Written by Ebo Kye 
     Illustrated by Janaya Nyala Josephs 

     Est. Reading Time: 13 min 

    Kojo is sitting on their grandmother’s bush-green carpet with its print of crushed cream flowers and errant petals, legs criss-crossed, eyes on an antennaed tv. Grandma Beatrice, like many other Ghanaians of her era, has turned her wall into a gallery of wooden hangings of the Akan Madonna – a representation of an afroed mother and child. Kojo’s eyes dart between the majestic Madonna and the paste-white clown in his exaggerated red afro and overdone lips gracing the bug-tv. The clown stomps around a foreign city with lush green spaces that contrast the red clay of Accra.

    Beatrice is fast at work weaving the soft wool of Kojo’s hair into many little braids. She loves to tend to her grandchild’s hair the way she tends to the lush yard that brings life to the entrance of her concrete home. Beatrice does not have a soft hand at the start of their informal appointment; she pulls at the strands like they are weeds but as she continues her touch becomes more yielding. Kojo doesn’t mind her technique; the push and pull keeps him alert to the goings-on of the spirited clown. He is happy to sit and watch the world reveal itself through the noisy screen and the piercing eyes of the Madonna. He sees himself in both – a future of feminine strength and of free movement.

    On the last braid, a loud kɔkɔkɔ is heard at the door. The hand that raps the wooden entranceway is defiant, determined, and self-assured. It wakes Kojo from his daydreaming – or rather their worldbuilding. Beatrice rises from her green velvet sofa, ensures that the cloth wrapper tied around her waist is secure, and shuffles her strong calloused feet to the door.

    She is met with the blank, then stunned face of Kojo’s mother. She is dressed in her church garb – handmade blouse and ankle-length skirt of stiff wax print fabric. She is returning from the women’s meeting at Grace Biblical Apostolic. Before she greets her mother, her eyes laser in on where 10-year-old Kojo sits – with his carefully adorned hair.

    “Mama…why do you insist on turning my son into a Rasta?”

    “He likes it. It’s our bonding time. When you were like him you loved when I braided your hair too!”

    “And I was a girl.”

    “Okay okay! Well, what’s done is done.”

    “Kojo, bra ha! Yɛnkɔ fie.”

    A pit forms in Kojo’s stomach, but he steels himself and walks over to his mother. Like magnets repelling each other, the closer he gets to her, the farther she seems to go. Kojo trails her and stumbles into the backseat of their vehicle, no words spoken but so many thoughts, feelings, and prejudices exchanged. The heavy dry season air that occupies the small sedan’s cabin is forgotten as the tension, so thick it could be cut with a knife, rises to the fore.

    I was raised by my grandfather, a military hero and a very matter-of-fact kind of man. I would sit at his feet and take in his stories and his way of speaking and make it my own. Life was usually peaceful, but Sunday’s meant war. Some days, the events were mundane, and the sermons and interactions innocuous. Other days, every stray glance or deepened tone felt like a targeted pelting of ammunition. The day I met Kojo, I was placed at the vanguard of battle in polished black loafers and a shiny lavender vest.

    As our teacher neared the end of the Sunday School lesson – something about pearls, maybe needles or camels too – I started to run through my master plan to make the new boy my friend. The large room with the beige carpet, wheeled white board, television set and carts of A/V equipment and craft materials was becoming an informal watering hole. The children moved around and re-established their crews and cliques as they waited for the snack table to be assembled and teachers to break open the refreshments.

    Naturally, the teacher would explain to the new student how the snack session was conducted. I would have to time everything flawlessly to happen close by this interaction. He would choose me to walk Kojo over to the designated area, and I would be the first to talk to him, hopefully securing his loyalty quickly.

    I kept my eyes open during the ending prayer. Then, I stood around and stared blankly, sneaking glances at both the teacher and Kojo as I waited for an opening. I dragged my feet, which suddenly felt tight and heavy in their shoes, over to where the teacher had started talking to the new student. I didn’t hear his words at my approach, but I saw him point towards me then to Kojo. I had succeeded, but instead of relief I was overcome with anxiety. I looked at Kojo and stumbled out a hello.

    I silently led him to the provisions line, stood beside him staring at the tops of my shoes, and made a beeline for a solo open seat quickly after he had begun to gather his treats. I didn’t look back to see where Kojo ended up – to see which one of my bullies had adopted him into their fold. I was kicking myself, staving off tears I didn’t fully understand. Then, I felt a tap at the back of my shoulder. My head swiveled around to see Kojo. He didn’t motion over to a chair for himself. Instead, he ventured towards the open door while glancing back at me every so often, as if to get me out of my seat.

    I looked around to see that everyone was engrossed in the melee that surrounded the snack session. I followed the new boy out the main church doors and over to a corner of the sprawling front steps.

    Before I could introduce myself, the new boy shyly asked, “Did you see me looking at you?”


    “Well, I don’t know. I thought you might be like me.” He blushed.

    “Like you?” There was a giddiness in my voice that I tried to muffle. This new boy had a voice that was gentle, so different from the harsh inflections of the other kids. It made me feel warm inside and dried the saliva at the back of my throat. I coughed to clear my airways.

    “Yes.” He met my eyes with a sheepish glance. So much ran through my mind. There was fear; there was joy; there was a growing sense of danger as I came to face something that felt new and unacceptable. I worried that I didn’t have the right shields for this battle. There was also a hunger I felt that I can now place as desire. I wanted him to be closer, even though his breath had a sour edge from the cheese crackers and apple juice. My feet were firmly planted but I wished they would move me nearer.

    Kojo held out a hand, but I just gawked at it for what was only seconds but felt like an eternity. All I could think to do was retreat, so I turned towards the top of the stairs and began my sprint. As I arrived at the summit, the heavy wooden doors to the sanctuary swung open and the sheep flooded out. I bobbed and weaved through the throng until I was back in the colorful room with the beige carpet. No one seemed to witness my return as I stumbled toward my seat.

    I heard a voice not far behind.

    “What’s your name?”


    “Nice to meet you. Let’s be friends.”

    It all started so simply. Kojo became my friend first in that holy space, then in the school hallways, and finally out in the city. We laughed and smiled and hoped the friendship would be enough. And it was for a long time, but lingering glances and quickening heartbeats started to reveal the weaknesses in my defenses. I tried to reinforce my barricades and blockades at every opportunity, but ultimately love signed a truce.

    Hands twisted in my lover’s tresses, I trace a map through his scalp back to Accra and Saturday afternoons sitting on a hand sewn pillow on the floor of my grandmother’s house.

    “Babe, why are you always in my hair?” Roman asks playfully. Light dapples through the linen-curtained window of the sunroom.

    “I just love it.” Behind those words is a layered history. One that I have shared with Roman on heavy rainy days hiding behind his grandfather’s plastic-covered couch with paper plates holding hefty slices of pecan pie and vanilla ice cream. But on this light sunny day, all I want is to sit and enjoy this man I get to call mine. Take in his thick eyebrows, stubble, his burnt butterscotch skin, and husky voice. My teddy bear – my earliest friend. We grew up as two gay boys sweating under the Savannah sun. And developed a love slow as a treacle spill. Through denial, angst, butter-toast-colored girlfriends and into honesty, acceptance, and love.

    I moved to Savannah towards the end of my tenth year. Maame Poku, my mother, had won the immigration lottery. As a devotee of the Reverend Joe Wilkins, a prosperity preacher with a persistent tan that helped him trick his way into the African community, it was her dream to relocate our little family to the city of his church.

    The day before we were meant to fly to our new home, my mother called me into her bathroom and asked that I bring “my hair things.” This shocked me on two levels. First – my mother never had any interest in doing my hair. Out of respect for her mother’s wishes she let me keep my hair long but made it clear that she would not be an active participant in my corruption. Grandma Beatrice is the one who taught me how to detangle my thick coarse strands – to mediate the fighting amongst my locks, tame lion-mane fierce hair, and mother my follicles and scalp to strengthen my natural crown. However, I still wished for my mother’s touch. Second – her bathroom was a sacred space, always under lock and key. Perhaps she feared the sort of alchemy I might be involved in – if she let me near her sheens, shadows, and acetates. Perhaps she feared I might become more beautiful than her. I walked into the bathroom with yearning and hesitation.

    Her actions were swift. She opened her arms as if to caress, wrapped them around me and started the clippers I hadn’t seen perched on the closed toilet seat behind her. As the whir of the machine became louder in my ears, I began to notice the clear signs of my demise. Old newspapers strewn everywhere – to protect her precious tiled floor from the hairy debris, a coarse boar bristle brush balancing on the edge of the porcelain sink, a large orange tub of pomade adorned with the image of a man with short-cropped hair and mellow waves.

    She sheared me down to my scalp on a summer day some time before my first day of American fifth grade. Exposed, raw, and constantly in fear – those first years were agonizing.

    “Is it weird to say, your hair reminds me of my grandmother’s garden.”

    “It had a lot of snakes or something?”

    “God – can you just let me be cute and compliment you?” I held Roman close, smiling from cheek to cheek, feeling a happiness and a joy that I never thought I could.

    “It reminds me of the vines she used to tend to in her garden. They were plant species that are known to be stubborn, yet she knew how to work them. And when I see your locs, I see determination and co-existence. How many hands have been in this hair that now goes past your ass?”

    “A few…a lot…a village.” I get up from the white-painted wire-wrought chair in our sunroom and move towards the rattan couch with the ocean-blue throws.

    I toss one of the pillows toward the front of my seat, and gesture wordlessly to Ro. It’s a ritual we have enacted so many times before.

    He sits on the ocean, and I ease into the couch cushion behind him. First, I take in the view of long mossy deep-brown vines almost fully obscuring his lighter brown scalp. I can’t help but breathe in – earthy and sweet like a budding flower – a scent that holds the severity and the lightness of our years together. 10 years in, Roman is my greatest love.

    “Do you remember the first time you retwisted my hair?” he breathes unsteadily, an edge of giddiness against his usual calm.

    “I was so scared…my fingers were shaking.”

    “I thought it was because you didn’t have any experience. I was honestly a little scared for my scalp. Then you got in there and gave me the best retwist of my life. It was the gay audacity for me. And then you told me you had never retwisted hair in your life! I was sure you had some trade on the side you didn’t want me to know about.”

    “Please…the only trade I know is you.”

    “Stop that. You know I’ve been effeminate all my life.” He flicks his fingers downward to show off his manicured, yet unadorned nails.

    That elicits a hearty, squeaky laugh from my chest.

    “I know that’s right. We really grew into this together. It’s crazy because so much of this went unspoken.”

    “I can’t tell you how many times I thought about telling you.”

    “You mean…how many times you thought about kissing me?”

    “I want to argue…but it is true.”

    Roman twists his head around abruptly, undoing my work on one of the vines. His hair whips through the air spectacularly. I catch his head in my hands, the sun’s rays smelter his irises into liquid gold. Even in the heat, I shudder. He pushes himself up to reach my lips and my head lowers instinctively.

    The kiss leaves my throat burning, and I am compelled to speak to cool it down. I must try, even though I might fail, to put words to all of what our experience has been.

    “But everything fell in line at the right time. Glad to have been ready for this journey exactly when you were.” I breathe.

    “We learned together silently, grew into this quietly, so that we could love this loud.” He says this as I weave new growth into a mature loc.

    “Rasta-man, I love you.”

    “And I, you, my love.”

    I can’t help but think to myself – hair and love require a balance of slack and tension.



Published July 5, 2024
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Author’s Bio
Ebo was born in Ghana, grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts and now calls Akron, Ohio home. They are a 26-Year Old trans/nonbinary Queer, a writer (of short stories, long stories, poetry, and essays), a reader, and a peace-lover.
︎ @ebo.kye

Artist’s Bio
Janaya Nyala is an emerging artist and occasional poet from the lower NY area with Panamanian heritage. Her goal is to highlight Black love, mental health and sanctify the freedom for Black people, especially Black men, to be delicate, vulnerable and speak their truth. Janaya finds her inspiration through black photography, poetry, music, and her own experiences.
︎ @nyala.blue


︎Philadelphia, PA
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