Dreadlocks, like any chosen hairstyle, require meticulous maintenance, which Alaina Mabaso is delighted to devote to the hair of her husband, Lala.

by Alaina Mabaso

One night a few weeks ago, my husband and I succumbed to the International House of Pancakes down the road. There were two people in the restaurant waiting area: a young black woman with a pierced nasal septum and dirty pajama pants grooming her black male companion’s luxuriant head of hair.

They weren’t waiting for a table. They were just doing some hair in the IHOP lobby at 7 in the evening. “Why are you guys doing that here?” my husband Lala asked them. They shrugged.

“Nice dreadlocks,” the man said to Lala.

“Thanks man,” Lala replied. From behind him, I pointed to myself. “I did them,” I gloated.

The man’s mouth fell open. “You? No!” he said.

The fact is that a white girl who does a black man’s dreadlocks is way more strange than doing your own hair in a suburban restaurant during dinner hours. But whatever anyone thinks, I’m a very lucky woman. Everyone’s got their “type.” For my mom, it was ‘90s-era Ricky Schroder, with his blond hair and blue eyes. But I went the opposite direction.

Ever since I was a teenager, black men with dreadlocks turned my head. It may have started with Harold Perrineau in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 movie, “Romeo and Juliet.” Who needed Leonardo DiCaprio?

Let’s just say that my future husband, a South Africa native, fit the bill. We met when I was barely 19. And his hair, from the soccer field to the dining hall, was glorious.

My grandmother said it looked like worms were growing out of his head. For years, my mother would gently ask me if Lala had any plans to cut them. Even Lala considered chopping them off occasionally, and shortly after we were married, he actually went a year or so with his hair shaved smooth and close — a sad era for me but valuable in that I discovered once and for all that I loved my husband with or without the locks.

I find that a lot of white people are mystified by dreadlocks. Many years ago, I too did not have the slightest idea how anyone got them. The closest I’d come to any dreadlocks-in-progress was in Christian boarding school during my junior year, when a Caucasian classmate down the hall decided she wanted dreadlocks and simply stopped brushing her hair.

As her hair matted into dreadful clumps over the subsequent weeks, school officials noticed and forced her to comb it out, citing a dress-code violation. She was furious. All that not-brushing for nothing.

Some people seem to think that dreadlocks like my husband’s grow naturally, as if some people of African descent are born with the style (though, to be fair, we’re all of African descent). “How do you do those?” people ask my husband. Then they are surprised to learn that dreadlocks, like any chosen hairstyle, require meticulous maintenance.

I was surprised when I was pressed into service. Despite having my own head of thick, shiny, naturally golden hair, I was never interested in styling it. The first thing I always tell hairdressers is to do something that I don’t have to mousse, spray, blow-dry or clip. I never learned how to braid my hair or anyone else’s.

But those dreadlocks called my name. Since so many people seem to be shyly curious about dreadlocks, and I believe my country could do with a little interracial harmony right now, I’m going to tell you the secrets of my husband’s hair, and tell you how I take care of it.

Before me, Lala’s younger sister did the honors. She divided his hair, only about an inch or so long, into dozens of small, roughly square segments, marching in approximately horizontal lines from the nape of his neck to his hairline. She fastened each segment with a tiny rubber band. Then Lala used the crochet-hook method to build his new, short dreadlocks. You take the tiniest crochet-hook head on the market, and pass it quickly back and forth, over and over, through the section of hair. The crochet’s hook tangles the hair so carefully that it becomes a small lock, right in your hand. It’s time-consuming but effective when done right.

Once they’ve gotten started, well-groomed dreadlocks need to be twisted every so often. We try to do it every few weeks (occasionally, Lala’s sister still does the honors). There are a thousand products you can use for dreadlocks, and we’ve tried many over the years, but we prefer natural products.

First, Lala soaks his hair briefly in a big bowl of diluted apple cider vinegar and salt. He rinses it, and then washes it first with tea tree shampoo and then unscented Castile soup. The hair, so brown it’s nearly black, is springy and glistening clean at the puffy roots of the locks — the hair that will be incorporated into today’s twists.

We prefer starting with the very back row of hair, and working toward the hairline. Instead of using a purchased hair product, Lala mixes his own fragrant locking solution of olive oil, jojoba oil, castor oil, sweet almond oil, avocado oil and Vitamin E shaken up with a bit of warm water in a spray bottle.

The oils are expensive, but they last a long time and keep the hair in good shape without unwanted scents or residues. I deal with about three locks at a time, spraying their roots well with the oil solution and then twisting them so they’re tight enough to keep their twist when they’re dry, but not so tight that they hurt Lala’s scalp.

I used to use metal hair clips to pin the finished locks down, keeping them from untwisting before the hair could dry, which takes several hours without a dryer. But now we use a simpler method where the twists are given a little up-and-over finish. As I twist, I’m maintaining not only the growing length of the locks, but their tidy shape as well by refreshing the boundaries between each segment of hair.

The process used to take me hours. Sometimes we’d have to undo whole sections or even the whole head and start over because my lackluster twists unraveled or didn’t lie in the right direction. But with years of practice, I can now do Lala’s whole head in about 30 minutes.

I’m sure not many husbands wake up on Saturday mornings and say to their wives, “Will you do my hair?” Dreadlocks still turn my head wherever I go, but partly because I like to judge if they’re as nice as my husband’s. Sometimes Lala wonders if it’s time to cut them. I say that of course, it’s his head, but please, please don’t.

Do you do something special for your own partner that you never expected you’d learn how to do?