As the Nigerian civil war drew to a close, my parents stopped home-schooling me and sent me to the local primary school. Life at my new primary school was as alien to me as life at home had been when I first arrived in Nigeria. I travelled to school with other children carrying a little green portmanteau on my head. The rectangular tin box which opened into two halves housed all my school supplies and books.

My parents bought all my books, exercise books and stationery, and since there were no storage lockers at school, I carted them to school and back daily. Although the portmanteau had a little metal handle, the combined weight of the box and my books made it far too heavy to lift or carry by hand. Therefore, like other children, I hoisted it atop my head and, with one hand holding it securely to my skull, made my way to school. As I trekked, I intermittently changed arms to ease my aching shoulders.

One Saturday afternoon, my mother prepared to plait my hair in readiness for the following week. As usual, with my head firmly ensconced between her knees, I squirmed at the pain biting my earlobes. As the tip of the wooden afro comb scraped across my scalp in an attempt to part my woolly hair, I tensed at the familiar pain. Then my mother’s fingers stilled. She moved the pad of her thumb in a soothing, circular motion across my crown. ‘What’s this?’ she asked as she continued to rub. I wasn’t sure what she meant, so I waited. ‘You are losing your hair here. It must be the weight of the portmanteau.’ I shrugged. I had noticed the thinning myself but didn’t see what I could do about it. ‘You need to put an oṣùká between the box and your head,’ mum continued, ‘that way, the pressure is distributed across your scalp.’

That evening she produced a thin rag cut out from one of her old wrappers. ‘Here, watch this,’ she said. I watched transfixed as her fingers deftly wound the rag in a circular motion into a thick pad, before tucking the end into the centre of the pad. ‘From now on, place this between your head and the portmanteau.’ Mum stretched out her hand and handed the rag over.

The pad made a remarkable difference. Gone was the searing discomfort I had grown accustomed to as I trekked to school. Soon after, the hair on my crown grew back into the thick, luscious curls that were the bane of my life. Mum’s oṣùká had saved the day.


Florence Ọlájídé

Published: 13 July 2021

‘Why am I not white?’ Nan came and sat on the edge of my bed. A tender finger brushed against my cheek. ‘Everyone in this house is white. Why am I Black?’