‘Wearing my natural hair on screen is my way of making a political statement’ – Afua Hirsch

by Azeezat Fadekemi Sulaiman

Why Afua Hirsch is easily the coolest girl in broadcasting

It’s a Bank Holiday and I’m making my way down a leafy street in Wimbledon en route to do a shoot with Sky News Social Affairs and Education Editor Afua Hirsch. We’ve had to move the shoot a number of times because of Afua’s hectic schedule amongst other things, so when the opportunity to finally do it came, the fact that it was on a Bank holiday didn’t mean much. Needs must.

I’m welcomed in to the hallway to the sound of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ blasting off on her Mac and I smile to myself. A few weeks back, while interviewing her at the Sky offices in Westminster, she’d told me she was very into hip hop and was a huge fan of Nas and Mos Def. At the time, I’d found it hard to believe, I mean, this is Afua Hirsch! But here in her home was living proof.

She smiled as I commented about the track and teased her about her musical taste, which she describes as ‘Neo soul’. For someone who counts Hugh Masakela, Erica Badu and D’Angelo as her all time favs, her taste is somewhat eclectic. ‘I’m not really into Afrobeats’, she tells me, looking a bit sheepish as she admits to at least liking Fuse ODG’s ‘Azonto’. It’s cool, but it’s just not what I’d listen to at home. If I’m out and about, I’d get down don’t get me wrong. I just don’t really like fun music. I’m more into like moody atmospheric music. “

Hirsch’s musical taste isn’t the only thing I found fascinating about this 33 year old Barrister turned Journalist. She runs unfailingly every morning; something she says gives her the mental strength to help with her demanding job. She’s a very healthy eater, like used to be Vegan and only eats organic food with no sugar kind of healthy. My jaws almost hit the floor when she told me she goes to Church and even makes sure her daughter attends Sunday school, giving the fact that her parents are atheist.

Contrary to her simple on screen appearance, she’s quite the fashionista and very much into loud accessories as evident in the stash of accessories I uncovered at her home. What makes her so refreshing is the fact that she’s not only intelligent and incredibly talented, she’s also kinda really ‘cool.’

Like starting a WhatsApp natural hair group with her friends, where they share tips on caring for natural hair. Like many naturalistas, she’s very much into the natural hair movement. She’s so passionate about it in fact that she uses her hair to make a political statement on screen.

“That’s actually why I wear my hair like this,” she says referring to her curly afro.” I used to wear my hair straight on air and I think it’s hard. One, black women are less visible because those of us who are out there try to look as white as possible. Two, white people don’t even know what our hair is like naturally. I know it’s quite superficial but it feels like we protect them from knowing what our hair really looks like because we don’t want to answer the questions.”

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“I wore braids from the age of 13 and I constantly had to answer numerous questions. How do you do it? How do you wash it? How long does it last? And I kind of feel like; I want it to get to a stage where black hair is just not such a novelty anymore and in a way this is my small way of contributing to that. People say to me, seeing you on screen with your hair like that makes me feel like I can wear mine that way too. I wouldn’t even have considered it years ago because I felt it was unprofessional, but it’s a critical mass thing. If many more women in parliament and in the boardroom wore their hair natural, then other young women would know that it isn’t just something you do when you’re off work.”

When she’s not reporting on breaking news and sweating it off in the editing suite, Afua spends most of her time working on projecting a more positive image of Africa. As someone who’s lived on the continent for over a decade, working as a barrister in human rights and more recently as a journalist for the Guardian. She certainly knows a thing or two about what the reality is on ground, and has since made it a focus of hers to change the narrative.

“I think a lot of it is about what’s being projected out there”, she says in reference to the media portrayal of Africa as a land full of wild animals and impoverished children. “A lot of films are usually based on some story about people in a desperate refugee camp before some white person comes in to save them. It’s based on this premise that African people are backward and white people will come in and rescue them from their barbarity. It really bothers me that this is still the kind of subliminal message out there.”

Having had to explain to former work colleagues how Lagos wasn’t full of elephants and Lions, when I first arrived in the UK, I totally see her point. I always made it a point to set the records straight everytime people asked me such questions. I ask if she ever felt a similar duty to educate people with such archaic views of Africa and its people. “Actually, no I didn’t.  And I still avoid the conversations that involve me having to explain.  It may be different for you because you come from there, so it’s like anybody who comes from a different place trying to explain to new people where they come from. But because I don’t come from there anymore than I come from here, I guess it’s more of an emotive thing for me and I resent the fact that I’m expected to even explain.”

Aren’t we perpetuating the stereotype then I ask, if we refuse to enlighten people? She grudgingly admits yes, “but that’s why I’ve channelled my energy to getting us closer to a place where you don’t have to explain anymore. I try as much as possible to write positive stories about Africa. When I was West Africa correspondent for The Guardian, I would challenge those perceptions. On another level, I really expect educated people to not be so ignorant.”  I ask how they are expected to believe anything other than what they’ve been fed in the media and I can tell this is something she won’t budge on. Her views are absolute and she’s totally unapologetic about it. “We live in an era where everything is online”, she says. “If you’re really interested, you can google Lagos and use Google earth to see exactly how it looks on ground and then count how many giraffes you’ll find on the street view. Unlike decades ago, you don’t have to go to a specialist library to get that kind of information anymore, you could just look on your phone. I just have an expectation that people should be a bit wiser.”

I’ve got to hand it to her. She’s probably more die hard, hard core African than some of us who were born on the continent. To understand why she’s so passionate about the continent, one must put things into context.  Afua is what you’d call a child of the world. Born in Norway to a Ghanaian mum and a dad whose parents were immigrants from Nazi Germany, the family moved to the UK when she was four and she’s since lived in Ghana and Dakar as well as travelling to various countries in West Africa. She tells me growing up as a mixed race kid in west London meant she had identity issues, and the best way to address those issues was to look into her Ghanaian heritage.

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Despite her western upbringing, she says she always felt connected to Africa right from a young age. “I grew up in Wimbledon and all through my childhood, I was always one of the few if not only black child in the neighbourhood and I always had to answer the question about where I’m from. For mixed race children, there’s this dilemma like where do you belong? Everywhere you go, you have to explain yourself.”

Read the full interview with Afua in the Spring/Summer Issue of Naija Living. Download it here now. It’s free.

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