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Finding Meaning In Hair

Andrei Cotton
Ecuador

Yesterday, it happened. As I was elbow-deep in a field of hair in an Ecuadorian orphanage, a truth was revealed to me. Although the revela-tion happened yesterday, the story began 18 months ago when I traded my comfortable job for a life of adventure and service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador.

I began my service as an agribusiness Volunteer. After three months of training in Tumbaco, I moved to my first site, Alor. Alor is a very small community (it seemed to have only about 100 residents) in northern Ecuador situated high in the Andes mountain range. It was a quiet, picturesque community of small farmers. The farmers I worked with jointly owned an integrated farm that produced corn, alfalfa, onion, and guinea pigs. My project was to help them more efficiently manage the farm and find markets for their products. I also helped a local foundation that operated a community bank and provided micro-loans to enterprising families. The project went very well, and after seven months, I left Alor and moved to Las Villegas to work on a larger project.

Las Villegas is a coastal community of approximately 7,000 people. I worked with an association of farmers growing abaca (the fiber from the abaca plant is used to make durable paper products like money, tea bags, and coffee filters). I helped the association members find alterna-tive export markets for their product. After about a year of working, we had joined the newly created National Federation of Abaca Growers, and the Ecuadorian government initiated a feasibility study to build a major abaca processing factory.

Like most Volunteers, I’m also involved in secondary projects when time and opportunity permit. And it was while I was participating in a secondary project that it happened.

Of the 160 Peace Corps Volunteers in Ecuador, seven of us are African American. At the request of a Volunteer working at a girls’ orphanage in the capital city of Quito, we visited her place of work to introduce the children to some of the cultural diversity in the United States. We arrived at the orphanage at dusk on a cool, overcast day. We were nervous because it was our first project together. However, as Peace Corps Volunteers we were accustomed to entering the unknown with anticipation and optimism. (There is a Peace Corps saying: A pessimist sees the glass as half empty, an optimist sees the glass as half full, and a Peace Corps Volunteer sees the glass and says, “Hey, I can take a bath in that!”).

When we entered the orphanage, we were greeted by a roomful of 25 active children and the nuns who were their caretakers. Most of the children were mestizo and ranged in ages from 5 to 14. Just nine of the children were black. There are few blacks in Quito (most Afro-Ecuadorians live in the coastal province of Esmeraldas), and discrimination against black and indigenous people is, unfortunately, common. These girls were having a difficult time because they were removed from their culture, and they struggled with their sense of worth.

Though these girls seemed to be glad to see us, they also appeared a bit apprehensive and maybe a little ashamed that their hair was in such disarray. Although the children’s caretakers did a great job with their limited resources, they simply did not know how to care for the hair and skin of black children.

After making our introductions, we split into two teams. One group of Volunteers entertained the non-black children with games. The other group taught the black children and their caretakers the art of maintaining black hair. Judging from the varying states of disarray of the heads before us, we were going to have our hands full—literally.

We began by talking about self-esteem. We told them how beautiful and important they were and that we would help them to take care of their hair and skin, thus encouraging them to take pride in themselves. Then we gave them a lesson on using ordinary household goods like eggs, oil, aloe, and bananas to care for their hair and skin. Finally, we went to work combing, greasing, and braiding. As we practiced the ancient ritual of the laying on of the hands with a comb in one hand, some grease in the other, and a child between our knees, the conversa-tion revolved around geography, life, and the stack of Essence, Ebony, and Emerge magazines we had brought with us. Initially, the girls were very shy and saw us as being different from them. But by the end of the night, they realized that we were all the same and began to tell their stories, ask questions, and play with our hair.

And that’s when it happened. At some point in the evening, the room had transformed itself. Time, place, language, and nationality fell away and became meaningless. Our kinship and love was conveyed by the texture of healthy hair, the glow of oiled black skin, the smiles of everyone enjoying this moment of connection, and the wonder in the eyes of a child discovering her beauty. By the end of the night, we were all changed, and our bond as a people was solidified. Being “black,” or more accurately, “a child of Africa,” does not mean that we must speak the same language, act the same way, have similar beliefs, or live in a certain neighborhood, city, or country. We realized that our strength lay in our diversity and barriers could come down with simple affirmations and the combing of hair.

Andrei Cotton (Ecuador)

Andrei Cotton served as an agricultural business Volunteer in Ecuador from 1998-2000. Upon completion of his service, he married a fellow Volunteer (Kelly Griffin) and resumed his career in the agribusiness industry.

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