KAMPALA, UGANDA – The Beatles never made it to Africa.
Which might explain some things about haircuts around here.
Not that I personally run around looking like Rip van Winkle or those wooly fellows from ZZ Top. One’s haircut is a statement to the world. No sense making folks think you need dog tags around your neck.
Nonetheless, after my first haircut in Uganda, I’m a little worried about styles, or lack of, in this corner of the planet.
I recently visited an establishment known as a salon. Most men have a problem with this sort of name, and I’m no exception. I grew up in a town of Italians where barbershops were named Nick’s or Tony’s or Umberto’s, places with Men’s Magazine and a steady stream of guy-talk.
But I guessed Africa’s salons might be cousins to such old-time barbershops, where any journalist could get a good quote. And Anglo names are common in Africa. So I was curious.
Could one of these salon barbers be a Floyd? Might he even have one of those big, old chairs? Remember those? Ahhh, the original La-Z-Boy. They were monstrous thrones, complete with head and foot rest for a quick nap. Usually red leather, they weighed three million pounds. When I was a kid, we actually had one in our home. I loved working that hand pump.
So I entered a local salon and bartered my price to a mere 1,500 shillings. That’s $1 Cdn, or 10 per cent of the rate downtown in a shop for “Muzungos” or Whites. Disappointingly, though, I discovered this shophad no Floyd. No special chair. No soothing, hot lather. Not even a quick scalp rub.
I think my barber, a rookie, found it hard too. All he said was “Oh” when I removed my Team Canada hat to reveal my neglected, blonde mop.
He had hair. Which is good, because I’ve always believed getting a haircut from a bald man is a little like getting financial advice from someone who’s gone bankrupt.
More so, this young fellow had electric clippers. And this is my concern.
Because after asking the obligatory “How do you want it?” he quickly pulled them out.
“No!” I said. “I want you to use scissors.”
“Scissors?” he said.
Then, slowly — so very slowly – he cut my hair. With scissors. Dry. So went my first African haircut.
Later, upon reflection, I realized every African man I’ve seen has short hair. Very short. In fact they’re all buzzed worse than Samson.
It wasn’t always so. Hair historians say Europeans first contacting Africans in the 15th century saw plenty of hairstyles. That carried over to American slave culture. Most slaves could do with their hair as they pleased.
During their early freedom and an oppressive racial atmosphere, Afro-Americans toned down self-expression. But the 20th century saw freehair return. And the wonder of straightening was perfected by Madame C. J. Walker. Black scholar Henry Gates Jr. notes “It’s a wonder we (Americans) don’t have a national holiday for her rather than Dr. (Martin Luther) King.”
By the time the Beatles arrived and seriously maligned barbers everywhere, the politics of Black hair grew big. Wearing an Afro often meant supporting Black nationalism. But you could still go tall or small.
Styles still evolve, even on the face. I’ve personally sported everything from full beard to short goatee to Fu Manchu moustache before shaving clean so I don’t scare my kids.
Thankfully, up top, the mullet (otherwise known as hockey hair) is now passé everywhere but at the smalltown fair. Walk down any street and see locks, braids, shaved sides, the flattop, pony tail, the messy look, you name it. Today, anything is in.
Just not here.
Women will always have their mud facials and manicures. Here, virtually nothing can break a marathon date that a Ugandan woman has to braid her hair. By getting buzzed, I suppose African men think they’re keeping their own gender identity.
But half-bald customers don’t get haircuts at half-price. So it seems to me that more than anything, these guys are simply keeping their barbers in business.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a happy barber. I’ll just keep my two-year-old daughter away.