The Silent Barber

A few weeks ago, I went to a silent barber. No words, only the click-clucking and whizzing of her tools of the trade on my head. It was as if the half-metallic sounds of those weapons were additional torture added to the barber’s pained silence. The only few words we exchanged were when I painstakingly described the type of cut I wanted.

There were a few language problems, though, especially in my desperate attempt to negotiate the price. A haircut costing over $50 makes me wish I was completely bald. Negotiations over, the click-clucking, whizzing commenced, enveloped by the total silence and absence of any other communication.

Time to think about my barbershop journeys, I thought, beginning with my mother (may her soul rest in peace) who shaved my hair with a sharp razor in my childhood. The recipe was always the same: get the boy captured and brought into the house, soak his hair and rub some soap in until thick foam sprouts up like a simmering volcano. Then the shaving begins, aimed at achieving a fine result – a completely shiny head with no trace of hair. The head, round or bumpy, was then smeared with a generous layer of melted sheep’s tail oil. Shiny indeed, ready for Monday morning assembly at the nearby school. Clean-shaven head, clean mind, well-pressed khaki shorts and shirt, a decent school day thus began, with the head teacher, Mr Zimuto, wielding a massive baton stick at morning inspection. Teacher-initiated violence was like breakfast in our schools those days!

My mother was not one to shave your hair in silence. She shaved our heads at least once a month. The shaving day was also a day of national evaluation of one’s transgressions. The catalogue of sins included which boys you had fought with, the girls whose mothers complained about your verbal abuse of them, the goats which you let free to destroy someone’s crops, how you went about enviously admiring the children next door while they ate their food as if you were pleading for an invitation. At this point she would pinch your ear with her fingers like pliers, promising to whip you hard next time you ate food in strange households.

And finally: ‘You went to trap mice. Since when have you become a mouse trapper, small as a mouse yourself? One of these days a python will swallow you,’ and another punch on the ear. And off I go, free at last, cursing my father for marrying such a vicious woman.

I could not assess whether my mother was a good or bad barber since her style was simple: shave off all the hair until the head looks like a smooth peanut butter grinding stone, huyo yedovi chaiyo, no embellishments. No style at all. But I was sure about one thing: my mother was a cruel barber! She hated long hair the same way she hated boils or malaria fever under your skin.

‘What would you think if, when I cook for you, you find a mop of my hair in your food?’ She never bothered to wait for your potentially foolish answer. Hers was enough for both. Boarding school was my escape from clean-shaven days. At least I was, for once, in full control of my hair. I had a nice English-cut beginning of the term at a barbershop at the Rimuka bus terminus, Gatooma, and a repeat ritual three months later, at the end of the term on my way home, no watermelon-like head on my shoulders.

In Harare, my Magaba barber was the most memorable: medium height, wearing a striped apron, clean-shaven as if he had attended my mother’s academy, and with a missing front tooth. Kefasi was a man of the city, in language, style, women’s beauty, knowledge about sex and numerous other aspects of life, including politics and workers’ rights.

‘Yes, my old man. Sit down, I will be with you in a moment,’ he would push a low, squeaky baby chair in my direction. ‘Guys, don’t touch my old man. You know he comes for me only, nobody else. We have an understanding,’ he warned his colleagues to back off. And they did, without argument.

‘Same style, my old man?’ he wanted to know. With my consent, the task of shearing off my hair began with the clickclickclick of his manual machine on a Sunday afternoon, as if a goat was grazing on my head. Clickclickclick turning my head this way or that, no consultation. Total loss of my freedom of movement. That seems to be the universal principle of all barbers world-wide.

Universal truth acknowledges that at the barber’s, the first thing you lose is control of the movement of your neck and head. Second, you lose the right to choose the subject of conversation. Freedom of movement, freedom of expression, they both perish at the barber’s.

‘Sunday is the worst day for us barbers,’ Kefasi would complain. He does not wait for my intervention. ‘We are treated like doctors or nurses, you know. Essential services. No strikes, no holidays. No football,’ he complains. I can see his smile in the mirror. Then I tell him how I don’t quite like football. But he insists that a man who does not like football is not quite a man.

‘But if you watch football on Sunday, people are free from work. They come to be barbed. You make more money,’ I giggle a little bit. ‘Haaa, old man, so you think me I am not also a people! Even police and thieves take time off to watch a good football match, especially Dynamos versus aaaaa, Highlanders,’ Kefasi puts his case.

He turns my head in the direction of the window and stops his clickclickclick. A youthful beauty is gracefully walking by the front of the barbershop. Kefasi smiles mischievously. I can see his face in his wall mirror. ‘The dead died too early before they could use their eyes properly,’ he monologues.

‘Even the president likes football,’ (a little pause), ‘especially at certain times,’ Kefasi whispers.

‘What certain times?’ I wanted to know. And Kefasi surveys my face in his not-so-clean mirror. My eyes meet his eyes, through the mirror. He laughs dryly.

‘E..e..e.. election times’, he whispers, with a hesitant laugh as if to test the waters of my political river. ‘He also wears T-shirts in those times. Real T-shirts, maona mudhara. Panenge pawoma, old man,’ Kefasi swears as if someone had argued the matter with him before.

‘True, Kefasi, politicians like different things at different times,’ I interrupt him for the sake of internal peace.

‘I thought people with many degrees don’t have time for football,’ Kefasi’s idle neighbour joins in. ‘They spend too much time reading books,’ he continues, with everything comical about him. He pulls hard at his newspaper-rolled cigarette, recklessly puffs into the small barbershop air, and coughs liberally, not caring about anybody or anything, including words.

Kefasi is rather hesitant about the topic of degrees. Again he naughtily looks at my face in the mirror. Our eyes meet: his eyes heavy with doubts, mine rather tense. ‘My old man, do you have a degree?’ he whispers. And when I answer with a roaring ‘Nooooo’, his face relaxes. He throws a healthy glance at his friend. ‘I don’t like people with degrees. Look at what they have done to our country. There are too many doctors in this government. They are reading books all the time. They forget us, the country, we the poor barbers,’ Kefasi says, agitated. His friend stops clickclicking his new client’s hair.

‘This coming election, let’s choose those without degrees. I am sure this new one is normal, no degrees, no diplomas, nothing, just normal,’ Kefasi almost faints with laughter. ‘Maybe we are lucky this time,’ Kefasi sighs.

‘Too much education is the same as insanity,’ Kefasi’s friend puffs at his home-made cigarette.

‘What do you think, my old man? Do you think barbers can rule a country’, Kefasi provokes me.

‘Why not? People like you are quite reasonable,’ I say as they laugh in chorus.

And as new customers enter and take their seats, new subjects enter the scene like actors in a new play with new scripts. Subjects range from venereal diseases, pub fights, shapes and sizes of women, dancing, men who are beaten by their wives, and spending a night in a police cell for stealing a handkerchief in a supermarket, politicians who steal other people’s wives, and a few lines on the state of the economy as seen through the increase in prices of vegetables at Mbare Musika market.

As I leave my European silent barber, Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s words echo in my trimmed and not so clean-shaven head: ‘a barber who shaves you in silence, without drawing a word from your mouth or sharing any neighbourhood or political gossip, and cursing no one, is not a barber at all.’

Post published in: Arts

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