04 Mar

Conversations at the Hairdressers’

“We don’t mind who gets elected, our prayer is that anyone who does not better our country will surely die!”

“Amen!!!”

My day started at the hairdressers and I was wise enough to be in no hurry. It takes 5 hours for the fastest braider to complete my hair so I usually block out my calendar for the day. The shop was only just starting to welcome its clients when I arrived, consequently I was rewarded with the most comfortable chair- an armchair that was once fully upholstered in faux crocodile skin. After hearty exchanges of greetings- there were five hairdressers and three clients- the topic swung over from the Nigerian elections to men. Conversations in black hair salons have this distinction about them. Questions and comments are typically not directed to anyone in particular and the obligation to answer is equally shared by all.

One of the ladies recently moved ‘to outside London’ and she was full of gist.

“Has your husband found work yet?”

“No o, not yet even though it was his idea that we move away from London.”

“Ah ah! How about you now? What were you expected to do with your business?”

“My sister you know men, all they care about is themselves, the woman doesn’t count. We don’t matter.”
Nods and glances are passed around; “it’s true, it’s true.”

“My main concern was my daughter, thankfully she’s fine and has settled in nicely at school.”

“I hear schools in outside London are good?”

“Yes o! Didn’t you know?” Interrupts a previously uninterested customer.

“My daughter’s class has 30 kids”, Beatrice continues. I wait for the clause, don’t all state schools have about 30 children?
“In her London school there were 30 kids and only 4 were oyinbo. She used to come home speaking Yoruba to me.”

The shop breaks for a burst of laughter. Loving the effect she has on her clients she carries on;

“One day I went swimming and I met one white man. He asked me, can I be your friend? I said sure. The truth is I wanted to befriend him for my friend who’s looking for a husband.”

“Ezeoku?”(really?)

“Yes o. But my friend said that’s not the type of oyinbo she wants.”

“Which type does she want now?”

“She wanted the real one, not the Woolwich one that is practically Naija.”

“Isn’t a man a man? Does she or does she not want to marry?”

“A man is a man”, chorused 2 women in unison.

“True. Their balls are carved with the same knife.”
Another laughter break.

“It’s true, she carries on, if you pick out all the possible traits of men, good and bad you’ll discover that they all make up the same character. Men are all the same.”
Everyone nods, I can only offer half a nod because as I hear this I am struggling to make sense of that last sentence, weighty with philosophy but scanty on clarity. A new customer comes in, and the same cheerful greetings are exchanged.

“Aunty do you have a small child?” Asks Kate, the one doing my hair.

“Yes, she’s 5 now,” beams the proud mother.

“Ah, were celebrating my daughter’s birthday, please bring your daughter it’s in 2 weeks.”

“Ok. Where?”

“Behind Iceland, there is a hall there.”

“Oh I know that hall, I’ve been for a party there before.”

“So has your friend found a husband yet?” The one in a beanie hat can’t let it go.

“No o, she’s believing God.”

“She will wait forever! The dark hairdresser who had been deathly quiet chips in.”
All heads turn towards her in collective accusation.
She launches into defence mode; “Why is she choosy? Man no be man?” (Isn’t a man a man?)
They withdraw their accusation by turning away from her, a sign that she makes a valid point but she won’t be so easily forgiven for wishing evil on another woman.

“Maybe she wants a rich man.” The yellow, pretty one adds.

Beatrice shrugs, “as for me I can’t follow a man for money.”

“What if it’s real money?”

“Even real money. There is nothing a man can offer me that I need.”

“How about children?”

“You all don’t understand,” she snaps, “What I mean is that I did not have a need, even for children that made me follow a man. I married my husband for love, not need.” She spits out ‘not need’ with venom which instantly lowers the energy levels in the shop, allowing everyone to collect their thoughts and reorder their words. No one speaks for a whole minute.

“We’re having a birthday, please bring your boys o, Aunty.” Kate prods me as she speaks.

“Ok, I will, I lie.

“Have you seen Mama Iyabo lately?” Beanie hat gets the conversation flowing again.

“That one? We have nothing in common.”

“Ah ah! you people haven’t settled your quarrel? It’s not good to fight, you know we’re Christians.”

“Ehen? You people fought? What happened?”

“Hmmm.”

And that was how Kate took us all on a journey of how Mama Iyabo did her 419. And how the wicked woman took money from her and didn’t pay back. And how she has done it to other women so much so she is now known. Her sister had warned her but she didn’t listen. Thank God it could have been worse, but for God who didn’t let Satan win. At this point she lets go of my hair and raises both hands up before breaking into a song;

What shall I say onto the Lor-o-o-d,? All we have to say is thank you Lord!”
At least 4 hairdressers & clients join in exactly like backup singers without missing a beat;

Thank you Lord, thank you Lord, all we have to say is thank you Lord

This brief praise session is accompanied by the swaying of large hips and the pointing of combs towards the ceiling. Just as suddenly the singing stops, the ladies return to doing their clients’ hair and the gist saunters into the naked truth of Beatrice’s father-in-law having 12 wives- this of course qualifies him to dispense sound marital advice to his son;

“A man who stays in the kitchen with his wife will make her stew taste good.”

While the women are debating that pearl of wisdom and citing examples that support or oppose it, I am stuck at ’12 wives’ doing some calculations. I drag my mind back to the shop and hand Kate some more hair. This is the part of hair braiding hair I hate. Your hands are not free to write or read, you have to pass bits of hair every minute or so. You also have to hope your chair ends up near a power point so you can keep your phone charged. Occasionally there will be the loud mouthed customer who feels her opinions are more valid than those of everyone else’s, like the Sierra Leonean woman who maintains there is no such thing as Ebola, it was concocted in the mind of an angry white man in an American laboratory. She was the one whom Mark Twain had in mind when he said ‘it is better to be quiet and thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.’

Four more ladies squeeze in, led by an Aunty Funmi who announces she has brought them more customers like she always does. Gratitude from the hairdressers flow freely.

“We’re not busy at all aunties, una welcome.” Kate addresses them as though they can’t see with their own eyes that every hairdresser is occupied with a client’s hair and there are others waiting. “Please find somewhere to sit, there is space here.”

As if by some sci-fi doing, smaller seats start being birthed from the occupied chairs and the four women get themselves comfortable.

The buzz in the shop ebbs and flows throughout the day and there is never a dull moment. It is entertaining and therapeutic all at once. Women come to get advice about their men, or support for the decision they have boldly made, yet are uncertain about remaining in it. Others drop in to complain about the unforgivable actions of mutual friends and how ‘everyone’ should be careful in dealing with the said friend.

I enjoy coming to this salon because it is like a little piece of my home country on a big plot of England. Before long I’ll step out of Lagos and into Bromley, where people walk in a straight line and don’t rock side to side when they laugh. Where they speak in measured tones and don’t punctuate their sentences with Church songs. Where the only invitees to a child’s birthday party are a handful of classroom friends whom the celebrant (small boy who knows nothing) has selected for his party, the party that you must RSVP to before attending else you face being turned back at the door. The door that leads back outside into polite England. But for now I’ll enjoy the gist of these happy, content people who don’t ask for much in life but a dingy shop where they can plait their customers’ hair and enjoy the freedom to speak Pidgin English at the top of their voices.

What’s the most ridiculous gist you have overheard at the salon or barbershop? I am curious to know, do share in the comments box.