August 24, 2007

Nifuna ku gula nshima

If I didn’t want a buzz cut, fade, flat-top, weave, extensions, Afro-perm or French braids, there wasn’t much change of getting a decent haircut in Lusaka, I thought. But after almost two months since my last coif, the mullet had grown unprofessionally long, teetering on the brink of a decidedly un-European mini-Kentucky Waterfall (Clarke, 2007).

Suggestions on where to go from Peter, the nearly-bald Welshman, didn’t exactly inspire confidence – expats here have some of the most garish ‘dos I’ve seen since singular dreadlocks and side rattails in Spain. There’s something about the Zambian frontier that seems to inspires epic head and facial hair.

I thought about going the big hair route, but my Western sensibilities proved too strong. So the other day I found myself at Scruples, located at the nexus of cultural imperialism that is Arcades shopping mall, hoping they would live up to their strangely ethical name. I would have vastly preferred a cheaper and more authentic Zambian experience, but some things you just don’t leave to chance.

Ushered into the hair washing station, I'm treated to the obsequious treatment you’d expect in an over-priced expat joint. The staff buzz around my chair with servile offers of massages, rubs and exfoliants, multiplying my guilt for entering into this neo-colonial arrangement. I resolve to give the wash girl a decent tip for a scalp massage that seems to go on forever, calming my frayed nerves ahead of the Big Cut.

My confidence is shattered as I look over to see an Arab man reaming out my would-be stylist for getting too many clippings down his shirt. After blow-drying him every which way, the customer blusters off and the visibly annoyed employee lets out a deep sigh as he makes his way over to my chair.

We trade non sequiturs as I try and explain the idea of a Euro-mullet – short on the sides, long on top and the back but always with the scissors: fight your predilection to using shears, except for fine tuning. He seems to grasp the concept and starts off in awkward silence. I have no idea if making forced small talk is the norm here too.

In my solitude, interrupted only by the sound of the scissors and the occasional hair pull, I start thinking way too philosophically about haircuts. As I watch the hair fall to the apron and cascade onto the floor, I wonder what information it holds. Years of watching too many forensic science documentaries have taught me that hair is a living spectrometer of your body, recording what was going on when the cells were dividing at the root. Could my hair clippings hold the key to what food poisoned me two weeks ago? Were there traces of nutrients from my dad’s amazing going-away dinner in there?

The resulting stomach rumblings bring me back to more important questions, like where I can get a decently-priced lunch at the mall. Asking the stylist, he looks around plaintively and says that Arabian Nights “serves very nice food for me.” Somewhat irked that he has me pegged for another fickle tourist, I trot out some newly-learned Nyanja. “Nifuna ku gula nshima,” I demand.

After a moment of bewilderment, he laughs heartily and shakes my hand. “You like to eat nshima and you speak Nyanja?! I’m Mwache.” After correcting him that I only speak exactly 5 phrases of local language, but do indeed eat boatloads of mealie-meal, we cover a lot of ground on the importance of cultural immersion in new environments. We go so deep in the onion I barely notice that he’s done an admirably good job on my hair – texturizing, layering and blending with confidence.

Blow-dried and sculpted, he sends me down the road with a friendly wave, both of us relieved that our assumptions about each other proved to be wrong.


Emilie said...

Your hair is like the rings in a tree trunk. Maybe next time you should ask your hair where to find your cell phone!

Scott said...

Reminds me of the time when the Chinese delivery dude and I bonded over our mutual love of MSG.

Props for first ever citation shout-out!