“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” – Ghandi.
THE AFRICAN HAIR SALON
I promised at the start of my blog Things I Love that I would share the ordinary things in life that make me happy. One of these things is an African Hair Salon. It is one of my favourite places to spend time. Whichever country of Africa I am in, I gravitate toward a hair salon to orient myself and establish a sense of belonging.
Like the rest of the world, the hair salon in Africa is a place of relaxation and indulgence. However, the African salon is quite distinct in character and function. It possesses a unique African flavour. It is a place where women can gather and be vulnerable, listen to one another, discuss their personal lives, and express themselves freely without the fear of being judged. The African salon is an embodiment of sisterhood and camaraderie and a manifestation of a wide range of emotions, including love, joy, sorrow, a sense of belonging, and solidarity.
The African hair salon is a point of convergence and symbolism of African beauty, humor, politics, culture, history, and more importantly, the African reality. Through its clients, owners, hairdressers, shampoos, conditioners, moisturisers, hair pieces, curling irons and decor, the African Hair Salon serves as a window to our society, through which we see our inconsistencies, hypocrisies and hierarchies. To better understand our continent’s norms and reality, one could simply observe the activities in a hair salon in any African capital.
When you enter an African hair salon, you become a participant in or an observer of a conversation, gossip, innuendo and spectacle. I enjoy eavesdropping on hairdressers and client exchanges about love, power struggles, sex, betrayals, divorce, children, and childbirth, to name a few. Clients and stylists can spend as much time dissecting the latest Brazilian versus Peruvian hairpieces as they do when debating recent political scandals and grafting. However, in the banter, the stylists strive to strike a delicate balance between their own and clients’ perspectives, acting as impartial adjudicators, counsellors, and therapists because above it all is the commercial priority of the hair salon.
Both Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare vividly depict African hair salons through the interactions and dialogue of the authors’ fictitious characters. Adichie’s account of Ifemelu’s experiences in an African hair salon in Trenton, New Jersey, could have easily occurred in any hair salon across Africa, from Dakar to Durban. Huchu’s characters, Dumisani and Vimbai, hairstylists in a Harare salon, could be any of the hairstylists in any African metropolis whose lives are full of ambiguity, secrecy, rivalry, complex emotions and complicated backgrounds.
The African hair salon is a microcosm of the African experience and reality.
“For Africa to me is more than a glamorous fact. It is a historical truth. No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place.” – Maya Angelou.
Hair is a cornerstone of African beauty, and African hairstyles are the means of expressing it. If you Google ‘African Hair’, you will find a wealth of information in images, videos, articles, guides, instructions, and even maps to ‘African hairdressers near me’. Historians, sociologists, and anthropologists have long been fascinated by African hair, and with time this group has expanded to include artists, photographers, and politicians. Of course, each group’s enthusiasm stems from a different viewpoint and is motivated by a certain agenda.
A Historical Perspective of African Hair
As I mentioned already, African hair has been a fascination for people for generations, especially non-Africans. This obsession with our hair and hairstyles has always generated controversy and perpetuated nefarious myths over appearance, texture, colour, length and connotation.
Hair has always been part of the African identity with social, spiritual, aesthetic, cultural and political significance. For millennia, our hair, beauty and identity have been interwoven, making any discussion about our hair most likely an intense one. Because of this relationship between our hair and identity, different alliances have used hair to subdue and dominate us worldwide. For instance, White women routinely chopped off the hair of female slaves during slavery in the United States because it was said to ‘distract’ White men.
Women of African heritage have faced more discrimination because of their hair compared to other cultural groups. Emotional responses, social oppression, abuse, and racial prejudice have been heaped on African hair more than any other hair type. Consequently, we as Africans have equated our hair with African consciousness. Our hair has become a poignant expression of our defiance against domination in the form of colonialism and racial injustice in African communities worldwide. The ‘Afro’ became synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement in the USA in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
A Cultural Perspective of African Hair
A person’s hairstyle in pre-colonial Africa indicated their identity, familial background, tribe, and social rank. The higher your position in society was, the more elaborate your hairstyle. There was a hairstyle for everyone and every occasion, whether you were royalty, a soldier on his way to battle, or a pregnant woman. There was even a hairstyle explicitly created for women waiting for their husbands to return from war. A woman in mourning would either not care for her hair or shave it off. When men from West Africa’s Wolof tribe went to fight, they wore their hair in braids.
African hair has always held a spiritual meaning. Many Africans believe hair is a communication channel with God due to its position on the head. Apart from the pleasant spiritual components of hair, in some communities, it is still believed that adversaries can use hair to create a hazardous charm or medicine that can be harmful to the owner. Hence, hairdressing has always been a job for trusted friends or relatives, and now a trusted hair salon.
These African practices and culture eroded with the slave trade and the continent’s colonisation. The colonisers imposed new cultural meanings by degrading and relegating all our things as inferior and subjecting us to Eurocentric beauty standards, including hair. Because we did not fit within the narrow parameters of what Europeans considered beautiful, these standards conveniently portrayed and stereotyped our hair and beauty as deviant or abnormal. This negative stereotyping, in turn, shaped our complicated relationship with and our attitude towards our beauty and hair. Consequently, our hair came to epitomise our constant need to conform and be accepted by those that set the standards.
It has been a long and winding road for us as a people of African heritage, from being proud of our cultures and loving ourselves to imitating European cultures, then fighting the idea that we are inferior or animalistic to re-accepting and loving ourselves again.
A Political Perspective of African Hair
Hair is still used as a political weapon to police and dominate people of African descent in many parts of the world. Numerous media reports claim that women and children of African heritage are routinely policed and punished for their natural hairstyles.
African hairstyles, such as dreadlocks, the Afro, and braids, have been excluded from the definition of ‘normal hairstyles’ in office dress codes, school rules, and even competitive sports rule books in selected spaces. In many schools worldwide, including Africa, regulations prohibit Twists, ‘matted’ hair, multiple braids, Dreadlocks and other customarily African hairstyles. Many African women and children still feel compelled to ‘discipline’ their hair by straightening it due to these restrictions. Subsequently, African women and children perpetually feel anxious about their hair and how others perceive it. This burden undermines their morale, and in turn, they become less competitive in the workplace, school, and sports field.
The racial inequities Africans consistently face in society, and the futility of effectively conforming or achieving success in an intransigent system has led us to the realisation that no matter what we do to conform or ‘fit in’, the injustices, mistreatment, and denial of the opportunity to advance heaped against us will never end. Sequentially, we as people of African heritage have used our hair as a form of rebellion and protest against injustice and domination. The ‘Afro’ became one of the most visible symbols of Black militancy in the USA during the Civil Rights Movement. In the early 1950s, in fighting for Kenya’s independence from Britain, the Mau Mau wore their hair locks. From the 1970s, dreadlocks become a universal symbol of anti-establishment sentiment.
Even though the tide is turning, the discussion about African hair continues to be highly politicised. The transformation is gradual, and it will take a long time for the world to accept African hair in its natural state.
On the other hand, an African hair salon, whether in a high-end salon in Johannesburg or a makeshift one in Kinshasa’s slums, is the best place to observe the legacy of Africa’s colonial past. It makes no difference whether the language is isiZulu, Lingala, Kiswahili or Wolof or whether the past influence is French or English; the lingering effect of European colonialism is in the wigs, hair extensions, make-up, nail polish, magazines, the advertisements, and even the names of the salons. It is not odd to find a roadside hair salon somewhere in Africa called Half-London, Parisienne d’Elégance, Amsterdam Junction or Bruxelles Expression.
The African historical, political, and cultural experience has shaped our long-term beliefs, values, attitudes, and life rules.
MY HAIR JOURNEY AS AN AFRICAN WOMAN
Ask almost any African woman, and she will have personal stories, experiences, and journeys with her hair to tell. She will probably tell you that her relationship with her hair is similar to a love affair, with its complexities. Whether it is the long hours spent at the hair salon waiting or styling, the pain endured from pressing or braiding, or the amount of money spent, or the researching and experimenting with new products to find the best suited for her hair type, she will have a story. Each woman has a ‘hair journey’, often marked by conflicts stemming back from childhood. As an African woman, my hair journey has faced challenges like embracing my hair in its natural state, heavy financial expenditure, and identifying what boosts my confidence without robbing my cultural identity.
To help fathom the emotional significance hair has on an African woman’s identity, I will relate a short version of my hair journey.
As a child, my hair was short because boarding school prohibited long hair, but I dreamt about having the long silky hair I saw in imported magazines. I yearned to be an adult and wear wigs like my mother, even though she had long, thick natural hair. My mother wore an Afro wig when the 1960s heralded the arrival of ‘The Afro.’
Later, as I transformed and became a more assertive teen, I wore my hair in a ‘small Afro.’ The school rules did not permit the ‘big Afros’. I did not want to break the rules and risk expulsion from school, a greater sin. At night, I divided my hair into small sections and plaited them. The plaiting made it easier to comb out my hair with an Afro pick the next day when I opened out the plaits. On Saturday mornings, after housework, it was hair-grooming time with friends or sisters. We ‘beat’ dandruff out of our hair, washed and dried it, and then helped each other in applying hair pomade to our scalps. In retrospect, those were extraordinary bonding times for us as young African women.
In the ‘70s, I subjected my hair to the hot comb to make it more ‘manageable’. My memories of that period are full of the waft of burning hair oil, hair and flesh. I cringe when I recall a painful burnt scalp and ears and the plastic bags and shower cups over my head to keep my hair ‘dry’. Back then, avoiding getting wet hair was a life-critical mission. Water and hot-combed hair are adversaries.
In my late teens, I discovered processing hair with relaxers or straighteners. I will never forget the first day I applied rye to my hair! It left sores and pain. My mother was enraged. She told me my that hair would never be the same again and that I was becoming wayward! Yet, all I wanted was more ‘manageable hair’ and to ‘fit in’ with the fashion trends of Kampala at the time. On reflection, I realised that my mother was telling me that my natural hair was beautiful without being altered.
In university, I continued processing my hair. However, finding an African hair salon in 80’s London was tricky, and when I found one, it was costly. I came to rely on friends and students of the Morris Hairdressing College to process my hair more reasonably. This situation resulted in a continuing cycle of hair damage and breakage. When the Jeri-curl became a trend, I was relieved because the constant moisturising needed to maintain the curls meant my hair was no longer brittle. Unfortunately, the oils in the moisturising creams were not good for my pillow and not healthy for my skin. For the first time in my life, my face broke out into acne.
In my early working life, I continued relaxing my hair. However, after a nasty application of an expired hair-relaxing agent, I had had enough of chemicals on my hair and sought to break free of my reliance on them. I started my journey of ‘going natural’. I began by wearing my hair in tiny braids enhanced by artificial hair extensions. The long hours of sitting it took seemed worth this change to get the desired braid style. In the meantime, the braiding freed me from the weekly visits to the hair salon for hair treatments. It also saved me from bankruptcy and afforded me time to spend on other pursuits.
With age and hormonal changes, my hair started thinning. I decided to cut it off and wear it short and natural. Looking back, it was the best decision I ever made regarding my hair. This decision marked a significant milestone in my life that gave me renewed confidence and acceptance of my person. Now, I am more comfortable with my hair than I have ever been in my entire life. I suppose wisdom indeed does come with age.
“Oh, my friend, it’s not what they take away from you that counts. It’s what you do with what you have left.” – Hubert Humphrey.
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” – Eleanor Roosevelt.
MY SALON STORIES
My travels have taken me to different hair salons of contrasting sophistication in East, West, and Southern Africa. Yet, my experiences in these salons have been quite familiar.
In an African hair salon, a lot is going on. It is a theatre, complete with a cast of characters, scenes, and production teams. Some of the performances are very impactful and memorable, while others are forgettable. In each salon, words like braid, twist, plait, human hair, extensions, colour, and perm hang in the air in different languages and accents. They compete with Congolese Rhumba music from a speaker or radio, adding to the ambience.
Often, the African hair salon serves a market too. While many people visit the salon to socialise, boost their confidence, or hang out, others come to buy and sell food, clothes, shoes, cosmetics and other goods to a ready-made customer base. Like I said, the African salon is a stage.
Act 1: I cringe when a woman screams because her scalp burns from the chemicals used to straighten her hair. I shudder as a child squirms because her braid-stylist is applying too much pressure to her scalp. I am familiar with both types of pain because I have known both pains in my hair journey.
Act 2: I titter when an exuberant, free-spirited, confident African woman strides in, swaying her hips from side to side, her hair ‘in need of a touch-up’ before she goes to ‘slay’ in a board meeting somewhere in corporate Africa. She jumps the queue of customers willing to wait for their particular stylist while reading the same old magazines for the umpteenth time. I am amused because I have been that woman and also the patiently waiting customer. I sympathise with both their plights.
Act 3: A Naija movie is playing on a caged and padlocked TV in the corner of a hair salon in Blantyre, Malawi. A rather loud stylist who has watched this Naija movie twice before provides a running commentary in Chichewa for the general salon. Even though I do not fully comprehend both languages, I suspect her translations of Pidgin English into Chichewa. I laugh when she screams and gushes about her crush on the protagonist. Her infatuation does not need any translation.
The Fervent Believer
In the mid-1990s, I sat at a sink in a hair salon in Mombasa, Kenya, shampooing my hair. The only thing I could see was the young Congolese stylist’s eager eyes as he talked about the benefits of raw Sudanese Shea Butter for dry, brittle hair, the difficulties of learning Latin, and why Zaire would never achieve peace. Suddenly, the volume of the TVs’ background noise increased, prompting me to turn my eyes to see what was happening.
On the screen was a well-known local preacher in the throes of delivering his sermon to a rapt audience. Our collective surprise compelled the owner to turn off the volume. In the silence, the preacher’s movements were comical and reminded me of Michael Jackson’s dance routine from the movie Thriller! I chuckled as I pointed out that preachers were mainly con artists. The salon owner, who had been quiet all along, flew into a rage upon hearing my remark. She shouted at me and termed me the devil incarnate, sent by witches from her past to entice her to abandon her faith. Her explosion was shocking! I opened my mouth to defend myself, but my stylist softly urged me to keep quiet, finish quickly, and leave.
Years later, I ran into the young Congolese stylist in Nairobi. His life as a refugee was behind him, and he was now a regional representative for an international cosmetics brand. Over coffee, he explained that the TV preacher had saved the salon owner from prostitution on the streets of Mombasa.
A Fake Derriere
Early one morning in 2013, I walked into an elegant salon in the Kololo suburb of Kampala. An intensely unpleasant odour hit my nose. The beautician, a young man named Isa, and a young woman I had never seen before were mopping the salon floors. I chastised them for cleaning the salon with stinky, filthy mops.
Isa, who was ordinarily gregarious, was unusually quiet and avoided my gaze. He focused his attention on the young woman, watching her every move. I kept my eyes fixed on him, but he avoided eye contact. Then, I turned my attention to the girl. I noticed her disproportionately well-endowed derriere on a skinny frame. It was odd.
I questioningly raised my eyebrows and pointed my chin at the girl, but Isa shrugged his shoulders and looked away. When the girl approached me, seemingly ambivalent about my curiosity, the odour became more overpowering. I wrung my nose in disgust.
As we sat down for my manicure and pedicure, “It is her bottom, Madam!” Isa blurted out. “She has never washed it!” Isa’s words and demeanour stunned me. I wondered how he knew so much about the girl’s intimate hygiene. “She wears a fake bottom every day and does not remove it to wash it!” He continued before I could ask him what he meant. “Madam, would you mind having a motherly word with her?”
To cut a long story short, I had a conversation about sanitary practices with the young woman. I learnt that she was a 19-year-old orphan with five younger siblings in her care. She wore the ‘fake bottom’ to enhance her appeal to the ‘money men’, especially the white ones! Her deep-seated conviction that selling her body was the only option out of poverty saddened me, and I felt utterly powerless to help her. At that moment, I learnt and also understood that desperation can lead to unimaginable decisions. I stepped off my moral high ground.
The Tangled Crowning Glory
Recently, at a popular salon in a Nairobi suburb, all was going as usual. Suddenly, a woman in tears and panic with a tangled mess of blonde hair on her head entered. Her hair appeared as if someone had glued it together. The salon went dead quiet as we all waited and watched this rare sight inquisitively.
After more tears, sign language and broken Kiswahili, we established that the blonde woman was a Russian nightclub dancer. She needed urgent assistance to untangle her hair, or else her agent would ‘kill’ her. The head stylist sat her on an empty Barber’s chair and began trying to separate the mesh one strand at a time.
After two hours of shampooing, steaming, conditioning, gentle teasing, and drying, the hair stubbornly remained matted and appeared worse than it did at the start. The woman’s loud sobs were heart rendering. She begged the stylist to ‘help’ her because she did not want to die. The frustrated stylist tried to untangle the hair again with a blow dryer, but nothing she tried separated the hair.
Finally, the stylist suggested shaving off the hair. The Russian woman vigorously shook her head in protest and grieved uncontrollably. I empathised with her agony because I had to cut off my thinning hair a few years back against my desire.
Eventually, with plenty of coaxing and charm, the stylist convinced her to cut the hair. Then, the stylist appeased the woman by attaching long blonde hair extensions that looked like the woman’s hair.
She walked out of the salon, smiling, and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Several years ago, at a fast-paced hair-braiding salon in Kenyatta Market in Nairobi, Mona the expert and two other ladies were styling my hair into thin Rwandan braids. I had settled myself in for the six-hour process by reading and occasionally nodding off.
Suddenly, we heard a commotion immediately outside the salon. A young man dashed into the salon, took a quick look around, then dashed out through the back door and vanished. Seconds later, two panting policemen rushed in, shouting, “Where is he?” None of us responded, but more out of disbelief and fear than the need to protect the young man. The policemen noticed the open back door and rushed through it, leaving us astonished and speculative.
To this day, I do not know what that drama meant.
The Cabinet Minister’s Wife
In 2002, in Nairobi, my favourite manicurist was treating me to a much-appreciated manicure and pedicure. Unexpectedly, two burly men entered the salon and demanded that we vacate the premises for security concerns. My immediate thought was of a ‘terrorist attack,’ especially in light of the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi. I quickly gathered my things and was ready to flee.
Just then, I overheard the men notify the salon owner that we needed to make room for a VIP. A recently appointed Cabinet Minister’s wife, the salon’s client, was on her way and needed privacy. Their words enraged the owner. She openly instructed us to remain in our positions. She told the men to inform the Minister’s wife to schedule an appointment after salon hours if she required security or privacy.
They exited the salon but returned a few moments later, accompanied by the Minister’s wife. She was visibly upset and targeted us with insults. She demanded to know why the salon owner had ridiculed her in front of ‘common people’! “Don’t you know who I am?” She seethed.
The owner explained to the VIP that all customers were equal in her establishment. “They are all paying customers,” she loudly declared. The incensed Minister’s wife turned and walked away. I never saw her again. Her husband lost his post in a Cabinet reshuffle within two years!
I truly love the African hair salon!
“I am a bit of a fundamentalist when it comes to black women’s hair. Hair is hair – yet also about larger questions: self-acceptance, insecurity and what the world tells you is beautiful. For many black women, the idea of wearing their hair naturally is unbearable.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.