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Afro-Germans build kinship of curls

Lori Herber, CologneDecember 18, 2013

Two 20-somethings in Germany launched krauselocke.de, a site they say is the country's first online portal for Afro-German haircare and cultural concerns. For many, it's more than a website - it's a roadmap to identity.

Krauselocke.de Online Community für Afro-Deutsche
Image: Lori Herber

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After growing up with few role models who looked like them, Afro-Germans Barbara Mabanza (left) and Esther Donkor (right) didn't want the same thing to happen to girls in Germany's next generation. So they created a website to bring together a community.

Twelve-year-old Magdalena Inou is one of those girls the two had in mind. Magdalena has her Austrian mother's quick smile and her Cameroonian father's kinky hair. Tonight those tresses are pulled into a ponytail. She sits beside her mother, Sylvia and is quick to point out the obvious.

"My hair is different from the hair of my mother," she explains, matter-of-factly. Her mother, Sylvia Inou adds. "I have German hair. Austrian hair. Straight hair."

They've traveled more than eight hours from Vienna to Cologne to meet more than 50 fellow members of the online community called "Krauselocke," or "kinky curls." They want to get tips on how to care for Magdalena's hair and, most importantly, to show Magdalena she's not alone.

"She's a dancer and she went to a conservatory in Vienna," Inou says of her daughter. "Of course all the girls there have long, blond hair. She used to cry at night because she was afraid she would be excluded from performances. She was afraid they would expect hair like mine."

A mother has her arm around her 12-year-old daughter Photo: Lori Herber
Mother-daughter duo Magdalena and Sylvia Inou traveled eight hours from Vienna to attend the online community's face-to-face celebration in CologneImage: Lori Herber

Up until last summer, the young dancer kept her hair bound in cornrow braids. After she found the krauselocke.de community, Magdalena undid her braids to let her hair fall naturally.

"Krauselocke is a website for people with curly hair, for people with natural hair," Esther Donkor said. She and Barbara Mabanza, both in their mid-20s, launched the Krauselocke website two years ago. Afro hair care and lifestyle sites exist in the US and in the UK. But the journalist and law student said they were missing such a platform for the black community in their home country, Germany.

Starting with hair

"In the US you have a big black community, and here in Germany there is also something like a black community, but it's not connected, so you don't have people exchanging information to each other," Mabanza says. "In Germany we know that we are black, but we are also German."

Mabanza and Donkor use themselves as guinea pigs to test products, and then write about them on krauselocke.de. They test over-the-counter products from drugstores, they order from retailers in the US or UK and visit "Afro" shops, which are often hair-care grocery store depots with goods imported from Africa.

Despite a growing multicultural population in Germany, they say it's nearly impossible to find products for non-European hair.

Zeebra Tropicana salon in Cologne is one of few specializing in Afro hair. Across from a rainbow of wigs, a wall of styling products looks like a Tetris game of hair creams, oils and sprays.

Owner Baba came from Ghana to Bonn, Germany, 40 years ago to work in her country's embassy. Back then, she and her colleagues struggled to find stylists and products for their hair.

A stylist answers the phone in her salon Photo: Lori Herber
Ghana native Baba founded Cologne's first Afro hair salon 24 years ago, but must still order haircare products from abroadImage: Lori Herber

"We had to go to London to do all the shopping for our needs for a year," Baba says, while rinsing a client's hair.

One day, she packed up her scissors and went to England to train as a stylist. Then, 24 years ago, the Ghana native opened the first-ever Afro hair salon in Cologne. She still orders supplies from abroad.

Special techniques

What makes Afro hair unique? Baba says European stylists aren't sure how to deal with curly hair, since it's not part of the German training program for stylists. They tend to overuse thinning scissors to "tame" it, she adds.

"Every curl is an S," she explains, "So you must make sure you don't cut the S in the middle. When you cut the S in the middle, you blow it out. Always cut the curls where the new S starts to form."

Over the years, Baba has noticed more and more mothers attending her hair-care seminars for their children.

Close up shot of a large-toohed comb Photo: Lori Herber
People ask Baba 'Can you comb your hair?' Of course, she says, but it's best to do when it's wetImage: Lori Herber

"This is a special thing I do with German mothers with Afro children," she says. "The hair is a science of its own. Once you know what you're doing, Afro hair isn't so difficult to maintain."

Ideal beauty

To achieve straight hair, some women undergo a chemical process called "relaxing" to remove the curl. Beyond chemical damage, Barbara Mabanza warns of the self-esteem damage in considering European hair the ideal beauty. She hopes krauselocke.de will help women embrace their natural locks - and educate those who don't have curly hair.

"So that questions like 'Can I touch your hair?' or just touching without asking will not happen anymore," Mabanza says.

Do people really just walk up to Barbara and Esther and touch their hair?

"Yes," both women say simultaneously. Donkor explains, "They do. When I am at work, for example, people pet my hair like I'm a pet, and I don't like that."

More than hair care

Beyond hair care tips, Krauselocke is a support forum. One mother wrote for help after her son was hit by a classmate because he isn't white.

"They really ask for help," Mabanza says. "They say, 'This happened, and I'm angry now but how can I express it, and how can I help my child.' Then there are a lot of people who say, 'Oh yes, I know that, and oh yes, I did that and that.' And this is so great about that community."

Two Afro-German women with curly hair talking Photo: Lori Herber
Beyond haircare tips, live music, food and networking are part of the Krauselocke gatheringsImage: Lori Herber

Krauselocke is not just about hair, Donkor adds. "People are not talking about hair and beauty, they are talking about racism. They talk about relationships. They talk about food. It's so interesting. And we feel so home."

In this together

Music fills the room back at the Krauselocke get-together, where fans have gathered from around Germany and parts of Europe to meet face-to-face. For some, the most important journey has been in finding their identity, and Krauselocke has played a major role.

"Before I wasn't quite comfortable with my hair," says one attendee. "My color is no issue anymore. I had some horrible experiences as a child."

A trio of women at the Krauselocke get together in Cologne Photo: Lori Herber
Many Krauselocke members say they were forced to wear short hair as children because their parents weren't sure how to deal with locksImage: Lori Herber

Another is surprised to be surrounded by so many people like her. "I was really excited when I got into the room because I've never seen so many biracial people and girls with curly hair in one place. Most of us are always the only girl with a lot of white friends."

An exchange student from the US says the site served a special niche in Germany: "In America there are a lot of people who have natural hair, whether it's dreadlocks or whether they do twist-outs or different styles. Here, it can be rare."

As for Magdalena, the young dancer, her mother says the online community not only changed her daughter's hairstyle, it changed her life.

"Krauselocke helped her through a very, very difficult period of finding who she is. Isn't that right?" the mother looks to her daughter.

Magdalena confirms with a smile, "That's right!"