‘Coronavirus hairstyle’ spikes in popularity in East Africa

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In this Sunday, May 3, 2020 file photo, Gettrueth Ambio, 12, has her hair styled in the shape of the new coronavirus, at the Mama Brayo Beauty Salon in the Kibera slum, or informal settlement, of Nairobi, Kenya. The coronavirus has revived a hairstyle in East Africa, one with braided spikes that echo the virus' distinctive shape, with the growing popularity in part due to economic hardships linked to virus restrictions. (Photo: AP)

The coronavirus has revived a hairstyle in East Africa, one with braided spikes that echo the virus’ distinctive shape.

The style’s growing popularity is in part due to economic hardships linked to virus restrictions — it’s cheap, mothers say — and to the goal of spreading awareness that the coronavirus is real.

The hairstyle had gone out of fashion in recent years as imported real and synthetic hair from India, China and Brazil began to flood the market and demand by local women increased. Pictures of the flowing or braided imported styles are tacked up in beauty salons across much of Africa.

But now, in a makeshift salon beside a busy road in Kibera, a slum in the heart of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, 24-year-old hairdresser Sharon Refa braids young girls’ hair into the antennae-like spikes that people call the “coronavirus hairstyle.” Girls shift in the plastic chairs as she tugs at their scalps.

    “Some grown-ups don’t believe that the coronavirus is real, but then most young children appear keen to sanitize their hands and wear masks. So many adults do not do this, and that is why we came up with the corona hairstyle,” Refa said, her face mask tucked under her chin.

    Kenya’s number of confirmed virus cases was nearing 700 as of Monday. With the widespread shortage of testing materials, however, the real number of cases could be higher. Health officials are especially worried about the possible spread of the virus in crowded slums.

    Mothers like Margaret Andeya, who is struggling to make ends meet, said the coronavirus hairstyle suits her daughters’ styling needs and her pocket. Virus-related restrictions have stifled the daily work for millions of people with little or no savings.

    “This hairstyle is much more affordable for people like me who cannot afford to pay for the more expensive hairstyles out there and yet we want our kids to look stylish,” Andeya said.

    It costs 50 shillings, or about 50 U.S. cents, to get the braids while the average hairdo costs 300 to 500 shillings ($3 to $5). That’s money most people in Kibera cannot afford at the moment.

    The technique used in braiding the coronavirus hairstyle is threading, which uses yarn instead of synthetic hair braids. This is the secret to making it affordable, residents said.

    “COVID-19 has destroyed the economy, taken our jobs from us, and now money is scarce. I therefore decided to have my child’s hair done up like this at an affordable 50 shillings, and she looks good,” said 26-year-old Mariam Rashid.

    “The hairstyle also helps in communicating with the public about the virus.”