Our Big, Hairy, Audacious, Problems

There is no better time to concern oneself with ‘hair’ than when one is having a haircut.

Which is the kind of profound insight one gets promoted to Admiral status in General Francis Kennedy Ocloo‘s armies for. But there is more.

As the rotors purred and the clippers cropped, my mind wandered to our childhood.

Virtually every household in Ghana, except the fantastically wealthy (by Ghana standards), had to deal with the woes of hair among the young.

First is the small matter of lice. Second, the impossibly named problem of “hypochromotrichia”. Yes, you heard that right!

That is the name of the problem that “yomo” was meant to solve. Stop being coy, and ‘fess up: “were you yomoed or were you not yomoed”?

Yomo eventually came to be made primarily from the carbon powder and magnesium oxide coatings in the conducting rod of dry cell batteries. Said substances were dissolved in a water base until consistent and stored in bottles.

Medium-aged women would then move from house to house plying a greasy trade in the ‘yomofication’ of youthful hair.

Children needed to be yomoed frequently because micronutrient deficiencies often led to the blackness of their hair fading, though in some instances the sun was also to blame.

No one took any serious notice about any potential toxicity of the yomo dye. Such things as ‘toxicity’ was a mouthful then, and mouths were needed for better pickings.

And I am not talking about young children picking up lice from the hair of their friends and rewarding them with a knock for every one of the arthropods they removed either.

Because by the early nineties this was no longer fashionable. Chemicals were in vogue. This, after all, was the Age of the Walkman, and science meant comfort.

So mothers blended camphor (naphthalene, for you SHS Chem snobs) in soothing balms or oils and soaked hair coverings with the concoction. Then chirpy little Kofi’s head was wrapped like a fetish with the improvised headgear. Amidst moans of mild protest, genocide was inflicted on the pediculi.

What fascinates me now is why the Yomo Mammies never succeeded in capturing the lice-busting market. A few of them did get in on the game but it stayed generally domestic.

Here, however, is the point. There was never, to my memory, any kind of public health campaign against yomo or melanin bleaching of hair due to malnutrition.

Though a great number of children may have suffered in school and dropped grades due to these arthropods (in league with infernal bedbugs, to be sure), somehow we muddled through it until the prevalence of both lice and hypochromotrichia dropped considerably.

And the prevalence dropped simply because of growing incomes.

For the mid-90s, just before the economic downturn, saw the first sustained growth of incomes in Ghana after a two-decade decline. ‘Bronya akoko’ and ‘Bronya atadee’ more or less disappeared from our common lexicon around that time. And apparently so did lice and yomo.

Which brings me to the second insight of the post: many of our seemingly intractable problems are merely “problems of poverty”. Until incomes rise we can chant down mountains in our calls for giant institutional responses but nothing much will happen.

Note that I am not saying ‘all’ our problems are of this nature. There sure are some that coordinated political action and simple institutional interventions can solve.

But many are also simply “kwashiokor paycheck” problems.

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