Depending on where you come from and what hair texture you have, braiding could an exotic, complicated wonder … or something you do every day before bed. If you’re unfamiliar with hair texture, it’s usually classed from 1 to 4, with letters A to C. Type 1A hair is fine, straight hair, what is considered stereotypically Caucasian. 4C hair is thick and dense with tight, interlocking, zig-zag curls, i.e. the stereotypical African afro. These are just general indicators, because Europeans can have Type 4 hair and Africans can have Type 1 hair.
Your texture is a mix of genes and environment. Most people think straight, fine hair is the best kind, so lots of hair treatments are developed to achieve that result. These include hair relaxers and heat-based straighteners. You can also wear wigs or attach hair extensions / weaves to create the illusion of fine, straight tresses. However, thick, curly hair holds braids better, because their surfaces are less slippery.
For girls with naturally curly textures, braids can stay neat for several weeks. Finer hair pulls loose from braids, so they don’t keep well. Plus, when your hair is that fine, you don’t have enough traction for fine braids, so it has to be loose and lagging. You could add extensions to it, for thickness and grip, which could make your braids stay prettier for longer. There are other considerations though. For example, the weight of hair extensions can tug fine hair and lead to breakage, especially at the ‘edges’ (hairline at your temple).
In countries like Kenya, cornrows are part of schoolgirl uniform. From ages 5 to 15 (nursery and primary school), girls mostly braid their hair into cornrows. Grown-ups wear cornrows too, but the adult version is more embellished. Schoolgirls are restricted – by their schools – to have their cornrows running from front to back in straight lines. Younger girls may be allowed a pussycat (pigtails), or pineapple (ponytail)with beads.
Adults will generally have curved styles and patterns with ‘hair piece’ (extensions) attached for added length. Kids can have these elaborate hairstyles during school holidays. Because ‘lines’ – as they are called – can be extremely fine, parting becomes really important. Hairdressers usually charge by the number of lines you want. Schoolgirl lines are between ten and fifteen. Adult lines can be curved and coiled, or they can be used as the base for weaves and extensions that are stitched onto the lines.
The neatness (and longevity) of lines and regular (box braids) is driven by carefully parting. Your hairdresser will use a comb to pull fine individual lines into clean partings, creating patterns where the hair contrasts bare scalp. The scalp is usually oiled to make it shiny and reduce dandruff. Individual hairs are pulled tight to keep the lines neater for longer. When your hair roots grow out, your lines get loose and it’s time to braid again. Using hair extensions in the braid can keep the braids tighter as well, because the extensions are coarser and offer more friction than your own hair.
Moisturise your scalp
To keep box braids neat, part the hair in equal portions following grid-like patterns. Remember that your scalp will show through your braids (at least for the first few weeks), so if you part haphazardly, your braids won’t be as neat. Avoid braiding the baby hairs at the front, because they break easily. Instead, you can gel into pretty coils, protecting them while keeping them flat against your scalp. Spritz some water to moisten the baby hair, add some gel, then shape it with an old toothbrush or fine nail brush.
Similarly, oil the exposed scalp between your braids to keep them neat. You can do this every two or three days. The duration of your braids is up to you. Some girls prefer to undo their braids daily, while others can keep them in for a week. In Kenya, some ladies wear braids for a month or more. To keep them fresh and pretty, they go to the hairdresser for ‘repair’. This is re-braiding the first three or four rows at the front, back, and sides so your hair looks freshly braided. You can wash your braids as well, to reduce dust and oil build-up.
Braid spray is another handy tip. It keeps your hair from looking dry and flaky. When you first braid (or repair) your hair, your scalp can feel really tight and heavy. You might even develop pimples of your braids are too tight. But the tighter and finer your braids, the longer they’ll last, so you have to choose between comfort and duration. To ease the discomfort, run cold water on your scalp. The tightness will ease after a few days and become more bearable.