It is one of those places often spoken about in myth. No man has ever been brave enough to explore it. It is a place where simple words take on a new meaning unto themselves, where politics and other social connections stand you in good stead if you can make them work to your advantage. It is at times a kind place, but one step wrong and the hordes will swoop in. This is the edge of the map that has not been filled in.
“Here there be monsters, laddie.”
Outside, it is an ordinary shop, with large glass windows that allow you to look inside at a long rectangular room with white linoleum tiles on the floor. The room is seemingly peaceful from the outside. At the door, the rules change drastically. Soon the tranquil appearance of the place will be changed.
I take a deep breath and step inside.
The salon is temporarily enveloped by silence as all the heads turn to look at the new intruder. The word “newcomer” would have been preferable, but in this case it cannot be used. I am the “intruder”. I am a man in woman’s territory and I must tread carefully.
Air conditioners around the wall try in vain to circulate air saturated with perfume sprays, relaxer fumes, the smell of hair shampoo and a myriad of other products that you will not find at a normal hair salon. Instead of moving, the air is still and heavy, taking on a personality of its own. This is not a scene from 1960’s women’s magazines with white suburban mothers sitting gossiping. This place is filled with smoke from hot combs and blow driers turned on too high. Little kids skittle around their mothers’ legs, bored from an hour or more of general nothingness.
This is one of the last places on Earth where you will see alchemy being practiced. This is a hair salon for black women.
The rectangular room is arranged according to its own internal politics. The small stalls near the back are for the newest and youngest hairdressers, yet to earn the right to be at the front of the salon. They must work their way up. It is dinghy at the back near the wash basins. In the middle of the room are the hairdressers who have had more experience and luck in the enterprise. They are middle-aged, with quick hands that twist braids faster than an industrial machine can loop rope together.
At the front are the matriarchs of the salon, the women who through close friendship with the manager of the shop have secured the places with the most light and slightly fresher air. On my left is a small foyer where hairdressers not busy with clients sit and wait, vultures waiting to prey on unwary prey. They smile sweetly at me, and one approaches me asking if I need braiding.
The untrained would have said yes easily, but I have become firmly acquainted with salon politics. It is tantamount to suicide to take on a hair stylist other than your usual. With them earning their income-per-customer they work on, hair stylists are territorial about their wards. Each customer is carefully marked and watched over by their hair stylist – no one ever tries to poach another person’s customer. When one does try, all hell breaks loose.
I turn to the woman that approached me and shake my head politely. I am not in need of her services. I scan the room looking for my own stylist. I notice her across the room and prepare for my journey to her stall.
She is about twenty metres away but the trip there would have claimed Columbus’s life. Walking through a salon is a lesson in diplomacy that all ambassadors should be put through. My journey to my stylist is made more complex by the fact that I am the only male in the place; my presence is not easily tolerated by the women in the room. They see me as an intruder; a man in this place reserved for womanhood. All around, evil stares are thrown my way. I meet each one and greet them politely.
I smile all the time, silently apologising for my existence.
I make it to my stylist. She has been braiding my hair since I was eighteen. There was a brief stint in 2009 when she moved shop and I could not find her and had someone else do it. I made the effort to look for her and continued bringing my business to her. Even now, she has recently moved to the new salon – I had to ask my brothers where she had moved to. You never change your hair stylist.
A veteran, she immediately commands a stall in the middle of the room near the television and the air conditioning. She smiles at me and ushers me to my seat, placing a towel around my shoulders.
“You have not been putting the hair food!” Her fingers pluck at my hair and pull it out in tufts. My hair, long and tough in an African way I cannot describe, breaks easily. I smile sheepishly waiting to be berated by my stylist. “You cannot have hair this long and not take care of it! You must put the hair food!”
I apologise for forgetting. I have not cut my hair in five years and my mane sits proudly on top of my head. She pulls out the longest strands to test their length. The other women in the shop stare at me. I am not sure what they think of me at that moment. My hair is longer than that possessed by about seventy percent of the shop. Normally I would be proud of my hair, but at this point I am silently cursing it. It is making me a topic of conversation and envious looks, something best avoided in this salon.
My stylist pulls at my hair again and shakes her head. “All this hair and you don’t even put the hair food.” She looks at me and clucks her tongue, unimpressed with me. Hair food is a religion in black hair salons. You pray to it at least twice a day by rubbing it in your hair. It takes away the sin of tough hair, making it easier for the comb to convert your heathen locks into something presentable. At the moment, I am the kid that has been skipping church.
The entire salon spots the sinner in their midst and shakes their head. I look for a crack to fall through.
She shakes her head again and sighs. She reaches for a comb and a hair dryer. She turns it to its highest setting. It takes the Fires of Hell to straighten my hair before it can be braided. She places the comb in my hair, pulling at a tuft of hair while simultaneously blowing the scorching air over it. Some of it burns my scalp. I resist the urge to wince. Weakness will not rewarded in this place. All the women in the salon are looking at me. Each of them has been through similar treatment for years and the pain has become more like an itch to them. For some reason, my toes throw up gang signs when the hair dryer is used. I maintain a straight face.
After about ten minutes of the dryer, she rubs some hair oil onto my much elongated bush of hair to make it more workable, making the strands of tough hair soft and braidable.
“The usual.” I do not say this. She says it. It is not a question. The universe has spoken. Since she started doing my hair, I have given her free reign to braid my hair any which way she likes. She is the best so I am never worried about the outcome. When I was younger she used to do fancy patterns and swirls, but since I grew older, she feels I look better with simple straight cornrows.
I do not protest. I look quite fetching in them.
He hands part my hair into horizontal strands running from my forehead to the nape of my neck. And then she starts braiding.
Small rows of fire blaze on my head as she works on my head with surgical and obsessive precision. One row. Two rows and then three. The pain becomes a numb sensation that I barely register when she reaches the fifth row.
Around me, gossip flies from one woman to another. Conversations about so and so having a child with who and who; talk of whose husband has been doing this and that; and coded discussions about other hair stylists in the room rage to and fro. The majority is spoken in a language I don’t understand and I am not sure I would want to if I could. They might be discussing me, the boy that does not put hair food in his hair. The sinner.
For people who have never been in a salon, it might be strange to be told about these spaces where women are in charge from top to bottom. In a world that is dictated by masculinity from literature to religion, architecture to fashion, spaces like this are rare. This place is a small island of femininity in a sea of male buildings, parliament where cocks strut and crow, police stations and other male institutions where women have been historically barred from participating. Their hostility towards my presence is understandable. I have strayed and disturbed the female feng-shui that usually harmonises the places.
This is one of the few places where women can be women without men telling them otherwise. Around me, there is a small circle hushed conversation. Elsewhere in the shops, the banter and gossip is traded at a much louder volume.
Row after row of fire is placed on my head. Soon my head is striped with small neat rows of hair. My head feels a bit tender from the braiding, but I am happy when she brings a mirror so I can see what I look like. Her work is always inch-perfect. Each row feels as though it was meant to be there – each dark line of braided hair makes me stand a bit taller. I grin and nod my satisfaction. She has never disappointed.
Standing and stretching I snap the crick out of my neck. Reaching onto my pocket, I pull out a wad of cash and pay her. I hand her some notes, she barely registers them. I always tip her generously. My opinion is that a happy hair stylist is better than an angry one. So I always pay more than extra to make sure she gives me the best. She takes the money and it disappears into some unseen pocket. She smiles and then says “Remember to put the hair food. Otherwise your hair will break.” She always says this. It’s her parting words.
The room is still full of women coming in to get weaves placed and wigs adjusted. Some women at the far end of the room are sitting with rollers in their heads, waiting for a turn under the heating lamps. Others are having intricate braiding styles woven into their hair. All around, only women move hither and thither. Not one man in the whole room barring me. I wonder how many men would actually venture into this lair. So far, I am the only one that enters these abodes.
Somehow the feeling that the room has had all the masculinity it can stand washes over me. I tuck tail and prepare to make my way across the room again, escaping into the fresh air. The sunlight outside is not as harsh as I expected it to be. My head is on fire and a slight breeze tickles it, cooling it for a while. It has been about five years since I last stepped into a barber shop. I remember how intensely male the places used to be. It was man space. I look back at the doorway and smile at my recent ordeal. It is about another three weeks before I have to face it. Without much else to do, I turn my steps home.