A Congolese student at the Catholic University of Congo in Kinshasa was sent home from school because of her “uncombed” hair. She told the FRANCE 24 Observers team about what happened, and the fallout.

A simple Facebook post got a huge number of reactions on May 8th, 2018. Charlotte Kabamba, a student at the Catholic University of Congo (one of the most renowned and selective institutions in the country’s capital), wrote that she had been forbidden from entering her faculty because of her ‘afro-puff’ hair.

Translation: "Hello hello, I perhaps hadn't told you about this but our dear university has again come down hard. According to them, we no longer have the right to go to university with this hairstyle (which is called "afro puff") because our hair isn't "combed". That really annoys me, I'm so fed up with them. But I can't do anything about it myself, so I prefer waiting for next year and literally being able to get out of there."

The porters told me, “People with uncombed hair can’t come in”

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke with Charlotte Kabamba about her experience.

It happened in the first week of May. I went to university like I do every day, with friends, when the porters at the gate stopped me from coming in. They said, ‘Your hairstyle isn’t suitable, you can’t come in.’ At the time, I didn’t understand – I regularly had this style of hair.

I tried to insist, but they were hearing none of it. They said that ‘uncombed hairstyles can’t come in’, and that it was in the rules. I had to change my hairstyle to something horrible just in order to be able to go to my lessons. And of course, I checked afterwards with my friends, and it was in the rules… Except as far as I know, there are other girls who have the same hairstyle as me, and they never had a problem.

"I ended up making this hairstyle a symbolic cause"

Completely taken aback by the incident, Charlotte Kabamba decided to act. A week after it happened, she made a Facebook post about it on the page 'Nappy Care'.

I’m really interested in hairstyling. I use this page to talk about different styles I’ve tried or tips I’ve got, and it was here that I wanted to draw attention to what happened. It wasn’t to denounce my university, because rules are rules and you have to follow them. It was more to talk about the logic behind this ban, because this type of hairstyle shouldn’t be a problem in our society.

When I started to wear my hair in an afro-puff, it was for the aesthetic aspect. But I noticed that it was really problematic here – lots of people in Kinshasa don’t like this kind of hairstyle. The porters who wouldn’t let me come in even said that the style wasn’t “professional” and that it “was unkempt”. For most people, hair should be straightened and imitating white Europeans’ hair.

So for me, it’s become kind of a symbolic cause. I think that this hairstyle is more natural, and represents my personality better. I don’t agree with people who say it’s “not styled”, because it takes a lot of work to do a nice afro-puff. Styling our hair like this doesn’t make us “disrespectful people”.

"People told me to go to another university"

The news agency AFP spoke to Jean Onaotsho, the academic secretary general of the university.

The university isn’t against and doesn’t ban natural African hair, but does require hair to be combed – it’s about cleanliness and public decency. […] We have to preserve African customs in Congolese society – it really needs it.

In order not to cause a scandal and to respect her university’s rules, Charlotte Kabamba now puts her hair up like this.

Onaotsho also said that Kabamba wouldn’t be disciplined. She now ties her hair up differently so that she isn’t noticed and can go back to university. But she says that the whole situation hasn’t been easy to manage.

“Someone who was meant to be a university employee threatened me on Facebook, saying that I should go and look for another university. Other students said that I’ve given our university a bad reputation. Fortunately, I’ve also received a lot of messages of support.

I hope that it’ll make things change. I know that a Congolese women’s collective has already got in touch with the university to organise talks and provide information about these kinds of hairstyle, and start up a debate.

Movements against the ‘straight hair dictatorship’ are more and more common. In March 2017, a group of students at one of Paris’ top universities Sciences Po created a student society called “Sciences Curls”, a society that campaigns around natural hair, in the aim of empowering men and women who have curly or nappy hair.