A sight that always brings a smile to my face is Belizean children with their hair pulled into intricate plaits, twists and decorated with bright plastic clips.

Twist and Clips (Aug 2006)
To achieve the perfect cornrow'plait' the hair is first brought under control with one of a variety of greases , those commonly used in Belize are olive oil spray, bergamot conditioner, hair lotion, leave-in conditioner, all collectively known as 'hair grease'. If these greases are not used, most creole hair, particularly black/ afro hair can become very dry and brittle. The grease also makes it easier to manage the hair whilst plaiting, it keeps in all the loose ends and gives the hair and plaits an overall shine. The 'plaiter' then parts the hair with a comb depending on style required. Plaits can curl and wave around the head in straight lines, curves, circles…

Cornrows can be seen spreading in any direction , the hair can be parted from the forehead to the nape of the neck and the plaits can radiate to the ears, the hair can be plaited in straight lines from forehead back to the neck, or even a mixture of the two. One distinct style sees the hair parted from ear to ear. The top section of hair is plaited downwards in straight lines from the forehead to the middle of the head. The lower section is plaited upwards from the nape of the neck to the middle of the head. Any loose ends from either directions are plaited out from the head (called single plaits)resulting in a line of single plaits stretching from one to ear the other, with the rest of the hair in cornrows.

Brandy with her beautifully braided hair (Aug 2007)
One of the most impressive cornrows I have seen started at one ear and would wrap round the head serpent style until the crown of the hair was reached and the remaining hair was plaited and pinned on top of the head. If parted well distinct geometric lines of scalp are visible, without a hair out of place, adding the to the style and confirming the competence of the hairdresser. The cornrows are started at the beginning of each parted section of hair and are worked backed 'backways' by collecting and plaiting small amount of hair, all the time keeping in line with the desired parting. Accidentally grabbing a piece of hair from the wrong section can ruin the 'parting' and make the job look shabby. Each new 'collection' of hair is added to the original cornrow and pulled very tightly towards the scalp to ensure that the plaits are tight against the head. A loose plait, for example one the moves away from the scalp, is a sign of a bad 'plait', the kriol term for this is 'slick'.

Another style is called 'singles' where the hair is parted into mini sections, usually squares, and plaited away from the hair, leaving 100's of plaits falling away from the scalp. This is a good way to introduce hair extensions of varying colour and length into a hair style. Sections of 'false' hair are simply incorporated into the plaits. The plait can be stopped half way down its length and the remaining hair curled.

Hair Braiding; My First Plait (Gales Point)

Hair Braiding, My first plait.
Since I arrived in Belize I had seen many people with beautifully braided hair, and often looked on enviously. Having been brought up in the Cotswold's in England, a pretty middle/ upper class white area, I had never really seen hair braided before and seeing the intricate colourful styles on a daily basis in Belize still remains a novelty. In August 2007 on a trip to Gales Point, Malantee I decided to finally get my hair plaited for the first time. Gales Point is the oldest Kriol village Belize with very ancient traditional practices and roots stretching back to Africa. If I was going to get my hair braided anywhere, then Gales Point was the place to do it. Knowing that in San Ignacio a plait could cost anywhere between 10 and 15 BZD I was rather shocked to hear them charge 40BZD. It was explained to me by a friend who lived in Gales Point for many years, that the income in this particular village was mainly from subsistence farming and tourism. The main draw for tourism in Gales point, apart from the beautiful scenery and nesting turtles, was Emmet Young's world famous drum school.

Emmet Young's Drum School, Gales Point
Unfortunately the bus service which provided the main transport link to the village from Belize city had recently been cut down to twice a week and as a result tourists had all but stopped visiting the village with a devastating effect on the local economy. It had such an pronounced effect that many of the young men in the village moved away to Belize City to find work (but that is another tale). So the village was left with a surplus of women, waiting and hoping for a few tourists to sell their hand made jewellery to and braid hair for, in an attempt to provide for their families. The lady that was to plait my hair was called Diane. She walked me over to her tiny wooden house and sat me down on a plastic chair before she started to comb out my hair. We agreed on a simple style on straight cornrows from the forehead to the crown of my head and she quickly sent her daughter to the 'chinee' store to buy some rubbers (small black elastic bands ) as my hair is so fine it tends not to stay in plaits of its own accord!

As Diana used her faithful black plastic comb to part my hair into neat rows, I realised that I had made a good decision in only getting half of my hair plaited, I can not describe the pain that I felt during the process. The pulling and twisting of my thin hair my toes curl, literally. It was excruciating, yet from as young as two years old Belizean girls have their hair pulled into the most intricate of styles. Maybe it is a type of pain the body grows immune to, or maybe it is a pain that you endure in order to comply with social norms within the family structure, if your grandma, mum, aunts and cousins can all cope with the pain, then you should be able to! I sat there, on my chair, trying not to flinch as Diana masterfully wove my hair into tiny plaits with such speed it was over in a matter of minutes, a fact I am eternally grateful to her for. I was so pleased with the finished result I was more happy to hand over the cash, knowing that not only had I bought myself a nice hairdo but I had a memory of Diana and Gales Point that would last long after my plaits had worked themselves loose.

Hair Braiding; It's not as easy as it looks!

Hair Braiding; It's not as easy as it looks!

I have always credited myself with a basic ability when it comes to hairdressing, I mastered the favourite hair styles, pigtails, ponytails even the odd french plait at an early age, but I never had the opportunity to add the "cornrow" to my portfolio. The first victim of my burning ambition to learn how to braid (cornrow) hair was Indira, my friends eight year old daughter. Luckily I managed to strike up a deal that most eight year old girls (and me) would be happy with, I would practice plaiting her hair for an hour, and she could do whatever she wanted to mine for an hour. Now, to say there is a fundamental difference between mine and Indiras hair is a bit of an understatement. I have fine, limp hair, and not much of it, whilst Indira has a crop of beautiful curly thick hair, the kind of hair I have always dreamt of having. Plaiting hair like hers was very different to the times I had tried to practice on my own hair. Her hair kept slipping out of my hands, the parting would constantly 'unpart' itself and I would continually drop my comb (it was of little use anyway) on the floor, bend over to pick it up and lose my place in the current plait. I have never met a child with so much patience. After about an hour of trying, with my burning ambition ever so slightly dampened this is what I had produced

My first attempt at braiding hair

A rather thick looking, loose looking, wonky looking cornrow. But for a first attempt I was satisfied, surely I could only get better. Unfortunately I had to wait a year or so for my next model, this time my beautiful step-daughter Shaniqua. Shaniqua has a different type of hair to Indira, though equally as beautiful, it is long, thick and black but very straight, what some may call 'spanish' hair. Getting Shaniqua ready for school in the mornings enabled me to practice plaiting on her hair, it was my favourite part of the day, me on the sofa and her sat between my legs on a cushion on the floor, sleepily chatting to me about what the day had in store. Slowly I started to try different styles out, and although my cornrows leave much to be desired, at least I can send Shaniqua to school knowing her class mates won't laugh at her hair. One thing I have learnt is that hair braiding is not as easy as it looks, so now I have an even greater level of respect for the women that can do it so well, and the little girls who learn from them.

Independence Day Hair

The Front

The Back

Some chunky plaits