Do you know how to cut mzungu hair?

I asked timidly, afraid of offending the three ladies standing around the counter.

Earlier in the week, I had asked around where I could get my haircut, and a local suggested to me that cutting mzungu hair was not as straightforward as shaving the head of a black African. “Be careful they don’t screw it up!”, he cautioned. He handed me a flyer and recommended I go to a place across town. I wondered what was so special about the place and asked him. “No reason”, he said, “they left their flyers here.” :)

I thought back to the last time I’d had my haircut in Africa. In Uganda in June 2011, I had my haircut at a barbershop in Kampala, the capital. My friends who live there, Aman and Bhavya, had driven me around the city for about 30 minutes looking for a place that had a slot for an appointment as everything was fully booked. When we finally found a place, the decor was not much to crow about, but the cut turned out fine, and was topped off by a nice head and shoulder massage at the end of it. All for less than 10 bucks and 15 minutes. Sweet. I wondered what could go wrong here.

Jay’s Beauty Salon, on Mandala Road, in Old Town (Lilongwe)

I went out into the street and noticed a hair products store across the way. I figured they would know the local spots, and they directed me to “Jay’s Beauty Salon”, about 50m up the road from where I am staying. “Their normal location is under renovation”, I was told by a passer-by, “go upstairs!”

And there I was. Their temporary site was a bare room with a few chairs and mirrors. The ladies laughed at my question and welcomed me in. My hairdresser, a lady named Eva Joy, was quite chatty with me, and easy on the eyes. I set my things down on the counter in front of me and noticed she had a blackberry. How long until she trades up to an iPhone, I wondered. She lopped a chunk of hair off and asked if that was the length I wanted cut. A promising start.

Eva Joy was quick and efficient

Eva Joy apologized for the disarray of their salon, seeing as this was a temporary rental while waiting for the renovations to finish. She said that the salon had been around for 15 years and was owned by a woman named Jayshri (sp?) for a while until it was sold to her sister. Seeing an Indian lady cutting hair nearby, I wondered if it was an Indian-owned business. Indian presence is significant here, as it is in East Africa, a legacy of the British colonial era when workers from across the British Empire were brought in to expand infrastructure across the continent in the late 1800s and into the 1900s.

“Sterilises, Kills HIV
Lubricates, Cools
Prevent cross infections
Spray before every use”

I asked her if she could trim the back of my neck. “It gets hot here”, I explained. She took out an electric shaver and sprayed some disinfectant on it. As I looked closer at the bottle, I noticed that it advertised its effectiveness at “killing HIV”. With 20% prevalence (ie 20% of the population is infected) in Malawian urban centres such as Lilongwe, people must be worried about any instrument that could draw blood. I wondered how much of a risk this really was. Paranoia or evidence-based? Even sells this stuff so it seems like there is a market for it in the US too.

I thanked Eva Joy for the nice haircut, paid the bill (1600 kwacha or about 6 dollars and left her 200 for a tip), and left.

A nice experience.

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