyone wearing the hairstyle and if it wasn’t for Eric 1Key—a Rwandan poet who wears this hairstyle—I wouldn’t have once again been struck by the sense of wonder that the image of this hairstyle filled me with. It is because of a more mature weighing of the present ignorance surrounding Rwandan philosophy that I wish that I hadn’t turned that page way back when I was 5 or 6 years olf.
Fortunately, 1Key has a library’s worth of information on the Rwandan culture. I had a chat with him to expand my understanding about ‘Amasunzu’ and to decide whether or not I should style my hair in a similar manner.
Eric, thank you for spending some of your time to speak to me about ‘Amasunzu’. I have a lot to learn. Tell me why you decided to literally be among the first Rwandans to resuscitate this hairstyle.
First of all I don’t think I can call my hairstyle Amasunzu (yet). I believe the name goes both with the design patterns and the height of the hair. Yes my hairstyle is inspired by Amasunzu. Why did I do it? Why not? I like playing with my hair, or at least what remains of it.
I am definitely not one of the first to resuscitate the Amasunzu style. I have seen a few young Rwandans rock the style way before and some do design their afros like Amasunzu when they are not shy. For instance a couple of days ago, a guy in Nyabugogo shouted at me, “You messed it up! How could you?” When I turned, he was taking off his hat boasting, “I am the real Cyamatare!” He had the perfect Amasunzu.
How important is it to understand why Rwandans styled their hair this way and do you feel that it could be relevant to the present times in anyway?
One thing I noticed about the Rwandan culture, at least from the little I know, is that everything was done with a purpose and there was a correlation between elements that we can’t connect from our present perspective. I wish I knew the origin of Amasunzu but I don’t. All I know is that it was elegant, clean and sharp and boasted from a distance “I am Rwandan.”
There is a slow but steady cultural revolution in our country. People are once again embracing their cultural heritage but their is a danger that it could be embraced blindly, without a complete understanding of the culture. What are your thoughts on this?
Actually I see the opposite. People speak less Kinyarwanda and those who do, mix it with at least two foreign languages; they listen less to traditional music, have less interest in traditional practices if none completely. There is no single book on Rwandan history or culture at the Kigali Public Library and I am sure writing such a piece is already hard work for you for lack of references yet you live in Kigali. This leads me to ask Who is educating on the culture then, so people are not misled? Who? When I asked a History professor at a conference about the how old Rwanda is, he came up with was a theory with no scientific reference. There lies the problem. Those who are supposed to know don’t even know and would want you to know what they think they know. I don’t know if the few ethnographic designs around shops and printed on flyers is what you refer to as cultural revolution but personally I don’t see any. The revolution will happen when we stop glamorizing what we’ve been forced to become and seek the path to who we were meant to be.
Cultures evolve, they grow. Do you think it possible, that we could expand on existing cultural ways, grow them and add our own experience to them?
Can we still say that about cultures that have been deliberately broken? In my opinion colonialism and the church broke the Rwandan culture and fabric systematically. So instead of growth I will say assimilation of western cultures- which we embraced with pleasure from hair to toenails. Just have a look at everything that surrounds you right now. The West is more present than ever! Can we change that? Do we want to? Do we need to? I don’t know.
Our actions are almost completely bound to what we consider to be our culture. Much of modern society has been shaped by film, music and books that presented ideas which helped(and still does) re-wire people’s thought processes. A whole philosophy can be introduced to someone in a one hour long film. How important and urgent is the role of the artists in helping the society to understand the Rwandan culture?
The phrase Rwandan Culture raises questions itself. No one really knows what it means. And sometimes it’s provicative. [Sorry, I couldn’t help it lol.] So when we understand that, maybe we will have a chance to educate. At the same time, it is not every artist’s job to perpetuate the culture. It’s a choice, a calling, a passion. For instance ibitaramo [Rwandan nights of storytelling] nowadays lack taste for me. It seems like the artists have crammed the script and got into a space where they speak to themselves on radio or Tv. If not, then the youth is not the target audience anymore. They don’t connect.
You have a son. Does he ever ask you why you’ve styled your hair the way you did? How do you explain to young people how necessary it is to appreciate culture?
About two weeks ago when my son was asked to say a grace at dinner, he added in his prayer “Dear Lord, may my dad remove his tattoos or shave off his hair.” I burst into laughter, he didn’t like my reaction. I held him in my arms and promised to explain the meaning of every tattoo on my body and the hair. These things are already hard to explain to grownups. And I know that prayer didn’t come from him because he wouldn’t be drawing lines on his forearm if he didn’t like my tattoos. He loves daddy and he knows daddy loves him too. The rest will happen at the right time.
Finally, I’m considering styling my hair the way you did. What are some interesting reactions or perhaps even ironic, that you received from people, especially older people.
A lady seriously asked me once if I wasn’t clinically insane to wear my hair the way it looks. I smiled. You’ll probably get a lot of these especially from family members so you have to be ready for the unsolicited permanent stares and all sorts of comments whenever you step out. People in general have a phobia towards the unfamiliar until it’s not. As an artist, I have to force my way into the society and take a stand for what I believe in. I have had an iguana designed on my head before and I rocked it with pride. It’s all about how I feel. My life, my style.