Home Oral History interview - Lorraine Sunduza

Oral History interview - Lorraine Sunduza


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Lorraine grew up in Zimbabwe and later came to live and work in Hackney for the local NHS trust. At an interview for a place on an NHS leadership programme, she was asked to bring a prop that could help her tell her story and why she should get on the programme. She took a piece of her locked hair that had snapped off and spoke about the history of African women’s hair.

Following this interview with the museum, Lorraine went on to become Interim Chief Executive of the East London Foundation Trust, and be awarded an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) for services to Mental and Community Health.

Associated Person

Lorraine Sunduza OBE (Subject of)

On display?



Q: OK, this is Rebecca Odell talking to Lorraine and how do you say your surname? [00:08]

LS: Sunduza.

Q: And the date is the 29th of July 2019 and so could you just for the recording, introduce yourself?

LS. I'm Lorraine Sunduza. I am a Hackney resident and I also work in Hackney.

Q: I know you told me already, but can you just introduce your job as well?

LS: I'm the Chief Nurse for East London Foundation Trust, which is the mental health and community trust that covers Hackney, Newham Tower Hamlets and Luton and Bedfordshire.

Q: Fantastic and can you just tell me a little bit about how you came to be in Hackney? [00:47]

LS: So I worked in West London, I worked in a mental health ward. A manager left his job and he came to work at the John Howard Centre in Hackney. And then he came back and he said, ‘there are loads of jobs and opportunities. Do you want to try?’. I wasn't keen at that time to work for forensic services, but I thought, as I'm young, I didn't have any children. I didn't have anything that tied me to West London, I thought I'll try this Hackney for a year, if I don't like it, I'll go back and I've never gone back. I stayed for 17. Yes, and so yeah, the majority of my career, all but two years of my career have been in Hackney in East London, with me living in Hackney.

Q: Can you just tell a little bit about when you were growing up. What sort of awareness did you have about hair? [00:01:38]

LS: So it's interesting. When I was young my relationship…I didn't like my natural hair and it was kinda…Unfortunately, I grew up at a time when it was kind of frowned upon to have natural hair. It was seen as ugly, so the straighter your hair, the better it looked. Before then, when it was natural and Mom always used to plait it, so your hair was always plaited for school because I grew up in Africa in Zimbabwe. Then when I got to my teens that's when I started kind of noticing I didn’t like it and I made the choice to straighten my hair and I straightened it for a good long while. Actually, I was more comfortable with it in its straighter look than when it was sort of natural.

Q: And you say that when you were younger your Mum used to plait your hair. [02:38]

LS: Yeah, and so there are different ways. There’s one where we use cotton. I don't know how to…and it’s plaited and interwoven into itself. I've never described it. I could see it in my eyes. Or we'd have braids or single braids, or we'd have, we used to call it cornrow braids. It's a braid but it's on your scalp as opposed to loose braids. So different hairstyles. There are so many different ones and you could choose which one you want. And the longer your hair, the less sort of lines and divisions you had, so that was always like a crown. That if you've got two lines, it means your hair is long enough for it to be two and on special occasions you might tie it in a bun. As well, but generally my hair was always plaited as its protective hairstyle as well. And then that means you don't have to comb it, which my mum preferred not to have to comb every morning. So yes, the majority of my time I think, even in my photos as a little girl, I'm just, thinking about them now, I've got plaited hair.

Q: And you say that when you were younger you got this sense, or at the time there was a sense, that natural hair was ugly. Do you sort of have any idea where that particularly came from? And was that when you were growing up in Zimbabwe, or was that something from when you moved to Britain? [04:01]

LS: I think it's, well it's a worldwide thing. It's through history. If you look at African history, mainly hair and particularly women and sometimes men, there was something to be proud of, so loads of people had different hairstyles that had either shells in them or their braids, or some tribes had had dreadlocks. So that was something that was just done in. There's something also quite social, about how people do each other's hair, the grooming within families which actually is carried on through generations. 'cause I still do that with my sisters in terms of how we all do each other's hair.

It was then after colonisation there was something in particular about the African form being called ugly so it's like you know the darker you are, the kinkier your hair is, that's almost on the uglier spectrum. And then there's a part in history as well where then black women in particular, were asked to cover their hair because the styles still continued even through slavery, but they were asked to cover their hair. I think just something about being more plain. But then I think their hair coverings became more and more flamboyant. 'cause that's how you then expressed yourself and your beauty in a different way. And then I think it was by accident this relaxer was discovered and it was seen as oh wow something to make black hair much more in line with the European here being more straighter and more flowy, and that's what started relaxing here. That happened for most of the 20th century.

And then for a bit so wearing your hair up seemed more political. If you think about the Black Panthers and the afros that were seen is almost like you're making a statement against the normal, against racism or against something as opposed to I'm just wearing my hair in an afro to look good.

And then the Jheri curl came in the 1980s, which there was a lot of grease around that and that then also still had some straightening of the hair, and it's only in the last, I don't know, I would want to say. 10 years if that maybe less, that actually it's almost like something has shifted about the versatility and the beauty of our hair and how you can have a straight look. And you can have a different look without necessarily having to put chemicals in your hair. It's almost like a movement relating to appreciating our natural beauty as well, and it coincides with, you know, the beauty of dark skin as well. it's just as beautiful as the lighter shades and stuff like that. It's felt that in the last couple of years, so even if I think of my 15 year old daughter, her generation is less likely to straighten their hair with chemicals. If they do, it's to straighten it today with either heat or something else, but it doesn't lose completely, it's sort of the natural state.

So yeah, I think for me it happened in 2002. I just relaxed my hair. Though my hair was long it felt really weak and I think it was damaged from the harsh chemicals 'cause they are quite harsh and I just decided overnight to cut off all my hair. And I started my dreadlocks and I've had dreadlocks ever since then.

Q: Fantastic. Could you sort of say what what do you locks mean to you? [08:19]

LS: I absolutely love my dreadlocks. They're literally an extension of me and I love the fact that they're so versatile and I can do so much with them. But the fact that it's all my hair and it's all natural. I love, yeah, I can't explain. I remember I had a crisis about two years in, wondering whether I'd miss actually combing my hair 'cause I can't comb my hair now and I thought, well, do I need to cut them off? And that's the last time that I thought that. I can't imagine myself without my, without my dreadlocks. And there's so much that I do with them in terms of how I style them, and it's never been a barrier or a hindrance, say or if if I didn't have dreadlocks I couldn't do this 'cause there's so much that you could do to replicate most styles, and so I think they represent me in my most natural state, which is really important to me, to really appreciate myself naturally. So no, I I love my locks.

Q: And earlier you told me a story about when you went for an interview for Nye Bevan. Would you just be able to tell me a little bit more about that that time. [09:55]

LS: Yes, so I applied for the Nye Bevan programme which is through the NHS Leadership Academy. It's for a leadership programme for people who want to be board level already, that was just before I got onto the board. And when I was shortlisted, I got this email that says you need to bring a prop that can help you tell your story and why you should get on the programme. So I had a piece of my hair unlocked that had snapped off. I don't throw away my hair when that happens. And I took that with me and I spoke about the history of black women’s hair.

But then what I did is, I also then used it to compare. So if you think about all types of texture of hair from Asian, from Caucasian, to Afro hair, people assume Afro has the strongest of all of them because of how it looks. But actually it's not. It's quite vulnerable and it needs a lot of care and moisturising. And to me that also symbolises what people see when they see black woman. So you hear this term or strong black woman and people just assume that you know this tough person that can just take anything and just go through life, nothing fazes you but actually we're just the same as everyone who's got vulnerability as well. There's a softness there as well, so to me there's there's something that I can identify with my hair and I need to look after it the same way that I need looking after to, and you can't judge a book by how it looks, so that's what I used to as my prop and in sort of defining who I am.

Q: And can I ask the people, the panel you were given the interview to, were they from the community, you know in terms of learning about hair? [12:01]

LS: No, they weren't. The feedback I got on the day was like ‘oh wow’, they didn't expect that. So that was quite good and that they learned something on that day. So they weren't from the community, they were both Caucasian, and so they learned something about Afro hair, and I suppose for me it's that thing as well. About how well, my hair means a lot to me for the reasons that I've just spoken about in particularly in the fact that I've learned to love my hair and appreciate my hair for for what it is, and so I think it's that just sometimes it can come across as in ‘it's only hair’. But it is not only hair and I suppose that would be my thing for anyone who asked to have anything to do with people with, you know it can be with any hair, but you know, I'm speaking from my own experience with Afro hair. But just appreciating what it means to people and how that is, of how synonymous it is with your identity and who you are.

Q: Talking to different people, you know,different generations and people who have gone through different experiences. Certainly in the past, I think sometimes people encountered in the workplace, maybe misconceptions about hair and what hair should be in the workplace. nd I hope you don’t mind me saying that you know you've obviously done very well in your career. What was your experience? And what does it sort of mean to you as a successful woman with natural hair, with locks? [13:29]

LS: Yeah. Well, I think In a way we are quite fortunate, and the Trust that I work with, but also the times that we work with, because particularly dreadlocks are always associated with something that's not professional. I was just reading, I think California is America’s first state to sort of say that you can't discriminate on hair, and it was a young black man with dreadlocks. And I remember watching on the Internet, a young man who was wrestling, and they said something his hair wasn't appropriate, and they cut his hair just before a match. I cried as if that was my child having to cut their hair.

So I think in a way I, so with my hair for work, I wrap it, you know, I wrap it, I do Bantu knots, I do different things as well. You know, I think I still look professional. And I encourage people as well to you know, wear your hair in the way that defines you. As long as you know for infection control or whatever, it is not falling into things, but you know, if it's who you are, if you can wear this, you know as neatly as possible for the role that you're doing, I think that's fine.

When I was younger, when I went to school…so as you know, so Zimbabwe is a colony and I was one of the first generations of Zimbabweans to probably start going to schools in non-segregated ways. I was born just before independence, I was born when we were still a colony and then by the time I went to school we could. It was non-segregated. Our schools had some rules in terms of what we could do with our hair, so there was still some….What's the word? [15:59]

Constraints? I'm forgetting…there were some boundaries so we couldn't wear our hair in an Afro and I think that was remnants of the 1970s where Afro was Black Panther and symbolised something. And dreadlocks weren't allowed if I remember correctly up to a point. And then 'cause they were always associated with, I don't know, criminality and drugs, I don't know why. And as I was, I had thought of dreadlocks before, but I wasn't sure how that would look. My brother actually had dreadlocks first and he was a much younger brother and then I copied him. So I fortunately haven't had any sort of negativity relating to my hair, or my hair style in my working working environment. But I do know people who have in certain firms, in certain places outside the NHS actually, who couldn't wear certain things, particularly it was deemed ‘too ethnic’. I’m not quite sure, I'm not quite sure why.

But I think times are changing. Because you know our offices are near Aldgate so I see men in suits with dreadlocks which you would miss, not necessarily have seen, but be viewed as a scruffy look and you'd have needed to have really short hair for that. But I don't think it's worldwide. I think in certain places it's still slightly frowned upon. And there's only certain looks you can have.

Q: This is just going back a little bit, but you were talking about relaxers. Yeah, now for someone who has no knowledge of relaxers or what that involves, could you just sort of explain that a little bit? [17:52]

LS: Yeah, so it's a chemical kit that you can buy, in most places you can still buy it. You apply it to natural hair and you comb it, and you comb it. Then you get straighter and straighter and straighter until it is permanently straight up so the first time you do, you put it on to all your hair so you have to do that and then you have to wait for a while and then you have to wash it all off and for some scalps, mine was quite, delicate so I used to get sort of burnt just to show how harsh the chemicals are that you can actually burn your scalp. I think they say the the ones now are not harsher, but I've not relaxed my hair for such a long time so I wouldn't know. And then after every 6 to 8 weeks, you probably have to apply and you relax on your roots, 'cause obviously your roots will be coming through and your natural hair will be coarser than the one on top, so you would have to just have to do what they call retouch. So every 6 to 8 weeks you just have to keep doing it but it will be strict. So even if you wash it 'cause if you straighten it with heat, so if I've got hot comb or straight now I can straighten my hair with heat but once I wash it, it reverts back to its natural state. But with relaxer it permanently straightens it. As well.

Q: And just one more thing. You have repeatedly referred to Jheri Curl, which people have repeatedly asked us to make sure is in this exhibition. So could you just explain for somebody who's never seen the Jheri Curl to explain what it looks like, what you remember about it and how it was achieved? [19:31]

LS: You know, all I remember is grease and I think it's because I watched Coming to America with Eddie Murphy, and it features quite heavily in there. So it's like a perm, a curly perm but with Afro hair. But it kind of felt like it just needed a lot of grease in it. That's all I remember. So it is a chemical again. But what it is is that your hair is coils throughout, you can sort of blow dry it straight, but if you wet it, it will go back into the, into the coil, but you had to, for the richer coil you had to slap stuff in it. And that was it, it was kind of short lived. But in the probably late 1970s to early to mid, by late 1980s I can't remember. I haven't seen anyone with a Jheri Curl. I don't even know if this, I don't think I've seen anyone with a Jheri Curl, I see a wig that looks like it, but yeah, that was just, yeah, I think I had on.

Q: There hasn't been… [20:56]

LS: Yeah, I think I was too young just as it got there so by the time I was old enough to put chemicals in my head it was relaxing, it was straight, so I missed that phase.

Q: It's one of those ones that haven't come back. [21:07]

LS: No, I can't see that one coming back. It would be interesting, but the movie Coming to America really epitomises Jheri Curls and what they represent and the grease, patches of it.

Q: How fantastic, thank you. That's everything I wanted to say. Is there anything you'd like to add that you haven't, that we haven't talked about? [21:24]

LS: A couple, well, I think for me it's just, I love the fact that now it seems to me like it's women's choice. That's what they do and men’s choice, but mainly women choose what they do with their hair. So it's like you relax your head because you want to relax it. You can leave it naturally. It's like ‘Oh my God, why is she? Why is her mum not buying her relaxer?’, which is what it was like when we were younger. So I love that and sometimes I wish I loved my hair as much as my daughter loves her hair now, when I was her age.

And there's also something about people touching black people's hair. I suppose I need to mention it. People are fascinated by hair and people just come to touch, when people will ask me about my hair. I'll happily talk about my hair, I can talk about my hair, but yeah, if we're not that familiar, don't just go and touch it and call your friends and say ‘Oh my God it's…’ and people say ‘Oh my God it's actually quite soft’. I’m like what were you expecting it to be, like a Brillo pad? I don't. Come touch it, inviting people. That’s like just a no no but speak to people, and if people want to, sometimes people like to know how does it feel? Sometimes I’ll say to people ‘do you want to touch it?’ But that's a choice, so I would just…

Q: And and why do you think this thing about the touching the hair comes from because it seems so common? [23:06]

LS: I don't know. 'cause it's only it's interesting only, so when I was growing up a little bit of that happened and I noticed that my daughter was more. People would just come, she would be in a pram. ‘Oh isn't she so cute?’ and then they just touch her hair. And I’m like hello. You know you, it's I I don't know where it comes from and some people in work environments talk about colleagues just coming in and sort of touching.

I think there's a fascinating fascination with it. It's yeah it can get a bit awkward. And yeah, so I know people have actually got quite upset by it 'cause it's almost like you feel like you're a pet that people are kind of like all ‘your dogs really nice’. And then they just touch it. So it's just like speak to me, you know, ask me if it's OK if I say no, then I say no. If I say yes, then so be it. Yeah yeah, I don't know. I've tried to imagine myself whether I would do that, but it's an invasion, and particularly like I was saying when we think about the delicacy of the hair, it's something quite precious. So you wouldn't just go and say ‘ooh, I like your thigh’. You know you wouldn't do that so it's exactly the same so I don't, I don't know. I've not understood it, yet. If I wear my hair in certain…if I do my hair in Bantu knots more, you know, I had him the other day and there was a bit ‘Oh can I…?’ on the bus. Yeah, well no. But I haven't had it for ages so it was, it used to be more my daughter when she had the little puffy things that I wish she would have two big ones. And then people usually want to touch that. But yeah, I was really surprised. So you kind of learned the Matrix moves by trying to dodge people like why don't touch my hand and sometimes they can't understand. It's like it's OK. You know, in in a way like you know it's not like I was gonna take it like yeah but I don't know. Where your hands have been, you know. So it's interesting.

Q: That's been really great if you're happy I'm going to stop recording now. [25:34]

LS: Yeah, yeah.