Opinion

A Friendship Woven of Hair and Heritage

As a child of mixed-race heritage, I often found that my hair was a source of tension between my mother and me. My father hails from Eritrea in East Africa, and my mother is from Sweden, so she and I have vastly different hair textures. When I was a girl — until about the age of 10 — my thick and curly hair was a nightmare for her to manage.

In the early 1990s, Sweden that had yet to acknowledge just how multicultural its society had become. At times, people could be cruel. My schoolmates would stick pencils in my hair to see how many it would hold. I resented going to Swedish hair salons because I could see hairdressers’ expressions grow annoyed as soon as I walked in the door. At these salons, they tried to thin my hair to make it more “normal,” resulting in a series of awkward haircuts. You will never see the photos to prove it. I longed to fit in; all I wanted was straight hair.

Despite our sometimes turbulent relationship, my mother recognized that I was struggling socially, and she came up with a plan. In December 1996 she booked tickets to London to get my hair straightened. This was no small feat for a single mother of five who owned a small cleaning company, but she found child care, and the two of us stayed at a cheap hotel where the heater didn’t work. I still recall sitting in the lobby at 5 a.m., half dazed, as my mother complained about our freezing room to the receptionist, who, assuming we were Jewish, began berating us with antisemitic slurs.

The author with her nephew and Ms. Mensah during Notting Hill Carnival in London in 1998.Credit…Family photo

While today practically every street food vendor and back-alley barbershop can be found on social media, in 1996 we had to walk the streets of London hoping that fate would bring us to the right kind of hair salon. London, to me, was a patchwork of communities, vibrant and exciting for a girl coming from Stockholm. We walked into one salon that had pictures of Black women on the wall, all with different hairstyles. The hairdressers and clients looked at me the way I imagined they’d smile at a lost kitten. We booked an appointment for the next day.

When we returned, the entire place was crisscrossed with caution tape and police cars. There had been a murder in the salon. My mother panicked briefly, stopped an officer and, in her accented English, said, “You see, my daughter, she had an appointment, and we are going back to Sweden tomorrow.” The police officer stared, and I pulled my mother away.

Our search continued that day. Eventually someone told us about a woman named Charlotte Mensah who rented a chair in a salon in Notting Hill. A British Ghanaian stylist who was just making a reputation for herself specializing in curly and textured hair, she was fully booked for the day. My mother, endlessly persistent, explained our situation. Charlotte agreed to work on my hair between her scheduled clients.

Ms. Mensah doing a hair treatment on Elizabeth Azide, who moved to London from Texas a year ago.

We stayed the entire day. Charlotte performed magic — braiding, relaxing, twisting. Her hands were deft, and she seemed to work with a limitless vocabulary of products and techniques. Her clients were primarily of African and Caribbean descent. Each woman who sat in her chair carried all the histories of wherever she had come from. Everyone left feeling so beautiful and confident, including me.

We stayed in touch. My mother invited Charlotte to Sweden, and Charlotte graciously offered us a place to stay whenever we visited London. A skilled braider, Charlotte wove together disparate strands of our lives. Our friendship has now spanned more than 27 years. She and her son Bashiru have made several trips to visit us in Sweden, and we journeyed to London every year during Carnival Weekend to stay with her.

Ms. Mensah and the author’s mother, Anita Gustafsson, during a visit to Stockholm.

Meeting Charlotte was transformative. Although she came from the opposite side of Africa from my father, her presence instilled a sense of pride in me about my African heritage and made me feel I belonged. What struck me most about her, however, was her nonjudgmental attitude toward my mother and me. When someone is of mixed heritage, it’s easy to feel scrutinized and uncertain about one’s identity. Charlotte never made me feel I wasn’t Black enough or white enough. In her salon, I felt I was part of something greater than myself, part of a lineage of women who were passing on knowledge and compassion to one another.

Charlotte, too, had felt like an outsider. At 11 years old, she went to England from Ghana and was met with intense bullying for her skin color and her accent. “I was bullied so much,” she said, “I would come home crying.” Children would make fun of the styles her mother had woven into her hair. Young Charlotte, looking out the window and remembering the warmth of Ghana, felt like a prisoner.

At Ms. Mensah’s salon, the Hair Lounge, a photo of her with her grandfather Michael Kofi Sefah in Ghana.
At Ms. Mensah’s home, a photo of her mother, Love Naa Densua Doodo, center, who died of a brain hemorrhage at age 42.

Just when she began to adjust to life in England, her world shattered when her mother died from a brain hemorrhage a few days before Charlotte’s 13th birthday. Afterward, she began caring for her younger sister’s hair. She found solace and happiness in styling hair, and after attending a career day at school, she realized that hairdressing could be her calling. She enrolled in the London College of Fashion and began an apprenticeship at Splinters, a renowned Afro hair salon, where she became a certified hairstylist after gaining expertise working with a variety of hair textures and styles from all over the world.

Ms. Mensah at her Notting Hill home.

On the surface, my mother and Charlotte couldn’t be more different. But to me, they were both independent, strong-willed women. “I think we both have free spirits,” Charlotte recently told me as I sat on the sofa in her Notting Hill apartment. “We have that lion heart thing, and we don’t take no for an answer.” When she came to visit us in Sweden, she was struck by my mother’s ability to single-handedly raise five children. “I found Swedish women to be very strong,” Charlotte said.

Personal images of family members and Ms. Mensah from London and Sweden in the late 1990s.

When we met, she could tell how much my mother loved me but also saw that she struggled to understand what I was going through. Charlotte has met many children from mixed households through the years. She says that white parents of mixed and Black children often use the wrong products and language when it comes to their children’s hair. When you tell a 4-year-old, “‘Your hair’s so dry,’ ‘Your hair’s not like normal people’s hair,’ then you’re creating this insecurity,” she says. These days, though, she feels that things have improved and that people are more mindful of the words they use and how it affects children.

Long ago, when we would stay at the apartment in Notting Hill where Charlotte lived with her husband and two children, my mother and I became part of her family. Charlotte and my mother would sit at the kitchen table late into the night, talking about raising kids and being women forging a way in the world, while I quietly observed, taking in their shared wisdom. For Charlotte, the act of doing hair is not something that happens only in the salon. It was and remains an act of motherly care that extends from her childhood in Ghana to the lives of her customers, her loved ones and her community.

Ms. Mensah with Charles, then the Prince of Wales, in a photograph at the Hair Lounge in Notting Hill. She started her own salon with support from the Prince’s Trust in 1999.

In 1999, Charlotte applied for funding from the Prince’s Trust, a British charity, to establish her own salon. Her client list had expanded, and she needed more space. Eventually, she opened the Hair Lounge on Portobello Road in Notting Hill. Today the Hair Lounge has become a go-to destination for both women and men seeking services for their natural Afro and curly textured hair. Charlotte began doing the hair of women I admired, like Zadie Smith, Erykah Badu and Michaela Coel. But I really understood that something had shifted when I mentioned to a friend in Kenya that I had a hairdresser friend in London. The friend immediately asked, “Is her name Charlotte? Please get me an appointment with her.”

The author with Ms. Mensah at a salon in Accra, Ghana, during a trip in June.

During her years as a hairstylist, she would see clients who sometimes used up to 10 products on their hair. Charlotte felt that there should be a better option, and in 2016 she introduced her own product line, Manketti Oil hair care. Two years later, she was the first Black woman to be inducted into the British Hairdressing Awards Hall of Fame, an exclusive club reserved for the most exceptional hair professionals in the nation. In 2020 she published her first book, “Good Hair,” a guide to Afro, textured and curly hair.

Ms. Mensah working with an apprentice to prepare models for a shoot at a salon in Accra in 2022. She has a house there and helps women in her neighborhood develop hairdressing skills.

Charlotte’s teachings have connected me to a rich legacy and knowledge of African hair care traditions. After our chance encounter, I began to take better care of my hair and the hair of my mixed-race friends in Sweden. I became obsessed with braiding techniques such as cornrows, twists and microbraids. I experimented with various styles and even learned how to do them myself. I spent hours, sometimes days, braiding friends’ hair and eventually started working in salons in Stockholm, using my newfound skills to earn extra money while in high school.

Later, when I found photography and journalism, I still grounded myself in the lessons I had learned sitting in Charlotte’s chair or in her home. My work revolved around communities of people, finding one another and building support networks. I traveled across Africa and went to all the countries from which the women who sat in Charlotte’s chairs had come. I still go to her salon whenever I’m in London to bask in a diasporic hub of women talking about politics and culture.

Models during a collaboration between the author and Ms. Mensah in Accra last year.

After photographing Malala Yousafzai’s wedding in Birmingham, England, I stopped by the Hair Lounge. Charlotte was like a proud mother, showing everyone in the salon my pictures while working on my hair. I was touched by the support that surrounded me. I thought back to the shy girl that I once was, living under a dark cloud, and how much had transpired since then.

Charlotte’s vision for her salon had always been to create an environment that simulated what she experienced growing up in Ghana. “I always knew that my salon was going to be different. It was going to be a place of joy, laughter, community and a safe space where we can all connect.”

Over time, Charlotte’s salon has become a home for me, and Charlotte a second mother. She has also taught me a valuable lesson: that one’s sense of self can be forged through generations and nurtured by family that is both biological and chosen.

When she was inducted into the British Hairdressing Awards Hall of Fame — a pivotal moment — Charlotte took a moment to reflect on her roots. “I wish my mum was here to see it. That was the first thought that came to my head,” she said. “And, you know, my grandmother and my grandfather and the ancestors that paved the way.”

Malin Fezehai is a Swedish Eritrean photographer and visual reporter based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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