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The Adventure of Haircuts on the Road

A Surprising Source of an Adrenaline Rush!

semi-overcast 86 °F


Hanging out in front of a barbershop in the
Kariacoo market area of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania

The following is an e-mail postcard sent April 2014 from Arusha.

Dear Family and Friends,

Here is my latest cheap haircut negotiated without a common language (well, he did know the word "sistah"). I asked for it to be taken off my neck-- with a trim around the ears and a little off the top...then closed my eyes!

Actually, I kept my eyes open...open in horror as I watched him take experimental swipes with an electric clipper. He must have changed the clipper size 8 times in the next 20 minutes. He also tried putting oil on the clippers since my hair just slipped off. He had obviously never cut a muzungu's hair before. I was there about an hour and all the clients (male) came in to have their heads shaved or clipped to less than a tiny fraction of a quarter inch. No women came in, but a large number of women in Africa also keep their hair equally short.

At some point, he seemed done, but I showed him that one side was about 1/2 inch and the opposite side was about 2 1/2 inches. Eeeek! He looked like he was just going to even it out when suddenly he must have been inspired. That's when he buzzed off almost everything except for the top which he hadn't touched yet. After asking if he should cut the top (using gestures), he used the clippers like a comb on the top. Then he combed it forward...I looked like Napoleon! Aurgh...I jokingly gestured to the two other guys there that if I didn't like the cut I'd get my hair completely clipped next to the scalp like them.

Then the barber/hairstylist/butcher dug around in a drawer full of plastic ends for the clippers and came up with some scissors. Unfortunately, they were as dull as the ones in grade school...they made no impression on my fine hair, so he made stabbing, hacking attacks at my head in an attempt to actually get them to cut anything. OMG!!!! I tried to stay calm, but my face was stretching like silly putty in order to not say anything. My eyes were still wide in horror and in awe that he was still finding anything to cut and that I was still at his mercy sitting in that chair! I had to trust that he had a plan by now...

But he didn't. He just whipped out a brush with powder and whisked it around my eyes, ears and neck. I looked like a freshly plucked chicken! As I stood up, he started beating me with a towel to remove the fine tenacious short hairs all over the back of my sweater. Trying not to look in the mirror, I thought I could finally escape.

BUT NO. There was more! I was to get a shampoo! I was directed through a door to a small room where three people laughing and raucously enjoying themselves went completely quiet when the muzungu came in looking a bit crazed. I turned down an upgrade to a facial scrub, but as the shampooer rubbed shampoo around my head she continued onto my face until my whole head was covered in suds. Please let this be over soon!!!!

The shampooer was further disappointed that after moving me to a stylist's chair, I turned down each of her inspired offerings-- bright pink gel, olive oil and mystery spray in a can. Shrugging and throwing her hands up (this girl doesn't want anything!), I was sent back outside to pay.

What a deal...an hour of horror for only $3 US (5,000 TZ schillings). I slunk out the door and kept my head down as I headed to my hotel. No one was calling out greetings as usual (they all know me by now), so I imagined they were just as appalled. I thought I would hide in my room while I figured out just how bad it was. I hadn't been given a mirror to see the back-- just had to feel what had been done. I could barely pinch it between my fingers it is so short over most my head.

Costa said I looked like a policeman. Elia said it's 'not bad'. Dyness said it was 'nice' (she just got hers done in gorgeous braids). Joyce and Grace who both wear their hair shaved closed to the scalp weren't there to comment, but I'm sure I'll get an honest response from them at breakfast albeit in Kiswahili that I can't understand followed by hilarious laughter.

It's been a few hours now and I can live with it and will probably really like it in a few days. At least I won't need another cut for awhile (until Nepal?).

So here it is for your viewing pleasure. And you all thought the Palestinian haircut was extreme...

Arusha, Tanzania


My older brother Michael responds:
Dear Mzungu,
By now, after your barbering experience, you have wisely learned to say "just a little short," "just a smidgen more," "stop!," "cease and desist," "I'm placing you under citizen's arrest," "let me see your certificate from Arusha State Barber College," (wait, learn that phrase first!) in Kiswahili. You may need to go to the U. S. Embassy in Dar-Es-Salaam and get a new passport photo so you can exit Tanzania.


The scene of the crime in Arusha...I had to go to a men's barbershop to get a 'cut'.
Women's "Beauty Saloons" are for weaving and braiding; they don't cut hair.

Unfortunately, I didn't take my brother's advice and recently got a second haircut in Arusha. I did look up a few Kiswahili phrases and even practiced them with my Kiswahili teacher. I jokingly practiced saying "Nyoa zote!" (Shave it all off!), but I was confident that the person cutting/trimming my hair could just copy the cut I had which --once it grown out a bit-- I really liked. So when I walked down the road looking for a men's saloon (the local version of salon or barbershop), I was confident that I had the phrases I needed: Nataka kukata nywele (I'd like a haircut) and Schilingi ngapi (How much?). Alas, I should have listened to my older brother. Mtale was a nice young man with braids past his shoulders (any hair on a man is a rarity here!) who spoke decent English, but apparently not enough. I told him to give me the same-- a close clip on the sides and back, but leaving a little length on the top. Sigh. I now have a haircut that is the closest it can be to a shave without being a shaved head! I have been asked if I am a Catholic nun because I don't have a husband or children (this has happened three times now!), but now I look like a Buddhist nun! Take a look at this one:


Here's a pic of Mtale at work and his tiny shop (viewed from the road and not to be confused with the women's salon next door that does braiding). I was his very first mzungu (white person) and his first customer of the day (it was 4pm...Hmmm...should that have been a hint?) though it seems my business might have spurred some interest as two customers lined up as he finished my shave...er...cut! While he proclaimed my being a customer was good luck, he admitted he was nervous doing his first mzungu. BTW- This was my cheapest cut yet at 2,000TZ or US$1.33.


Past haircuts on my RTW:

Abancay, Peru- A one-chair salon in a woman's home. I speak Spanish so I only had the usual 'I hate haircut jitters'. The priest had more hair than the other female client and myself, but he paid less...religion has its perks.

Villa de Leyva, Boyaca, Colombia - My friendly hotel manager (where I was the only guest) walked me to a friend's upstairs salon where I arranged to have a cut and a pedicure (in preparation for trading boots for sandals as I headed to the coast for hot weather and beaches). It was small and had just one chair, but there were a few friends to dish the gossip and her toddler kept us entertained. Kind of a fun 'girls get together' feel and fairly non-threatening. My deep red painted toes looked great!


Portland, Oregon, USA - I went with my youngest brother Ken and we got 'his and her' cuts from his regular barber.


Marrakesh, Morocco - Once again, the hotel manager helped me out. I was in a Muslim country, so had scouted out a salon for women near the hammam I used. But Hakim insisted he knew a better place...a man that did women's hair and was just around the corner. Once again, I was escorted there. Hakim negotiated the fee and then left me in the stylist's hands. He had some English and I had some Arabic/French so we did okay...though he pushed hard for a substantial 'tip' on top of the agreed upon price. When Hakim found out, I got the feeling there would be some words exchanged.

Berat, Albania - Here, I was really on my own! No common language and I couldn't seem to find a salon. And...I was surrounded by women with long, dark, flowing or bushy locks. Then I wandered into the fringes a bit and found a local street market. There was a woman selling vegetables that was blonde! AND...she not only had very short hair but it was a nice cut! I followed the customary local greetings with sign langugage to communicate I liked her hair and I needed a haircut. She called out to another vendor that she needed her to watch her stall and then took my hand and walked me down the street. The place was closed, but I returned the next day and got quite a good cut for about $2.16 dollars, Once again, no common language-- she spoke not a word of English. The walls of her tiny on-chair salon were covered with pictures of clients being prepared for weddings and special occasions- all had long hair like her. Here are the 'BEFORE' and 'AFTER' pics:


Bethlehem of Galilee, The Palestine Territories (Israel) - I had some Arabic, but none related to haircuts and the guy's English was even more limited. The thing is...Palestinian women don't get their hair cut. They come in just for the tiniest of trims to their long hair. So this guy had never really cut a woman's hair...styled or short, that is. But he did his best and it was okay...had a bit of a quirky punk thing going on. Later, as I walked down the street it suddenly dawned on me-- I looked like all the young men I was passing on the street. He essentially gave me a man's haircut, but didn't shave the sides of my head. It made me laugh that I had the hip haircut of the Palestinian boys! Here's my Palestinian punk look:



Lonely Planet's Kiswhahili Phrasebook offers this line-- Nilikosa hata uliponikaribia!
I should never have let you near me!

Posted by jaytravels 08:17 Archived in Tanzania

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