The African Hair Salon (Part 2)

Friday, November 8, 2013


Yesterday's post was about my general frustration with African hair salons in Johannesburg.  It was more like a mini rant that ended on a bit of a sour note.  

Part two of my story is about an actual visit to an African salon in Yeoville.  Last week I ventured around Rockey Street in Yeoville looking for the right hair salon that would be able to duplicate the above hair style from a photograph taken by Nigerian photographer and artist Okhai Ojeikere circa 1960s.  My previous braiding lady had tried and failed dismally, thus ending my relationship with her.  Hair salons in Yeoville are a dime a dozen.  They are in every open crack of free space, some even operating as pavement specials.  I drove around for about 20 minutes before deciding that my mission was futile, how was I going to know what's good just by looking from the outside?

As I turned into the hilly section of Bezuidenhout Street on my way home, a small salon next to an internet cafe caught my attention.  There was nothing special about it but something said I should go inside and see what it's about.  I walked down the hill and entered the salon to find a man listening to music on his earphones sitting on a white plastic garden chair.  We exchanged greetings and he asked if I had come to cut my hair.  I said no I would like to braid it and he stood up to go and get ''mama''.  A burly woman wearing a pink and white kaftan walked in and smiled that smile you smile when you know you are going to get money.  She greeted me and asked me what I wanted to do.  I said ''A funky African hairstyle'' and she looked confused but said ''yes''.  She walked over to the wall where a poster of general hairstyles was hanging.  It was printed and laminated a long time ago and was full of gaudy hairstyles that didn't interest me.  I said ''no not like these'' and she said ''yes''.  I explained that I wanted a plait that could be adorned with cowrie shells or brass jewellery and went on and on giving examples of hair styles I dream of.  All she said was ''yes, yes we caan doo that'', nodding reassuringly and pulling out a chair.  It was about 4.30 in the afternoon and I had other things to do so I said I would be back tomorrow with a picture and she said ''yes'' and asked for my phone number.  She had a comforting aura and facial hair that made her look like a very pretty man.  I left the salon none the wiser but happy that I had an appointment.

The next day I arrived at 08.30 and she wasn't there.  The young man that had greeted me the previous day asked me to wait, ''Mama was on her way'', he said.  I waited for her, examining the little room that had no sound system, no TV and no bells and whistles.  I realised that there was a lot of business that goes down in this little space.  On one side there was a sewing machine on a little sewing table.  Tucked away in the corner was a shelf of sweets and chips you don't see at big retailers.  To the right was a single bed and behind me was this young man and his hair cutting station.  A tall dark man entered and sat down for a hair cut.  A few minutes later, a young woman entered and sat at the sewing table, put on very big headphones and started singing a French song at the top of her voice with her back to the rest of us.  Another woman with a half done head of purple braids came in and sat down next to me.  She had perfectly round features. A round face, round eyes and two circles shaped like an 8 as her lips.  She had a very beautiful baby boy on her lap, also perfectly round, with lips darker than the rest of his face.  

Mama arrived and greeted the room.  Everyone but me and the man getting a hair cut responded as if they were pupils and mama was the teacher, ''Morning mama'' they chimed.   She had short permed hair and was wearing a blue and white kaftan.  She came to stand between me and the woman with the baby.  The woman still had half a head of braids to plant and I had told Mama that I only had two hours before I had to go.  As if they had spoken in some secret silent language of the eyes, they agreed that she would start with me.  ''Did you bring the picture"? I pulled out my iPad and showed her the picture.  ''Ah that's a very nice one, very very nice one'' she said and the next thing I knew, everyone in the salon was looking over my shoulder at the picture chiming ''Beautiful, very nice and who is that in the picture''?

The next few hours were to became the best hours I have ever spent in a beauty salon.  What was meant to take 2 hours ended up taking 5 and I didn't feel a minute of it nor did I feel the pain that comes with corn plaits. At first I had my guard up, assisted by my cellphone and iPad and I wasn't interested in engaging anyone.  There were about 3 languages being spoken at the same time: the singing lady at the sewing table was speaking French on the phone.  Mama and the mother were speaking another language and the man cutting hair was speaking a language from Nigeria.  I was playing with the foot of the baby and he was smiling.  Mama and the mother switched to English so that I could also be included in the story and soon, Mama kept looking at me asking ''Are you hearing that? I say are you hearing that''?  Her reactions were dramatic but sincere, said in a thick Congolese accent.  ''What did I say? I say what did I say?" she asked the room.  I had no idea what they were talking about. Things continued like this for about 45 minutes, me giggling under my breath at Mama's astonished expressions and the mother, now with her breast out for her baby's meal time, chatting away.  The woman at the sewing machine was still singing French songs literally at the top of her voice and nobody seemed to mind including me.  One ear was listening and singing and the other ear was listening to Mama and the mother's conversation.  She would chime in sporadically, speaking louder than her singing voice.  

A young boy of about 15 came in.  ''I just came to say him mama'', he said as he blocked the small entrance.  Mama turned around and with one hand held on to my braid and with the other hugged the young boy.  ''Hello my son, how are you''? and the boy said something as he left the salon.  He really had just come to say hello.  She had a bottomless warmth about her and without demanding it, people just respected her. A few minutes later a girl in her mid twenties came in.  My head was bent forward because Mama was plaiting the back of my head.  All I could see were the girl's legs and her big feet pressed onto the floor.  They were pitch black and shaped like a Jamaican sprinter's legs.  They were perfect and very hairy.  She was boisterous and loud.  She stood next to Mama and started plaiting the ends of the braids that Mama had planted on my head.  She came in with a new subject and the conversation changed.  I wondered why she didn't start finishing the mother's hair.  It became evident that she just wanted to be physically close to Mama.  She was there for all of 15 minutes before another person stood at the door with his hands on his hips.  The leggy girl stopped, turned and shrieked as she jumped and ran out of the salon.  It turns out that she works at the salon down the road and the man who stood at the door is the owner of that salon and had come to look for her.  We all laughed at this crazy girl who would risk her job just to come and see Mama.  Mama says she does it all the time but he keeps her job because the customers like her. 

Just as the leggy girl left, another young woman came in.  She was holding the hands of a drowsy little girl of about 3 years old.  The woman sat down behind the mother and started braiding the mother's hair.  Her accent gave her away.  She was Zimbabwean and her little girl's name was Emma.  Emma was chewing amaKipKip ever so slowly and not looking like she would make it through the end of the hour.  The Zimbabwean woman spoke very fast, as if her sentences had to escape as quickly as they could in order to be understood.  She asked me what church I go to and I thought ''Oh God here we go...''. Luckily Mama interrupted her. ''Let the girl be'', as if she could tell that my answer would send Emma's mother out of the salon. It was about 11am on a Friday and she had just come from the informal church on the field next to my building.  They spoke about the church and then jumped into the touchy subject of her husband.  I was picking up stompies but it was clear that her husband had left her and she was very depressed about that.  Everytime she tried to dog him, Mama would say all of the following again and again: ''It's fine'', ''You are fine'', ''Praise God for your health'', ''As long as you have your health''.  ''Nobody has died from no haasband'', ''There is no grave waiting for you to jump into'', ''You have your health'', ''Praise God for your health''.  The woman was defeated and changed the subject back to church matters.  Mama spoke with kindness and the reassurance of someone who has more life experience than the rest of the people in the room.  People kept coming in and out to greet her. I absolutely fell under her spell.  We started talking about my hairstyle, my interest in West Africa and they were quite enjoying my ''natural'' ways.  ''Are you a Rasta?" asked Emma's mother and I smiled and said no.  I had this magazine in my handbag and took it out to illustrate my interests.  The whole salon nearly went up in flames of awe.


Emma was losing her battle against sleep and started crying.  Her mother said something dismissive to the child who was tugging at her mother's dress.  Her hot sentence ended with the words ''Useless girl''.  Mama stopped plaiting my hair, gave a stern look to Emma's mother and calmly said ''You don't say like that to her, you don't say like that to a child of tree.  She is in need of you and is hungry and drowsy.  You need to listen to ha''.  Emma's mother obediently apologised to Mama, picked up her little girl and started cajoling her. Mama told Emma's mother to take a packet of chips and ''give the girl'' so that she can be occupied.  Emma sat on a chair quietly picking at the chips. 

An important man entered the salon.  Mama's demeanor changed completely as she greeted him.  The priest had come to ask something in his new car which he had just driven from Cape Town.  The conversation inside the salon was about the car, some saying he could have put it on a train, others saying that it would have been too expensive.  Mama was outside talking to the Priest and I could see through the window that she had the respect that strong black women like her have for priests and that strong Afrikaans women have for die Dominee.  It almost wilts their power. She became extra soft and almost child like in her demeanor.  They stayed talking for a while and when she came back inside, the conversation in the room petered out to acknowledge her entrance.  It was like something out of a story book.  She had an energy I had never encountered.  I was a fully converted Mama-ite by now. The cone shaped part of the hair style was quite tricky for Mama to do.  I didn't trust her but wanted to let her figure it out.  The whole room became involved in trying to work out how to make the cone.  My misgivings dissipated into the hot air and I was secretly wishing she would take long to figure it out because I was so enjoying her touching my hair.   I kept asking her questions that started with ''Mama'' just so that I could say it like the others.  I brought the picture out and we all marveled at her successful job of duplication. 

I was done by lunch time and walked to Checkers on Raleigh Street to go to the ATM.  The whole thing cost me R200 but I paid her more because not only had she done a good job, she had also really made my hours on that chair really pleasant.  She had a startled expression when she counted the money and smiled and hugged me.  I hugged her for longer and asked for her phone number.  I said goodbye to the other people, brushed my hand over a sleeping Emma and promised the purple haired mother that I would kidnap her child while she was in the bath.  

The Nigerian barber asked for my number and I thought ''Oh God, here we go....''

15 comments:

lungilecindi16 said...

Feels like I'm reading a chapter from a very interesting book. From the excitement of reading on, to the disappointment of realising I am about to reach the end of the post. This post is so interesting and lovely. Makes me wish I was at the salon, listening to mama

Heather Clancy said...

This is so wonderful! I love your writing. More please!

Zimmy** said...

You really need to write a Memoir... It would be so successful! Your writing is spectacular, I honestly get so into your stories...
May I suggest you read "Shirley, goodness and mercy" by Chris van Wyk? If you havent already. Its a brilliant memoir. I would totally purchase a book by you!

Akona Ndungane said...

I can't even begin to tell you how reading this has lifted my spirits, even though I don't know why. You are a brilliant story teller. Thank you for letting us be fly on the walls of the little salon and feel Mama's warmth and presence with you. Love

Milisuthando Bongela said...

I guess this is fun for everyone then. Thank you so much, you have no idea how much these comments mean to me. I have been so scared to write for so long. The thing about writing is that once you hlukumeza it izihlelele, once you probe and touch it, you are responsible for keeping it alive. It's really nice to be able to tell these stories. Zimmy, that is a life long dream of mine. When I was younger, I thought it was still far away but I'm realising that it's closer. I would like to leave this earth with at least one novel. For now, I'm relearning the art of telling stories and building up some confidence. When the time comes, I hope I can deliver. Seriously, thank you for showing up to this page and giving back. I feel like some where in the middle of this journey, I can call myself a writer.! Heather, I need some of your cupcakes. Akona, I can't believe you are my friend. Lungile, lol when I read this again, it sounded like fiction. I swear all of this happened the way I described it. Peas!

Anele Tshabalala said...

This is so beautifully written! I would be second in line (behind Zimmy) to buy one of your novels Mili. Stories happen to people who can tell them, please don't stop sharing :)

Lusanda. M said...

I love this story. I have a similar experience at a Cape Town salon, a tiny place in Mowbry. All the ladies working there are Kenyan. They speak to each other and have such fun and I can not understand a word of it. I refuse to go anywhere else. Your story was great. We need a next chapter.

sunshine said...

This was a lovely read... really nice, warm story!!!

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AkaniDtwin said...

Beautiful Milli, I wish I could just continue reading. Certainly feels like a chapter of a very interesting book.

Ellomennopee said...

Lovely post, you must keep the writing up!

aman said...

Hi
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