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.

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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.

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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.

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“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 Amazon.com 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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