Unending Epic

Dr. John Patrick Ojwando
Published: May 2014

Haircut might look like an everyday thing but this seemingly innocuous task has its own dynamics writes Dr. John Patrick Ojwando

hairWhile ambling recently on a late afternoon in the leafy environs of Kumaraswamy – a neighbourhood in Bangalore once considered by many to be an out of the city locality but now a part of its growth story – I chanced upon Noble Gents Parlour, a nondescript hair dressing salon that a friend had once alluded to during an informal banter.

With several of such establishments springing up in every nook and corner of the city, each striving to outdo the other by offering that ‘extra attention’, you may be forgiven to ask what was out of the ordinary about the discovery.

Well, loads, if you have the patience to get to the end of this anecdote, or if you do not already know, there is a never ending fascination with afro hair in different parts of the globe that shows no signs of abating, should you decide to flaunt it natural or relaxed, are clean shaven, wear braids or dreadlocks. The hairdo often elicits unending questions. Is it natural? Why is it curly? It looks so different.

Surely, it does. But even with a large influx of visitors to this great city, something things have remained unchanged.

Of these, to the woe of many, is the complicated route some tread to accomplish a seemingly innocuous activity such as hairdo. I have seen some of my friends who chose to dwell in the city and its satellite towns endure long distances to get their hair done ‘the right way’. Aboard different modes of public transport, they traverse long hours to keep their appointments with hairdressers who have mastered the art of afro hairstyling before retracing their steps to be back in time for their classes at their campuses of study. Such an occurrence illustrates a ‘forced’ willingness to pursue ‘the right thing’ even though it may bring with it additional burden on both their pockets and time as long as they remain in a culture far removed from their own. Interestingly, the ‘curly Afro hair’ is still not considered hair, one that might require a different technique to style but hair all the same for reasons I have failed to comprehend. A couple of weeks prior to my discovery of the hair dresser in Kumaraswamy, I was reminded of a common occurrence in the ‘not so distant’ past.

I had barely made myself comfortable at a barbers’s table, moments after arriving at a saloon located in my locality. Armed with a long plastic comb and an electric trimmer, the hair dresser first glanced at my kinky hair and then his tools of trade as if fearing for their very survival. For some fleeting seconds, I was left mulling why he was taking long to attend to me. Lifting my torso, I could see a man clearly clueless of what he had to do. “Not again!” I muttered.

Perhaps swayed by monetary considerations, later, he would reluctantly choose to descend upon my hair while keeping alive a discussion on its texture. Sprinkling water and then running a comb through the hair, I could clearly discern his discomfort in undertaking what must have been a taxing exercise even as his colleagues egged him on. By the time he was done, I felt as if a water sprinkler and roller had been hard at work on my head akin to one readying the wicket for a cricket match. Surprisingly, some of the clients showed an uncharacteristic interest to salvage his pride by turning their attention on me. “Why do you bother to trim your hair?” Asked a middle aged man turning away from his chair, his beards covered with shaving foam: “Surely, there is nothing to be trimmed barring the scalp,” interjected another client much to the amusement of the rest.

I presume the response of the hairdresser and his clients stemmed from the simple fact that unlike other tresses, mine were just above the skin and perhaps not worthy of a professional’s attention. Grudgingly, I made my payment but while leaving the premises, I could sense I had stirred what was turning out to be a spirited debate. I wish it were just tresses but unfortunately it is not always the case.

This experience must have still been weighing heavily on my mind when I landed at the doorsteps of the beauty parlour that inspired this piece of writing. The yawning gap – afro and local hairstyling price tag notwithstanding, was this finally a place one could walk in and get a kinky hair trimmed without much fuss? May be!

Through my teen years, I had the privilege to experiment with my hair, something people of other descent –black, yellow, white or brown -must also have done or still do. For some of my age, they were comfortable keeping long hair and going through transitions – relaxing their hair using chemicals or going natural. However, the problem with keeping natural hair long is that historically, it has always been riddled with negative connotations –untidy, frizzy, dirty or tangled. Relaxing the hair can lead to hair loss, scalp damage and in some cases, baldness, a rarity though. Sticking to the practice of trimming the tresses, I have often realised that having a trusted stylist who you can visit on a regular basis can help keep the hair healthy, secure and steer you away from harm’s way. Aside trimming options, experimenting with different styling options is not unheard of. You can get it wet, wash it, shampoo, condition, dry and style using moisturising products to help you look good, all the way.

Though, we all love our hair, afro hair can be a handful, hence the need to visit hairstylists as time and monetary considerations allow. Unfortunately, I have come to realise that if you decide to trim your hair or try something fancy, you are sure to get a mouthful hurled at you.

Some fuss over afro hair or exhibit an uncanny curiosity to unravel the reasons for its texture. Others would like to know whether shampoo or hair oil can be applied, and if so, does the seemingly scanty hair grow? Such questions, on what should ideally be seen as purely Afro feature are endless. I guess it would be understandable if such nosiness came from people close to you, but if you have to go through life, sharing every bit of it with any stranger you meet on the streets or the numerous self-defeating ‘hairdressers’ keen to offer unsolicited advice on what is suitable and what is not, life can be a trifle unsettling. Trust me!

“Afro hair does often become the centre of unwarranted attentions on the streets or even your very own neighbourhood,” says Michele, a student from the West African nation of Ivory Coast. “Some people can really get on your back with their incessant questioning. Others even ask to touch your hair. Interestingly, they never wait for the consent. While they make their request, their hands will be already fiddling with the strands of your hair even before they complete putting words to their request,” she adds showing indignation.

Personally, I have never understood what can be so compelling to make someone touch another person’s hair, that too a stranger. The hair texture or style maybe interesting or fascinating as a work of the creator, or the hair wearers creations as the case maybe, but sincerely, does one have a right to touch it? Let the reasons be, I surely detest someone fiddling with my hair or making valiant attempts to judge me based on the features of my hair. Truth be said, it is pretty obvious that the texture of Afro hair is different from those of other ethnicities. For practical explanations or just the fun of it, it is a known fact that Africans have been experimenting with their thick and curly hair for ages now.

Since it is ‘kinky’ by nature, they often find it relatively easier to perm or straighten them. Intriguingly, when blacks, opt to go for hairstyling, it is easy to attribute the same to an attempt to ‘fit’ in the so-called ‘white’ cultural mainstream. Suffice it to say that hair styling is a timeless tradition and its true character has largely been dependent on the needs of the community. Just in the same way people of other races adore their hairstyles, those of Afro descent equally evince similar longing.

But it remains a personal choice how to maintain, style, or in cases such as mine, sheer off the tresses. I always find it satisfying to see other people appreciate my hair as something different. I also know that there are people of diverse races, those of Asian descent included, who have taken to Afro hairstyling with great enthusiasm. So, should Africans go about explaining the simple fact that in all communities, people exhibit a special attachment to their unique features, hair included? Certainly not!

It is for these reasons that I long for the day people of afro descent will knock at the doors of a local hairdresser in their neighbourhood, opt for a style of their choice –bald or kinky, clean shaven or curls – get attention without much fuss, and make their way back home without being made to feel out of place. Or better still, step out and look as natural as everyone else. No wigs, no hats, no caps – just a dazzling, nicely trimmed or styled glowing afro hair.

But as for now, I will just have to contend with the little uncomfortable truth that with each of my visits to the hairdresser, barring of course Noble, the truth will always remain anchored in place, as long as the local mindsets remain unfazed.