How dreadlocks have   locked us out of jobs

Brian Agaba, a member of the Rastafarian Association of Uganda, poses for a portrait in Kampala on October 23. PHOTOS/ NICHOLAS BAMULANZEKI

What you need to know:

  • More than a third of the people responding to the CCIJ’s survey who had never worn dreadlocks said they would not trust someone with dreadlocks.
  • More than a third of survey respondents who had never worn dreadlocks said they are not a professional hairstyle.

A hairstyle does not make a thief.
Dreadlocks have several affiliations across Uganda that can contribute to different types of state-sanctioned discrimination. These include historical links to armed rebel groups, associations with drug dealers and criminality in urban centers, connection to the Rastafarian religious community, links with opposition groups and their supporters, such as former dreadlock-sporting opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, also referred to as Bobi Wine, and a connection to hip hop culture and wealth.

In the northern region of the country, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group that terrorised communities between 1987 and 2012 were often identified as having dreadlocks and unkempt appearances. In recounting the abuses perpetrated by the group, people would often refer to their dreadlocks as the way they knew it was the LRA. 
“When in the bush and actively fighting, the LRA had been famous for dreadlocks,” according to a book about the LRA. 
“A number of the commanders had cut their hair before showing themselves publicly to shed the bush fighter image.”

There are other affiliations of dreadlocks with criminality in Uganda, particularly in urban centres. In the survey conducted by the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ), some of the most common words respondents said they associated with dreadlocks, especially among those who don’t wear them, included: rasta and rastafarian, cool, drugs and weed, ugly, smokers, criminal and thugs.
“When a security person finds me near drug lords, he will point fingers at me first because of the dreadlocks,” said Brian Agaba, a member of a Savings and Credit Cooperative Organisation that is focused on helping Rastafarians. “I don’t take alcohol or drugs. It helps me shield myself against the wrong characters.”
Agaba said his family would call him a criminal or fraudster, and even forcefully cut his hair off.  But he feels that he falls sick without the dreadlocks, and now maintains them and grows them so long he has offers to cut them and sell them on the black market.
Moses Banalekaki said he was forced to cut off his dreadlocks to act as best man in his friend’s wedding.
“The (groom’s) parents were not in agreement with me being the best man because I had locks on me,” he said. Banalekaki said later the groom’s father told him that since the family was Muslim, had he worn dreadlocks in the wedding, “‘it would spoil their reputation as a family.’”

The same came for job searches. “Many times I have applied for jobs both from government and private owned entities but the conversation always goes back to you cutting hair, in spite of how capable I am and how ready I am for the job,” he said.
More than a third of survey respondents who had never worn dreadlocks said they are not a professional hairstyle.

Phoebe Kiddu Oprah checks her poultry at her home in Kampala on October 23.

Spirituality and hair
Many of those growing dreadlocks identify themselves as Rastafarian, like Agaba, and say their hair is linked with religion and spirituality. The religion began in Jamaica in the 1930s, and is affiliated with slavery and fighting oppression. The movement combines elements of Christianity, mysticism, and pan-African political consciousness, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Rastafari “livity,” or the principle of balanced lifestyle, includes the wearing of long hair locked in its natural, uncombed state, dressing in the colours of red, green, gold, and black (which symbolize the life force of blood, herbs, royalty, and Africanness), and eating an “I-tal” (natural, vegetarian) diet,” according to the article. 

It says dreadlocks are linked with a reading of Leviticus in the Old Testament, that admonishes the cutting of hair. “Religious rituals include prayer services, the smoking of ganja (marijuana) to achieve better “itation” (meditation) with Jah, and “bingis” (all-night drumming ceremonies).”
Jamaican musician Bob Marley, who popularised reggae music, wore dreadlocks and identified as Rasta.

“People don’t want to know about the culture. A Rasta understands that the spirit of God will lead and guide them,” said Patrick Bavumula, who wears dreadlocks.

Dreadlocks and political opposition
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has been in power since January 1986, more than four times longer than the country’s notorious former President Idi Amin, who is known for his brutal dictatorship. Museveni’s presidency is accompanied by reports of crackdowns against protesters and opposition figures, including arbitrary arrests, disappearances, and torture of those who oppose him.
One of those Opposition figures is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, a pop star referred to as Bobi Wine. In 2017, the dreadlock-sporting rapper who came from Kamwokya, one of Kampala’s informal settlements and the same location where police have done sweeping arrests of hundreds of “thieves” and “thugs,” ran for a seat in a by-election. In a surprise to many at the time, he won a seat and became the Member of Parliament for Kyadondo East.
Bobi Wine served just one term in parliament, before forming the National Unity Platform (NUP) Opposition political party. In 2021, he ran against Museveni in the country’s presidential elections. Bobi Wine has been repeatedly arrested, put under house arrest, detained and assaulted by police during his time in opposition. His supporters – many of whom come from low-income areas – have faced a similar fate during protests and rallies. Although Bobi Wine cut his dreadlocks as he entered politics, many of his supporters still sport dreadlocks, along with the color red. The affiliation means people with dreadlocks are often seen as opposition supporters just by their presence in the low-income neighborhoods where they reside.
And it’s not only men who face such discrimination. Women with dreadlocks, particularly those supporting opposition groups or vocally opposing Museveni’s leadership, such as activist Stella Nyanzi, have also been arrested or had their hair cut during the police crackdowns on protesters.

Discrimination in hiring practices
Just as police targeting can be difficult to prove, discrimination against dreadlocks within government and other institutions can be hard to specifically identify. In the survey CCIJ conducted, nearly half of respondents without dreadlocks “strongly disagreed” or “disagreed” that they would be likely to hire someone with dreadlocks. Among people who have worn dreadlocks, just 15 per cent felt the same.

“We do not employ people with dreadlocks because we follow the public service order code of conduct,” said the human resource officer of one of Uganda’s government institutions. The officer spoke to the CCIJ anonymously. “In public service, we have something called public appearance which is our appearance in public. We must be decent, and dreadlocks are not part and parcel of decency.”

The Uganda Public Service Standing Orders 2021 has no specific definition or provision banning the wearing of dreadlocks. However, there is a provision that says: “A male public officer shall dress decently in a neat and respectable suit, trouser, shirt. Jacket, tie and closed dark shoes and maintain well-groomed hair (colour).”

Nicholas Bwanika Bbale Mugerwa, secretary of publicity of the Rastafarian Community in Uganda (RCU), conceals his dreadlocks.

More than a third of the people responding to the CCIJ’s survey who had never worn dreadlocks said they are not a professional hairstyle, while among respondents who have worn them at one time, three quarters disagreed.
Very few high profile public servants in Uganda wear dreadlocks. City lawyer Isaac Ssemakade, who to date wears and grows dreadlocks, faced criticism for his hairstyle. Ssemakade is dubbed a “legal rebel” in articles and on social media.

Jimmy Akena of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), the son of the late Apollo Milton Obote, who served as Uganda’s second President after independence, cut his dreadlocks. According to media reports, he was “advised to cut” them to help him get elected.

Mawanda Kaggwa said he struggled to find a job, in part because many workplaces required him to remove his dreadlocks. During the pandemic in particular, he said many Rastafarians were struggling to find work, so they started a Savings and Credit Cooperative Organization to support them. Kaggwa is now the chairman.
“In most jobs, I am told to cut off my hair,” Kaggwa said, but he has refused many times in his life. “The perception is that we don’t work. Society has considered us lazy,” he said, adding many Rastas are jobless due to the discrimination. He said in high school he was suspended for his hair, and earlier in his career he was denied a teaching job because he refused to cut off the dreadlocks. He was also denied a job at an office. He still wouldn’t cut his hair.
“This (Having dreadlocks) is like a calling,” he said. “I believe that my hair is an antenna that connects me to the spiritual world.”
This discussion of religious freedom and dreadlocks also came up in the Supreme Court of Uganda in a 2006 case over whether members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church should be required to attend Makerere University lectures and sit exams on Saturdays, which to them was a religious day. The court said it was a test of whether the university’s policy contravened the individuals’ rights and freedoms.
In his decision, the Chief Justice referenced a case in Zimbabwe that found that wearing dreadlocks fell within the Constitution’s protections under freedom of conscience. 

The case, Re Chickeche (1995), found that: “The wearing of dreadlocks was a symbolic expression of the beliefs of Rastafarianism which had the status of a religion in the wider and non-technical sense, or in any event was a system founded on personal morality. The Court was not concerned with validity or attraction of Rastafarian beliefs, but with the sincerity with which they were held.”

In the United States, a Court of Appeals found that discrimination against people with dreadlocks during the hiring process was legal, although if the hair is linked with religious beliefs it may not fall under the decision.

A cyclical challenge
The stigma and stereotyping of people with dreadlocks leads to further challenges among the community, said James Mwenyi, the treasurer of the RCU. He said many people equate dreadlocks with thieves or fraudsters, and this leads to discrimination and challenges finding work. But then, with those challenges, many people end up without options for earning money and end up on the streets.

“We are disorganised and this is evidenced by the number of complaints I receive,” Mwenyi said, adding he’s hoping to see more unity about community groups and Rastas to counter the discrimination and foster job opportunities. 
“We have been having downfalls and misunderstandings. We advocate for unity and Pan-Africanism.”

He said he encourages people to consider self-employment, since so many white collar jobs require the cutting of dreadlocks. The organisation is running education programmes for young people living in poverty and on the street, and trying to guide them into job training programmes such as farming or arts and crafts. Current programmes teach welding, raising chickens, and molding.
Mwenyi said the organisation’s members also visit schools and communities to sensitise people that Rastas or others with dreadlocks are good people, and to educate students about work opportunities and the challenges of living on the street.
“It is a wrong perception to think that every male person with deadlocked hair is a thief or fraudster,” he said, adding that his goal is to change the perception of people with dreadlocks and grow their opportunities. “Let’s work together, unified and strong.”
Ali Male, a psychologist at the A-Z Counseling and Support center in Kampala said public perception and stereotypes of people with dreadlocks can affect their self-esteem and confidence in terms of finding work.

“That is why you find that after such scenarios some are not coping well and then they end up drinking alcohol and increase the rate at which they abuse certain drugs,” he said, adding some people may be resilient, but when the judgment comes from close family or friends it can have a strong effect. 

“You find in-laws looking at their sons-in-law as a “muyaaye” (hooligans or thugs) and (this can) cause a number of mental health issues to that person just because of dreadlocks,” he said.
Male said some people see dreadlocks as a fashion choice, part of an exciting social trend.

“Unless that public understands the logic behind dreadlocks and why somebody would put on dreadlocks, then they will appreciate them,” he said. “But in (Ugandan) society where culture and religious values are used to judge certain things, it is not easy to appreciate those kinds of things.”

This report was produced by the Center for Collaborative Investigative
Journalism (CCIJ), a nonprofit organisation that brings together investigative reporters, visual storytellers and data scientists to investigate key global issues affecting underserved communities. This investigation was produced with thesupport of the National Endowment for Democracy.