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 or on Instagram at @tomskipp.

 ??  ??
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia