I hate having to go to the hair salon. Ever since I was young, the mere thought of someone washing my hair, blowing it out with full military force and then braiding it like they begrudgingly wish you a long life of torture in hell, has always scared me. However, an African girl must do what an African girl must do – she must endure this ritual the rest of her life. Perhaps it was one clause bellowed out to Eva as she ashamedly left the Gates of Eden.
One Saturday afternoon, I went to a suburb in Lusaka that we call Northmead. Northmead is where you go looking nappy-headed and leave looking silky and buttery like you and Beyoncé are best friends, and that those are your names, respectively. It is a truly puzzling place with a little of everything. Built on blocks of badly crafted shops, it has a vibrant market in the heart of its square. You can find anything there, day or night. Goat meat is always sizzling on braai stands – they call it michopo. Girls are getting ready for the weekend, kissing their sugar daddies goodbye, as they walk away with a gleam in their eye and a purse full of Kwachas. Market ladies are preparing chips and Hungarian sausages in swirling pools of cooking oil, all from one small battered black pan you know has seen better years.
In Northmead, you can buy beautiful fresh flowers, fruit and vegetables. You can also purchase the most bruised and battered prostitutes at just about any corner. Drugs are rife, and little street kids on glue abound. One minute you look up at the scenic background of moving clouds behind a magnificent crucifix above the steeple of one of our oldest Pentecostal churches, and just down below are harlots, thieves and addicts waiting to make their next move. This is the oxymoron of the little suburb called Northmead.
I walk into the tiny salon and hi-five all the ladies who are amazing. So wonderful and talented they are, I wonder if they know the true value of what they do. I mean, in the Western World, they could get ten times what they get here. I stumble over a pile of crumpled second hand t-shirts, shorts and dresses, we call it salaula (sa-la-wulah)orSally‘s Boutique. In Ghana, I hear they have a funny but scary name for these wares – Broni we wu, meaning White person is Dead.
It is the merchandise of a bare-footed muscular man in a purple Carolina Herrera chemise with puffed up sleeves. It has white baby collars with a short string of pearls to connect each lapel. I wonder if he knows it is a blouse for women. Or possibly that a white woman died for him to be wearing her chemise. If he does, he doesn’t seem to mind. He is advertising his goods, and he is doing it well.
There is a badly painted sign hanging from the wall which reads, ‘To Hair is Human and to Forgive is Design’. I let out a quiet chuckle and think to myself, it is not worth the headache trying to figure out what that means.
The chubby one, Sylvia, she does my hair. She is lively and funny. Most men would not believe some of the conversations that go on in here. She takes me to wash my hair and reminds me that the water is cold because there is no power and ZESCO is at it again. The water feels like it has come straight out of the freezer and I yelp because it is such a contrast to how hot my body feels in the middle of a September afternoon. We laugh, and she massages my head. She tells me about her little daughter and how well she is doing in school. We praise God for His kind mercies and we wish her daughter a full and wondrous life. The sweet smell of shampoos and the softness of the conditioners appeases me, and her conversation makes me feel warm in my belly.
She escorts me to my chair, and I sit to look in the mirror, very proud of how my hairline has withstood all the weight of the monthly weaves. The customer sitting next to me asks questions as though there is no reason for boundaries while we share the beauty transformation experience together.
“Where do you work? I like your shoes – where did you get them?”
Her small talk graduates to full life anecdotes, she opens up, like they always do.
“I was engaged until recently,” she says, “my fiancé and I broke up three weeks before the wedding because he forced himself on my cousin who used to take care of my son, and she was only 15. I was in the next room waiting for him in my slinkiest lingerie – kansi that’s what he was doing! Only a thin wall stood in between us to separate his shameless perversion!”
The shock on my face – is not there. She expects it to be there. I tell her it is well – there is nothing that can surprise me anymore. These men – and women – are capable of just about anything. We thank God that she is healing now, that her son is growing and well, and we look ahead praying she will find someone destined and designed for her by God.
A few minutes later, a lady walks in, dressed like she has stolen time off the set of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She is donning a red hat with a brim so wide it bumps into everything in this little box of a room. It sits so low on her head, that all we can see is her moving lips, perfectly stained scarlet like an Estee Lauder advert. Her dress is flawless, but sorely out of context. She clears her throat exaggeratingly and asks, “Excuse me! Excuse me… urhm. Do you do Bantu Knots here?”
The whole room goes silent. I pretend to be browsing the internet on my phone. A lady braiding a complex maze on the head of an eager weave-to-be client looks up and asks in her best English accent – which sounds drawn out, and perhaps not anything like English to the unfamiliar ear, “What do you mean? What are those?”
“Bantu Knots! Do you not know them? They are so simple.”
The hairdresser, confronted for not knowing such a basic thing turns to Sylvia, who is doing my hair and asks her what ‘ban-tuno’ are. The clients, equally involved now, try to look up from the corner of their one open eye, as the hairdressers firmly hold their heads down in place.
Sylvia turns to the theatrical client and says, “Sorry madam, but can you ‘dilute’ your words? We don’t understand what you mean.”
“B-A-N-T-U KNOTS? Do you mean you do nothing Afro-centric here? In this day and age?” the red-stained lips turn upside down like a beautiful half-moon crescent gone wrong. If she had had a cigarette hanging off the corner of her mouth, it would scream for dear life.
All the ladies pause, a sincere effort to understand the big words that are coming out of the mouth beneath the red-brimmed hat. Each of them still holding onto their works of art which come in the form of synthetic mesh and thick black cotton threads to hold the hair designs together.
“Affo-senty akuti shani?” (what does Afro-centric mean?), the hairdressers ask each other.
Genuinely puzzled, the salon ladies remain. I tell the mystery client to go to the furthest block from where we are. Up three flights of stairs at the end of the last corridor, and to look for a salon named Molefe Kenti Asante. The disgusted client leaves, grateful for the recommendation. If only she knew she will never find it. To find it, she must do simple research, deep soul searching and real repentance before the Lord.
The ladies talk animatedly for about half an hour following the incident, along with their clients who are still trying to figure out what ‘Bantuno’ are.
I offer Sylvia my phone where I have Googled ‘Bantu Knot Images’. When she sees it, she bursts out in a thick throaty laughter. The entire salon stands around my phone, excitable with raw hysterics and mimicking actions of the enquiring customer. They want to know why someone would make such a simple thing seem so complicated. One hairdresser takes the phone, looks at it, pulls it back, looks at it again, and says, “fyakumushi ifi, elyo fya kale! Fikuti fye! ati Bankimoon, bantuno!” (this is from the village, and it’s so old school, it’s just a basic braid after all!).
I sit in my chair while Sylvia braids my hair. I let my mind and heart ask the questions which are now burning in me. What do we mean when we say we are Afro-centric? When we say we are progressive, young ambitious Africans? Does it mean that we forget how to be African and how to converse with our brothers and sisters who would never even fathom the concept of Afro centricity– at least not in English, because it is not a high-level concept to them – it just is what it is! We must remember who we are – ‘Ubuntu’ means many things, one of which is the ability to empathise. A woman walking around with a complex pattern of mukule (corn rows) beneath her weave surely qualifies as Afro-centric because she can change her hairstyle as many times as she wants, including an afro wig. Versatility has got to be one perk of having African hair.
Just as the giggles are simmering and everything is getting back to normal, another lady walks in. The first thing you notice is that she is so bejeweled. She has gold earrings in all shapes, from stars to moons to dolphins running down the edge of her ear. The second is how warmly dressed she is – a long-sleeved checked shirt, jeans and Vans. Finally, she has that yellow complexion you know she was not born with. It borders on a reddish-orange and pink, or, as my baby cousin once said, it’s sometimes ‘see-through’ in the moonlight.
“Ni gulisa mafuta!” (I’m selling cream) she announces full of glee chewing ever so wildly on a yellow piece of gum. Her teeth all have gaps between them, giving her a chequered smile. It makes her piece of gum appear to play a game of hide and seek with every vowel she utters. She smells like bananas.
“Madam,” she winks and whispers naughtily, “have you ever heard of Sweet Chikondi from Congo Dee Arra See? Ala! It’s nice please!” She claps her hands in the way we do it here, both palms cupped to make a strong exclamation to affirm a statement. “Eh hen!” she says animatedly, as she carries on spreading the good news about her product.
The ladies seem bemused but unimpressed. Some laugh and say, “Once you get on that bus, there are no stops, no U-turns, you must commit! Just like a bad marriage!”
A customer who has hidden behind the apron of her standing hairdresser quietly summons for the merchandise with her index finger. It seems undecided on whether it is black-knuckled and burly, or smooth, reddish-orange and pink. The happy woman with her yellow piece of gum hurries to her and pulls out one big clear plastic bag which has in it many little balls of white cream. There is just enough in them to fill up a thimble. They look like little balls of baking soda.
She gives her customer three balls at K25 each followed by the strictest set of instructions. Some she writes, in large unsteady characters like a grade one student – others she whispers. One rule includes making sure that the sun does not touch her skin at any time. It sounds like advice for a Vampire who has ambitions of stepping out during the day. She says they sell the cream in such small sachets because it is so powerful! The most amazing, rare and effective concoction that simply needs to be in your everyday lotion. She whispers loudly, announcing that she has many other formulas for more serious things other than blackheads and pimples.
“This one, you put it in your porridge. It will make you warm for your sugar cane,” she comes back to Sylvia and I, gesturing at some other balls of brown powder. I answer her.
“My temperature is warm already Mama. And it’s hot please – almost October. I don’t want to burn my friend! From sweet sugar cane, we shall now have roasted cassava!”
Sylvia and I are enjoying our fits of laughter. I continue to ask the woman, “If these concoctions are so good, then what happens when I can’t find you, or if they finish? What happens to my skin then? Will the black heads reappear? Or will I awaken one day with my skin another colour? Will my husband leave me for another woman because I am not as warm as I was when I had your product?”
The same lady hidden behind her hairdresser’s apron, with the finger that looks like it is from the mortuary, volunteers an answer, firmly but quietly. She says a husband will get distracted and leave you anyway, concoction or not. It’s only just a matter of time, so you may as well enjoy the mysterious products. She stands up to leave with a head full of the most perfect Bantu Knots sitting on diamond-shaped beds of hair.