In search of amasunzu
Photographer tom skipp spent time learning about a traditional rwandan hairdo.
Tell us a bit about yourself, please! Who are you and what do you do? Hey there, my name’s Tom Skipp and I’m a Uk-based documentary photographer. I try to take on photographic stories that improve my understanding of others, and then convey those stories to the world.
How did you find yourself in Rwanda? After being in London for many years working in design for the music industry, I decided I needed to make a change and do something that might genuinely help people. I moved to Rwanda to take up a job as an art director for a charity magazine called Ni Nyampinga. They’re solely focused on nurturing and championing girls and women through a magazine and radio show highlighting female issues. My role there was to develop local designers so the charity could run independently based on local skills.
What do you know about the history and significance of the Amasunzu hairstyle? Amasunzu is a hairstyle that was worn in Rwanda before colonisation by the Belgians. The style denotes a particular role within society – it was traditionally worn by men and unmarried women to show potential suitors they were single and ready to get married. It was also a sign of prestige among men – those who had it were seen as powerful and brave. Wamazina Hassan Harby – who appears in my photos – chose this particular style to show his pride in his Rwandan heritage.
Do many people still wear their hair this way? To see this haircut in the street is very rare in Rwanda. People will literally stop and look as someone walks past. Wamazina said youngsters see it as something distinctly from the past – they’d rather wear a cut influenced by Western culture.
How is this hairstyle achieved? Did you see it in action? The hairstyle is achieved with continual growing, shaping, shaving and cutting. It requires constant upkeep, like most haircuts! I was lucky enough to be invited in to Wamazina’s barbershop, and sat with him as his barber smartened up his do. After the cut, it was certainly more pronounced.
What were the barbershops like inside? Kigali is the capital of Rwanda and, to me, seemed like the most modern place, but when I arrived from London, I was surprised by the simplicity with which most people lived. The barbershops are similar to what you’d find throughout the world, though: a place for discussion and openness.
Maybe because you’re completely at the mercy of a person with a sharp implement?
Were the people in your images happy to have their photo taken? How did you get to know them? I met a group of people in Kigali – they’d gathered to meet me as performers and exponents of historical culture. They were all dressed in traditional tribal outfits and I sat with them to listen about the history of Amasunzu. I explained that I wanted to tell the story of Rwandan culture before Belgian colonial rule, and show that to others around the world. I also visited the Rwandan king’s palace in Nyanza, the heart of Rwanda, and made a voluntary contribution to the museum. In doing these things, I was able to be trusted – I hope I do justice to the cultural significance of their self-expression. Wamazina even gave me novels that he’d written, and I’ve attempted to get them published for him.
Why do they choose to still wear the traditional hairstyle? The people I met weren’t in the country during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Personally, I feel that gives them freedom to express themselves more freely. There’s a sense that Africans should be proud of their heritage and not look West when creating their style, and I think – and hope – these forerunners will influence a host of Rwandans to not become part of the homogenised Western culture.
Did you learn anything else while putting this series together?
As I’ve progressed in my photographic career, I’ve developed the way I work. I was asked if I could collect this particular project, but I’m not sure I’d take it on anymore, as I question my right to tell someone else’s story. At the time, I had a connection with Rwanda and wanted to return, as I knew the beauty of the country and its unique recent history. For subsequent projects, I’ve taken much longer before carrying them out, taking time to connect with all the subjects and really build relationships. This series taught me that I need to be so much more mindful of cultural heritage.
What do you love about photographing people? I really enjoy meeting people who I usually never would. I search out people who are markedly different from me; people whose lives I don’t understand. I feel privileged to be allowed to capture images of them and to share these amazing experiences with others.
Where can we see more of your work? Online at tomskipp.com or on Instagram at @tomskipp.