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Book Excerpts

by Martin Mbugua Kimani

My walk along the narrow passageways in Nairobi’s Kenyatta Market, encountering the tiny stalls dedicated to hair styling –
braiding, twisting, perming and curly kitting – plunges me into a closed female universe. I see a woman’s style in an early stage of becoming: the 100% Real Human Hair braids are a wild tangle framing her face. The three women working on her hair chat in low voices.
“Lakini nani alimshuka Lucy Kibaki?”
“Anakaa kama paka imenyeshewa.”
“Si ni wig anavaa?”
“Nywele yake ni nzito mpaka anatembea kama amebeba mzigo.”
“Wacha. Huyo mwanamke! Ni mkali! Unaeza think ye ndio prezzo,” suggests a woman who until then seemed engrossed in twisting a cluster of hair into a tight braid on her naked thigh. Her yellow Kanga is embellished with red leaves, and the sky blue boundary on which a Swahili saying is written – Haraka Haina Baraka Lakini Kifo ni Kesho – is hiked to reveal a mango-yellow, even-tone thigh. She braids with the concentration more often associated with rolling a joint of bhangi or performing delicate surgery. The snarl of braids on the customer’s head suggests that the thigh roller has repeated the process many times. Perhaps it is the un-ignorable tickly sensation of hair on skin that draws her focused interest. I envy the innocence of her pleasure, how available it is and how much a part of her life it is.

Wanting to hear and see more - the voyeur in me alert to the possibility of titillation - my deliberately slow walk becomes even more sluggish. I act as if I have lost my way and need a moment to recall the direction of my destination. I am able to maintain a discreet observation of the four women by pretending to examine Kitenge outfits in the neighbouring stalls,
Unlike the braiders in colourful Kangas, the customer is dressed in tight blue jeans. To squeeze into them must have required she first lubricate her legs. Her brown ankle-high boots with pointed toes, when considered alongside the trousers, give the impression of an exactness that I associate with impatience. But her expression is one of resignation: an acceptance that although the process will take hours, it is as necessary and irrevocable as eating. She sits on a low stool with her head between the legs of the braid roller so that the even-tone thigh is pressed to her cheek or against the side of her neck. Lying between those thighs, closeted in the heat and scent emanating from the braider’s crotch, the customer is unerringly still, almost as if she is scared to fidget and break an intimate

The customer’s weedy perm is fused with Natural Virgin Human Hair – never before dyed or permed according to its Made in China label. Guided by thin fingers that twist and tie, the braid forms tight, black spirals interspersed with flashes of an oiled brown scalp. The elegant pattern taking shape, as it does half an inch from the brain, communicates order and control. I am reminded of the ‘alien’ crop circles on television’s ‘The Mysterious World of Arthur C. Clarke’. The straight lines of the braids narrow as they approach the neck, tapering into an arrow pointing down a spine that cleaves a smooth, strong back in two.

The closeness of the physical space, and the complexity of the emerging hairstyles, casts me back to my first encounter with this ritual. In the early 1980s, as a teen living in Ngummo Estate, which borders the market, I insisted on accompanying Elizabeth to get her hair braided. I had a massive crush on Elizabeth and thought that any time spent with her would rebound to my benefit. I sat on the ground, cramped, but happy to be chatting to her, reading a Hardy Boys novel and marvelling at the dexterity of fingers manipulating her hair and the sight of Elizabeth’s pale-skinny thighs as her dress unconsciously rode higher with the passing hours. I tried to ignore the puzzled glances from the braiders: this was clearly a seduction tactic they had rarely encountered. I envied the slow transformation of Elizabeth’s head: from limp perm to a major forest of
hanging braids, and finally into a tightly wrought crown of diamond shapes and straight lines. How I wanted to be a girl then, the focus of skilled womanly attention, sitting in the
hot sun awaiting a revolution – to be made beautiful. My affair with Elizabeth was to end with a kind of mild humiliation that I traced to the day at the hair stall, but that is to digress from a far more immediate and interesting story.

After many years of not thinking about Elizabeth, I had come back to the market for a nyama choma session. My father and I sat bonding in the time honoured fashion of eating roasted meat, drinking intoxicating brews, and grunting in manly appreciation while discussing ‘investments’. Business in Kenyatta Market is conducted in hundreds of tiny stalls specializing in butchering, hair braiding and clothing. Each booth is run by a proprietor who visits ushago every month, yearns to drive a Toyota Corolla, and enters the Green Card Lottery faithfully every year. The butcheries and hair stalls are arrayed
along narrow passageways, and are separated by a large square into which the main entrance leads. The furious pace of commerce never lets up: there is meat to be cut with
brutal swings of a heavy axe, sold and then roasted so that its smell invades the braiding stalls to compete with the subtler scents of Movit Hair Pomade and burning braid ends.
The butcheries are determined to export their effluent to the braiders. In the constricted passageways runs a thin, shallow, cemented trench that carries a hint of cow or goat blood and from which emanates a rotting smell.

I notice that a throng of women accosts any female entering the market to induce her to patronize particular hair stalls. Most of those doing the advertising – though it appears more like a politely choreographed wrestling match – are ‘brokers’ who receive a fee for every customer they procure for a stall. When not competing for a patron they keep up a loud, running commentary on foibles and scandals. Words are important to these women, they use them to secure an income, and earn each broker a place in the hierarchy of their peculiar profession.

The story was featured in Kwani? 3. To enquire about purchasing a copy please contact us with kwani 3 in the subject line.

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:: Comrade Lemma and the Jerusalem Boys Band
:: Blood & 100% human hair
:: The Applications
:: The Deed
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:: Pattnii poem
:: The smasher
:: Fragile
:: Afrikan Kween

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