Ominously black, all buttons and interchangeable heads, the gizmo’s high roar was a thing of pure terror. Just like that, I was 9 again. Seated on a plastic chair with a towel draped over my shoulders, there was the familiar image of a blow-drier-wielding hairdresser standing behind me with the evil intent of straightening out my natural hair.
Walking into the salon with a lesso wrapped around my head, I was confident that my late night preparations had been sufficient. However, once I slid back the khanga, the hair dressers took one look at the dense black moss atop my head and beckoned me towards the demonic device.
Since the Naturalista’s creed is against using excessive heat on our tresses, I had stayed up late manipulating my hair into twists-out before diligently running a comb through the stretched out hair. I even combed it again in the morning but sadly, my efforts had come to naught. Even worse, the flashy-dressed, blow-drier-wielding woman was being very unkind to my scalp.
In the salon that housed two other hair dressers (one, the proprietor and the other, the one who would eventually twist my hair), her actions felt untrained. She had the airs of a bored friend with some understanding of hair care who promised to help out if they let her hang around the salon.
I’d seen the type before. Usually their tasks were limited to washing the customers hair and sectioning extensions for the one working on the hair. She was dressed as if she was waiting to receive a call then be on her way or if she fancied a nap she’d take off without a moment’s hesitation.
Bored Friend was rough. Forcing a plastic comb and a heat-spewing gun through knots in my hair, she ruthlessly bulldozed through tangled sections that had also stubbornly refused to uncoil. Tears jumped to my eyes as the disorienting roar of the machine loomed above my head. Her abrupt motions; poking here, combing there, caused me great pain and I kept asking her to be careful.
Thankfully, Twister took over and her hand was gentler. Switching combs to achieve a finer result, she worked the naughty knots out of my hair to leave a black, bone-dry, gravity-defying shock of hair pointing skywards. It was this light mass that she and I planned to colonize with Afro Kinky extensions.
The proprietor, a mother of three, filled the room with her sharp voice and child-like laughter. Mama 3 picked up and discarded stories depending on her audience’s reactions. She often ended them with a crude joke or comment. And because she often talked as she ate, plaited hair or did some other salon-related task, one never really knew to whom was addressed, “Si ndio nani?” (Wouldn’t you agree, friend?)
Guests, both male and female, often hang around the salon. You could tell if Mama 3 owed them money or if they’d promised her some by the softness or hardness in her speech. If she spoke in coded half sentences and joked with a false openness, she wanted something; perhaps more time or the doing away with a debt. If her tongue shot out short, calcified verbs or if her voice was raised in Luhya, Luo or Kikuyu, then someone has been withholding from her.
And often after a guest, customer or hair dresser left the room she’d loudly share an analysis of their time there, relay a past indiscretion or rattle off their family or private history. She had always been this way. Mama 3 had plaited and treated and blow-dried and chemically-straightened my hair during and after my high school years.
I had followed her from two smaller salons to the present one, a spacious, airy yet slightly run-down space that sat a few feet away from a steep and winding staircase. Returning after a long hiatus, I wasn’t surprised that her workers had changed (they always seemed to be a new girl every few months) or that her children were older.
Mama 3’s last born was a brown-skinned, sly-eyed wild thing. A carbon-copy of her mother, she was free-spirited and quick-tongued. Her high-pitched voice butted into conversations, passing comments and showing an interest in discussions no 10-year-old ought to openly admit to listening in on.
But it was really Mama 3’s stories and larger-than-life personality that endeared her to me. Plus, she was really gentle and good with my hair. When not talking about other people, she gave a running commentary on her life. From late night drinking escapades, run-ins with her relatives, her children’s antics and her debts and woes, she drew everyone into her confidence.
I often listened to her, face buried under half-done synthetic tendrils either giggling or solemnly paying attention to the tales. If she caught my laughter or if my silence had gone on for too long, she’d change the subject to something light, happy and embarrassing that was bound to make us laugh. Self-deprecation was her saving grace.
As Twister was making steady progress with my hair, a man walked in. After a general salutation, he settled in and began to offer back-handed compliments to Mama 3, Twister and Bored Friend. I couldn’t understand why they tolerated him and his condescending tone. At one juncture, Annoying Man pointedly asking Bored Friend why she was so fat. Going on to make terrible comments about her behind, her belly and even proposed what foods she ought to drop or eat more of.
He was a nasty man whose gossipy mouth wouldn’t quit. But he stayed. He stayed till Twister’s shadow began to blend with the darkness beneath the shelf under which my feet rested. He stayed till Mama 3 blow-dried and plaited cornrows on her daughter’s hair. He stayed until the coarsely-textured ochre strips hanging down occupied more space than the singed heap on my crown.
And then he left. And when he did, I found myself saying to Bored Friend that she was perfectly alright. That Annoying Man was a douche and who the hell asked him for his opinion anyway? I said these things with a righteous rage, speaking loosely in Swahili, stumbling forward into English (my chosen language of serious insults) and stumbling back to the other national language that we shared and conspired in.
Mama 3 had taught me well.
When conversations simmered down, I either picked up my book (Americanah, ha!) or inspected my old haunt. A set of black, spindly bobby pins were squeezed in the space between two mirrors and a squat display case with sliding doors stood by the door. It housed several hair pomades, two boxes of hair straighteners, a massive shampoo bottle and one shower cap.
Plastered on the walls were several posters of beautiful girls modelling various hair styles. Some designs were so outrageous and unflattering that only the model’s beaming smile and high-res quality of the picture saved the situation. Dolled up and wearing tiny pieces of jewellery, the ladies expressions alternated between haughtiness and sunny disposition.
I often wondered if, and with a straight face, these ladies had ever asked a hair dresser to recreate one of their looks once they came across their posters in a salon. Perhaps it had never happened since these sort of posters are not to be found in every salon across the city, least of which the high-end salons located in malls and town buildings.
There, the walls were adorned with generous layers of paint whose only interruptions were large, oval-shaped mirrors reflecting women flipping through magazines; their hair being manipulated into stylish hairdos likely charged upwards of Kes 1000.
No, these weave and braid suggestions are to be found in ‘saloons’ such as Mama 3’s where the sign is hand-painted in red or black block letters. The names are either fanciful: Beauty Hairstyles Heaven or simple: Mama Daisy Saloon. There’s often a slanting list of services offered (with one or two words incorrectly spelt). Below that, a terrible sketch showing the side profile of a woman whose cornrows converge into a sharp tip or whose matte black hair falls heavily around her short thin neck.
Where these posters hang are the places you’ll find the most interesting people with the deftest hands and the warmest spirits. People who will send their daughter to buy you a soda because you’re finally back after two years. People with fascinating backgrounds, like Twister:
“My father was a lecturer and he hated that I loved braiding hair, but what could I do? It was my God-given talent. Nobody taught me. I started when I was 12, chasing after every ‘open’ hair in the village. I used to complete my homework quickly then sneak my customers (usually older women) to hidden corners where I would play around with their hair, either styling or plaiting them. I loved it so much I didn’t charge them anything.”
Although Mama 3 has always been good with my hair, I preferred Twister’s pace. Within three hours, my head was a delicious combination of black and brick red. With the aid of a small, wooden four-toothed comb she separated a small tuft of hair, split it in two then planted the scruffy two-armed addition at the bald centre. Wrapping one end twice around the section, she’d twist the whole portion into a medium-sized strand.
Once my entire head was done, I decided to have the tips curled. Using a piece of string, Twister fashioned the ends into nine corkscrewed bulbs. These were then individually dipped into a re-purposed Ilara yoghurt container filled with hot water. Twister had a towel close at hand to absorb the steaming droplets. Once all bulbs had been dipped and a moist towel was passed over the roots of the twisted strands, she cut the strings and unfurled the bulbs to unveil wavy curls. Hurray!
Twister run a dry towel through the hair then gave it a steady blast from the blow drier to complete the process. She then snipped a few of the ends to even out the strands. Satisfied with the final result, I bid them a hearty farewell. Taking the steep and winding staircase to the ground floor, I was greatly pleased with the new shape of my shadow.