When Ruth Mafupa was a little girl, she was forced to wear her natural hair. As she grew older, she watched some of her girlfriends get relaxers and she wanted to try a relaxer too. Her mother wouldn’t allow her to relax her hair until she got to high school. Shortly after high school, she got her first relaxer. After high school, Ruth yo-yoed between a chemical relaxer and natural hair. She would always go back to the relaxer because she didn’t know how to maintain her natural hair. In 2011, Ruth set out on a journey to find out how to grow, maintain, style, and care for her natural hair. Ruth began reading natural hair blogs, watching natural hair videos, and joining natural hair forums. She began searching for products that were mentioned in the natural hair blogs, videos, and forums but she didn’t have any luck. While at Dischem, a local pharmacy, she asked the pharmacist if he knew where she could locate some shea butter. The pharmacist directed her to visit a health store in a neighbouring town. Ruth travelled nearly an hour to purchase her first container of shea butter. She returned home and did a Twist Out hairstyle with the shea butter. After she posted photos of her Twist Out hairstyle on her blog, people asked Ruth if they could purchase some of her shea butter and asked for guidance on styling their hair. Ruth’s hair journey resulted in her quitting her full-time job as a quality control manager and devoting all of her energy to Natural Moisture, a company that she founded that produces natural hair products, soaps, and accessories to sell to people in South Africa, Botswana, Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Below is my interview with Ruth Mafupa about her natural hair journey, the natural hair movement in South Africa, and her experience as an entrepreneur.
Phillips: Have you ever relaxed your hair? If so, why?
Mafupa: Yes, I used to relax my hair. I had my first relaxer in high school. My mom wouldn’t allow me to relax my hair until I was old enough to make my own decision. So when I was in high school I got my first relaxer. I think I relaxed my hair because of peer pressure and my desire to fit in with my classmates. In primary school, when I had natural hair, some people used to mistake me for a boy. So, that was another reason I wanted a relaxer, I didn’t want people to think I was a boy. Six years ago, I decided to stop relaxing my hair. January 8, 2011 was the day that I began my natural hair journey. When I was relaxing my hair, I knew that the chemical relaxer wasn’t the best way to care for my hair because my hair was flat, brittle, and constantly breaking.
Before natural hair started to become popular in South Africa, if you wanted natural hair, dread locs was the only option. I don’t dislike dread locs but I couldn’t see myself wearing dread locs. Back then, I was in a broken hearted place where I didn’t know what to do with my natural hair. I wanted a new look for my hair but I didn’t know how to look smart and cool at work. I can’t remember the exact moment but I wanted to stop relaxing my hair so that I could have a really big Afro. I thought that would be so cool.
Phillips: What led up to your involvement with natural products and the creation of Natural Moistures?
Mafupa: In the early years of my natural hair journey, we didn’t have a lot of products in South Africa. Common natural hair products, like shea butter, weren’t available in South Africa. Now it probably sounds unimaginable that Shea butter which is an African product wasn’t available in South Africa. So I took it upon myself to find how I could get some Shea Butter. After looking in a variety of stores and markets, I finally asked a pharmacist who told me to go to a health shop which was 45 kilometres outside of town. I travelled to the health shop to purchase some Shea Butter and when I returned to town, people went crazy over the shea butter. Then people in neighbouring African countries began asking me how they could get some shea butter. So I began ordering bulk quantities of shea butter, packaging the shea Butter, and selling it to people in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Namibia, and Botswana. Later, I had to employ someone to help me answer emails and phone calls. Before I knew it, I was a businesswoman. In 2015, I stopped working my full-time job and Natural Moisture became my full-time business.
Phillips: Can you please tell our readers about the natural hair movement in South Africa?
Mafupa: The effects of Apartheid are still alive and present in South Africa. Many people who experienced Apartheid are still alive and they remember the pencil test. The pencil test was a hair test used to determine your racial classification. They would put a pencil in your hair to find out if it will fall. If the pencil fell, this meant that you were classified as colored (bi-racial) which meant that your hair was better than black hair. If the pencil didn’t fall, then you were classified as black. During Apartheid, we had three racial classification: white, colored, and black. The natural hair movement is growing slowly in South Africa because we are still breaking free from things like the pencil test. We are progressing a lot because we now have models in the mainstream media, natural hair blogs, and natural hair products. We are learning about our hair through videos, blogs, Facebook groups, and Meetups.
Phillips: How was your hair when you got married? How did your husband feel about your hair?
Mafupa: When we got married I had natural hair. My husband loves me and my natural hair. He was very supportive of my natural hair journey. He supported me when I relaxed my hair and when I transitioned to natural hair. He has been very supportive of my natural hair journey and my natural hair business.
Phillips: Generally speaking, how do most South African men feel about natural hair? Do they feel like women with natural hair are attractive or do they feel like they are less attractive?
Mafupa: I think that South African men think that natural hair is attractive because natural hair is a statement and it has its own message. It says I am comfortable with who I am. Most of the men that I have interacted with through in-person conversation or Facebook surveys, prefer a natural African woman instead of an African woman with hair weave or a relaxer.
Phillips: Do South African Naturalistas have enough natural hair stylists to educate them on how to manage their hair or are most women taking care of their hair themselves at home?
Mafupa: It’s still mostly at home. We have a few natural hair salons but most stylists who attend school for formal training are learning to straighten and relax our hair. Most salons frown on natural hair which forces most South African Naturalists to do their own hair at home.
Phillips: What impact does the natural hair movement in the United States and the United Kingdom have on South Africa and on other African countries? Do Africans look at what African Americans and Black British women are doing with their hair?
Mafupa: African Americans and Black British people have a huge impact on the natural hair movement in South Africa and other African nations. I learned about the benefits of shea butter from African American YouTube bloggers. After South Africans learned about the importance of shea butter for natural hair, many of us began ordering shea butter from America. When I began to hunt for natural hair products, I decided to look for shea butter and other organic items in other African countries because they are produced here in Africa. Please let your readers in America know that they have a huge impact on people in South Africa. We are watching what they do with their hair, how they care for their hair, how they style their hair, and the products that they use. In the past, we didn’t have any products which were available in America but now, the big chain stores import Cantu products and Shea Moisturizer, and Eco Styler.
African American women have taken it upon themselves to find out how to manage, style, and care for their hair which gives us inspiration to try wearing our natural hair. Before, for most South African women, getting a relaxer felt like the only option. Now we have other options besides relaxing our hair, putting in weave, or putting on a wig.