Love and highlights in Harare


“I tell you that a clever, thoughtful, ambitious hairdresser wields a power beyond the comprehension of most men.” —John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

9780821421635About seven years ago I succumbed, on a dare, to a long-suppressed desire to have my hair done over in narrow “box” braids.  I still remember the day I had it done. It was a hot early summer weekday, and the salon was in a small storefront with a shop on one side that sold mostly gray market CD players, and a dingy bar on the other side with window and door grates that wouldn’t be open until the evening.  The salon itself had a red, yellow and green painted sign that said “African Heritage Braids” and its mistress was Katie, who had attended a school for doing hair in Senegal, where she was from.

It took Katie and her two assistants seven hours to do my hair, because while the style was not complicated, my hair was very, very long. All the while they chattered to each other over my head in French, and sometimes to me in English. Katie’s daughter played in the front of the shop, and the television was turned to a station that apparently ran back to back episodes of Dora, the Adventurer, all day long.  I was, that day, the only white person in the salon.

Seven hours of having my hair pulled while Dora squeaked along in the background left me with a raging headache, but also a hair style I haven’t changed since. I had been feeling like my life needed a change. I didn’t want to be the woman in the long skirts and her hair in a bun anymore—like some outdated stereotype of a librarian.  So, new hairstyle, shorter skirts, new life. I’ve been back to Katie several times since, (armed with an iPod and aspirin), but I’ve never had my hair out of braids since.

“There’s only one secrete to being a successful hairdresser,” says Vimbai, the narrator in the novel The Hairdresser of Harare, “Your client should leave the salon feeling like a white woman.” Vimbai should know of what she speaks. She is the most sought-after stylist in the Khumalo Hair and Beauty Treatment Salon, and one of the reasons the salon is one of the most successful in the city (the rusty sign and haphazard building construction not withstanding). Vimbai can count even a Minister among her regular clients, something that allows her to feel secure in her status as “queen bee” of the salon, even though she is merely an employee, not an owner or partner.

That all changes with the arrival of Dumisani, a personable and soft-spoken young man who applies for a position as a ladies stylist—unheard of!—and gets it when he changes a style Vimbai has just finished, taking over the startled client and dismissing her feeble protests with a determined click of the scissors. “Your hair was set beautifully,” he says to the woman in the chair while Vimbai seethes in the background, “but the style she’s given you is not for you.” When he is finished, the woman stares in the mirror in wonder. “Sweet Jesus, I look like Naomi Campbell.”

As it turns out, Vimbai’s philosophy that you give the customer what she wants because the customer is always right, is wrong. The women who come into the salon don’t want to feel white. They want to feel beautiful.

I had a hairdresser like Dumi once. He completely disregarded what I wanted (“a trim”) and proceeded to turn my hair into the careful disarray that the women on the covers of Vogue were sporting that year, while I cowered in my chair, too intimidated to object. I never went back. In fact, I avoided all hair salons for the next fifteen years, until I finally ventured into Katie’s domain for my mid life crisis makeover. She didn’t make me feel white, but she did make me feel young.

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu is a quick but almost painfully vivid slice-of-life story about life in contemporary Harare, the beleaguered capital city of Zimbabwe. Beset by corruption and relentless economic depression, Harare is a city where many things are possible for the enterprising and ambitious, but even more is possible for the unscrupulous and greedy. A hair salon, as it turns out, is a good place to see the wide range of humanity in the city. Everyone wants to look beautiful, and even very important people will subject themselves (or allow their wives to subject themselves) to an hour under the lamps with their hair in foils and curlers so that later they will look perfect in front of cabinets and television cameras. Highlighting is a great equalizer in that respect.

Vimbai and Dumi should by all rights become enemies in the Khumalo Salon, but something unexpected happens. They become friends, and then good friends, and then something more than friends, although what, exactly, they are to each other is undefined. Family, perhaps. Partly this is because Dumi’s self-assurance with scissors is not poisoned by an envious nature. Partly it is because Vimbai herself possesses a healthy streak of hard-won independence and is not inclined to fold when confronted by adversity. Plus, they have unexpected things in common, such as the fact that they are each estranged from their own families and heartsick about it. So although Dumi has cost Vimbai her place at the top of the pyramid of Khumalo Salon, and even taken some of her regular clients, when Vimbai hears he is looking for a place to live, she offers to rent him a room in her house. Dumi in turn repays her generosity of spirit with his own, becoming attached to her and her daughter and serving as a shield to the many predators that seek out women without protectors.

When Dumi eventually asks Vimbai to come with him to his brother’s wedding, she wonders if their relationship is changing, and if she dare think of a future beyond the next paycheck, the next set of bills that must be paid. Certainly, Dumi’s family seems to like her. More than that, they seem to adore her with near-hysterical excessiveness, which Vimbai finds hard to understand since she is really just country girl with an illegitimate child and they are—she is shocked to find out—sophisticated, connected, cosmopolitan, and extremely rich. “Why did you tell me you were poor,” she hisses to Dumi sotte voce at the wedding. Dumi seems surprised. “I didn’t, I told you I went to school on a rugby scholarship.” It is one of many preconceptions about Dumi that will be destroyed as she becomes closer to the man and his family. Another is that they will ever be husband and wife. As it turns out, Dumi is gay.

Zimbabwe is a country, writes Huchu, where homosexuals are condemned by the government as “lower than pigs and dogs” and where having gay sex can mean prosecution and imprisonment. In such a society men like Dumi are forced to live strange, masked lives full of secrets that twist their best intentions.  The gay hair stylist is a tired stereotype in the United States, but not so in Harare where there is no such thing as being “out.” In any case it is not one that applies to Dumi, who steps easily into his traditional role of male protector on many occasions—once punching  a man who insults Vimbai and knocking out his two front teeth, and another time standing up to a gang of “war veterans” (men with machine guns) looking to harass a client who has the wrong politics and connections. The only thing that is really unusual about him is his talent for making women feel, well, like women. And that is a talent that everyone at the salon immediately recognizes is worth its weight in foreign currency. It makes Dumi’s situation even more poignant, to see how carefully he must tread to live life on his own terms.

When Vimbai discovers what Dumi has been hiding, she is horrified and betrayed, angry and devastated.  What she is not is understanding or tolerant. It is not a thing she has ever had to be tolerant about.  All at once Dumi is not her best friend, but a pervert, not her daughter’s guardian, but a danger to her. It is only after she discovers the dreadful consequences of yet another of her preconceptions that Vimbai is able to accept what Dumi truly means to her and her daughter. And what they might mean to him. But by then, it is too late.

There is a strong element of witnessing to The Hairdresser of Harare—a desire to testify, perhaps, to how precarious life is for the marginalized of all kinds in Zimbabwe. Not just gay people, but young women, unwed mothers, people whose families and tribal affiliations are in conflict with the current ruling parties, poor people of all kinds.  But it would be simplistic and do a disservice to the book to file it under the label of “what it is like to be gay in Zimbabwe.” It is the evolving nature of Vimbai and Dumi’s relationship that is at the core of the novel, the thread holds the story together. They come together, support each other, sometimes fight each other, sometimes even fail each other. It is not a simple relationship by any means, but Vimbai and Dumi are not simple people. And love, in whatever form and whatever the culture, is rarely a simple thing.

Books mentioned in this column:

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu (Weaver Press, 2010) 978-1-77922-109-4


Originally published at, March 2012

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