I sat there on the seat of that barbershop, and looked at my hair through the mirror, taking one last glance, as if to permanently brand the image to my memory, perhaps so I could remember who I once used to be. The whole thing―in those long seconds of loneliness and anticipation, the loneliness of a king who lost his crown―felt like a ritual: the barber’s seat served as the proverbial altar, the loud Lingala music on KBC Radio the accompanying sacrificial chant, the old, rugged, blunt Philips shaving machine the weapon to sever my head, to deliver the offering. I looked helpless, I remember, as I stared at the buzzing machine, as a sacrificial lamb would stare at a knife. Soon my beloved curls came down, gathering in heaps on my lap, defeated. It was sad to see how pieces of my hair, which were something when on my head, now reduced to nothing by the hurried strokes of an impatient, indifferent barber, almost meaningless.
Standing up to leave, I felt as though some fundamental organ had been severed from my body. The reflection staring back at me from behind the mirror seemed to me like a funny looking stranger, an oddly familiar one. My head felt lighter, and it was now all bare for the world to see, with its sharp corners and edges demanding attention. My ears were now extremely large, with no hair to hide behind, sticking out of the side of my head: I resembled Gollum. I walked back home, navigating the dusty pathways of Bula Adaan, feeling lightheaded, but heavy of heart, the strong winds blowing past my bare scalp, whistling, almost knocking me off—my mast, my anchorage, my precious, all gone with the arid wind. As I walked home, I wondered whether my hair was the ring of power that I was addicted to, that sent me to my own “Misty Mountains,” that inserted so much influence that my mind and will were no longer my own.
This is a memory from 2012 when I had bowed to pressure from family to cut my hair; I had swallowed the bitter pill of defeat and set out, on a breezy Friday morning in June, for Garissa Ndogo. My choice of barber seemed befitting; I had decided to go to the very barber that my father went to. I remember rolling eyes at my helpless penchant for symbolism—I was the prodigal son who stubbornly, almost religiously, refused my father’s pleas to shave my hair. But here I was, in the very exact seat that my father sits on, to lose it all.
I have always had this sort of unexplainable, primal attachment to my hair. I often attribute this attachment to the fear and discomfort associated with the sharp razor running against my scalp as my mother shaved me when I was a child in 90s Garissa. I did not particularly enjoy my mother’s weekly hair-shaving ritual. At the time, my mother’s services were legitimized by the lack of barbershops in our village, Bula Adaan. Whenever my hair grew so much as an inch, she was be standing by the latrine, a container of water, a brand new (or not) Topaz razor and a bar soap in hand, ready to give me and my brother a clean shave.
Her weapons of choice were writ large: isolation, sanction, threats, caning, fear and, of course, Topaz. She would make me face away from her. Then apply water. Then soap. Then make her routine side comment about how shaggy and scruffy my hair looked. Then she’d begin; holding my head firmly in place with one hand, and with the other, running the blade from the forehead going backwards. The strokes were not the cleanest. I was not allowed to move a muscle, or God forbid, cry, because movement, even the slightest, could result in a good chunk of my scalp missing.
The whole ordeal would take a maximum of five minutes. When it was all over, I would stand up, scratching at my bald, itchy head, which would have random spots of blood and surviving hair as decor. My mother would then bathe me and I’d squirm with the pain from the vigorous rubbing of soap against the open wounds. I shivered in the evening arid wind as the cold water ran down my body. When she was finished, she would then apply coconut oil or cooking fat to my head and face; yet another ceremony that I abhorred. Perhaps this hirsute devotion is rooted in these childhood hair-shaving experiences.
My father, on the other hand, played the supervisory role of ensuring that our general demeanour was impeccable. Impeccable meant penguin-bottom baldness. Jordan clean. He taught us by example that the key to attaining respect is to avoid any suggestion of unkemptness, starting with hair. Once a week, my father would take his clothes—which were mostly kanzus, tailored shirts and kikois—to the dobi for pressing in the more suave, uptown Garissa Ndogo market area. When these clothes came back, they had a subtle smell of charcoal from the iron box. They were so shiny and over-pressed, that they had sharp creases forming vertically and horizontally, creases that were the indication of craftsmanship, a job well done.
Also, once a week, my father would visit his favourite barbershop in Garissa Ndogo. He didn’t fancy the trendy, mushrooming ones favored by the youth, the ones that had names like Topman or Homeboyz Cutz, which played pop music and had newspaper cut-outs of Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z and Neyo and Nelly and David Beckham plastered on every inch of their walls. He preferred the quiet, austere barbershops operated by the slow, lanky, middle-aged Kamab or Kikuyu barbers, that had only a small mirror and a framed photo of the president and had analogue radios, tuned mostly to KBC. My father would come home that evening with a clean-shaven head, showing from beneath his embroidered cap, his long goatee left untouched, of course, as Islam mandates.
My father, like every Somali, is a traditionalist who cares deeply about personal image. The Somalis of the early nineteenth century prided themselves in their big hair. Young men used to grow their hair to the same lengths as women, making the British explorer Ralph Drake-Brockman remark that the Somali is a “great dandy” because “he possesses a well-kept chevelure” that is “always admired by and is the envy of his friends.” Somali men styled their hair by applying camel butter on it and then comb it into fancy shapes. In contemporary Somali communities, however, one gets the notion that hair is something that should be modest or conservative. The ladies straighten and/or braid their hair. The men prefer the close trim. Somalis generally emphasize the strict observance of manners and responsibility for men, akhyaarnimo, and, for women and girls, modesty and beauty. Akhyaarnimo (linked with Islam’s great emphasis on cleanliness of the person) connotes the responsible, respectful behavior of men towards the community, by their neat appearance.
I realized, as I grew up, that hair was something that was more than just a part of one’s body. Hair was a tool that could be perceived as either good or bad, depending on one’s beliefs and attitudes and cultural values—something that could create friction. My first introduction to the politics of hair in the Somali context was in the emergence of the ‘fade’ haircut in Garissa in the 1990s. The fade cut, or kipanga as we called it, hit the town, and naturally took its youth by storm. It was first adopted by the non-Somali residents, then by the town’s elite of delinquent youth, then by some of the more “hip” youth. The fade came hot on the heels of the bell-bottoms that were popular with the youth at the time. You would see boys with this cut, who wore jeans way too baggy for their skinny legs and reaching far beyond the feet. The youth considered this nuanced look and style to be the epitome of coolness; we called it qaras in slang Somali. This new hair style and look particularly riled the adults. They branded any boy who adopted the infamous style to be iskoris, a term that connotes insubordination. They were traditionalists, and so, they considered the cutting of the hair in unequal proportions a departure from Islamic traditions and Somali culture.
Being the child of a spiritual man, I did not attempt to adopt this new style. But all this was to change with my exposure to other cultures during my high school days at Light Academy Secondary School in Nairobi, a Turkish-run sub-urbanite institution that attracted the city’s upper middle class. Nairobi residents seemed to be in line with some of my innate sensibilities: less restraint in one’s demeanour, less judgment in the consideration of other people and less dogma in choice of dress. Further, the school did not ban certain hairstyles, or force us to adopt a close shave as most secondary schools did. This enabling environment (and I highly suspect, laziness on my part) enabled me to start growing my hair.
I decided to keep growing my hair out even longer during my university days. While high school gave me the foundation, college—the ultimate place for one to explore their personality—enabled me grow more into myself. This time, it was more than a cover for my perennial baby face. Rather, I grew my hair out due to the appeal, at a visceral level, of long hair as an apparatus that personified my outward and inward being, an extension of my character, if you will. My hair, which is a slightly coarse bed of Coca-Cola-brown interwoven curls that is rarely combed indicated my placid attitude, surfer boy outlook, my helpless laziness and my inherent rebelliousness against societal norms. I think it was a function of my freethinking nature. But ironically, it contradicted my calm nature; it said to the world that there is more lurking behind my aloof outlook, that there was an edge to all the relaxation outside.
In college, perhaps due to the influence of Western music, films and literature, I became more and more of an artist, which was incongruous with being law school student. In a sense, I embraced the spirit of the 1960s American hippie counterculture. I listened to the rather Bohemian music of the Beatles and Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Nirvana. I binged on the works of David Foster Wallace who is arguably the hippiest writer of the modern era. I subconsciously gravitated towards the stereotypical image of the artist: the avoidant, long-haired, cigarette-smoking, trench-coat-wearing, tortured soul.
While the artistry formed a large part of my temperament, it was a conflict of interest to keep long, curly, somewhat shaggy hair in law school, as opposed to in design or art or music schools. The legal profession has, for ages, been associated with sharp suits and slick, well-groomed hair. It holds itself in high esteem and entrenched nobility. Presentation is key to a client looking for someone ‘serious’ to handle their case. Employers in the law business are even more discerning. A former colleague recently advised me to get rid of my hair if I am serious about getting employed. People are generally judgmental, he said. They can’t help it, they will deny you that job simply because of how you look, he observed, looking at me, genuinely concerned.
More conflict arose when I had to go home from college during holidays. I would find it extremely difficult to stay at home in peace due to the constant. Somalis, aside from viewing long or scruffy hair as an antithesis to the spirit of akhyaarnimo, view it as a sign or symptom of a mental health disorder. I came to learn this sometime in 2014.
I am sitting on a chair, outside our house, in Garissa, under one of the few trees adorning the compound. The sun is not too hot, yet. There is a light breeze that makes the trees sway and the corrugated iron-sheet roof whistle gently. Anjeera pancakes are in plenty and I am on a splendid run of form—I am steady on my way to beating my previous record of six anjeeras in one sitting. The tea in my hand is spicier and creamier than usual, which makes me strongly suspect we are having some special guests over soon. Plus, the compound is freakishly, scarily clean, and there is incense burning in the room I was sleeping in, which I’ve been asked to vacate, rather not politely, and rather too early.
Anyway, just as I am escorting my eighth anjeera down with a sip of tea, way past my previously mentioned personal best, the guests finally arrive. First, an old man complete with sage-like, silver grey beard, then, four younger men. They are men of the cloth- wearing kanzus and clutching religious texts and murmuring prayers which are in sync to the tune of their rotating prayer rosaries in their hands.
Asssalam aleikum! They greeted us.
Waaleikum salaam, my mother and I respond.
Greybeard and his men approach and gather under the tree where I am sitting, still murmuring prayers. They are looking suspiciously at me as they exchang pleasantries with Mum. As they near, the tone and volume of the prayers increased. They have already formed a circle around me.
Greybeard, looking at me with eyes of concern and mercy, puts his hand on my back and starts praying for me. He spits lightly towards my body after every verse of prayer. He beats my back with every prayer he sends upwards:
Allah hakucaafiyo! He begins. May Allah heal you!
Amiin! The crew responds in a loud chorus. Amen!
Waxa kusaaran Allah hakkaqaatho! May Allah lift whatever is on troubling you!
Cathowgaatha cagta hosteeda Allah hagaliyo! May your enemy be underneath your foot!
Amiin! At this point, my mother, to whom I am signalling to rescue me, has joined the chant.
Dulkaan kaduceyne samada Allah hakaaqbalo! We have prayed on Earth but may Allah accept it in Heaven.
After what I suppose is only the first round of prayers were done, Sheikh Greybeard promises my mother that by the time “I am finished with him,” which would be after a period of seven days and seven nights, I will be “back to the way he was”: completely healed.
I am confused.
I don’t know what is happening. I start eyeing the nearest door. But just before I run for it (I am tempted to say “pull a #Brexit”), my mother, making reference to my elder brother who has a mental condition, and for whom the prayers were meant for, finally says: “He is not the sick one. His brother is. Come, let me take you to him.”
Greybeard is tongue-tied for a moment. But his face does not reveal any signs of embarrassment. The old gentleman is not even a tad embarrassed or apologetic for being presumptuous and for subjecting my poor soul to a round of fast, intense, confusing prayers. On the contrary, he seems positive I had, in fact, needed those prayers, and more. He takes a really good look at me, caressing his long beard. His eyes rest, for a good ten seconds on my hair, which was at that time, a coarse jungle of tangled up blackish brown hair; then on my clothing: I was wearing ripped jeans, a Beatles tee, Converse sneaker and a look of peaceful defiance. He looks at me, puzzled, then at my mother, as if to say to her: are you sure?
Greybeard and his crew are escorted into the room.
After they go inside, I sat there for a while, processing what had just happened. At first, I am amused by the whole thing. I love awkward moments. They provide us with a glimpse into human nature; our behaviour is different when our guard is down and we are not protected by our shell of scripted responses or good manners or social conventions. But after the brief amusement has passed, I thought about what really happened. I realize that this was not an isolated case of mistaken identity. It was way more than that. I have spent most of my life being judged by my appearance, particularly my hair. The question of hair and appearance has always been one constant, prickly thorn on my side. This particular incident, however, makes me realize that it is something that some people actually view—though of course absurdly and mistakenly—as having a connection with one’s mental status.
My extended family and relatives also shared this view. Are you a crazy person, an aunt or uncle would quip after pitifully looking at my curls. But what is more, the thought my hair was a purposeful attempt at flaunting social conventions about physical appearance and would never pass up an opportunity to voice their disapproval, doing everything short of a formal intervention to this end. The general Somali populace, majority of whom, I observed, do not shy away from verbally voicing their disapproval about anything and everything they do not like—and due to the Somalis’ sense of communal parenting—often try to convince me to go for the cleaner shave.
My father would plead with me to do the same, hoping that I would finally heed his counsel. He would offer money, but I would use the money every time. The next time he would see me, he would just give me a look of disappointment and utter resignation, and keep quiet.
Why don’t you just shave your hair? My mother would ask, just I arrived home for the holidays, before I even poured myself my first cup of tea. I like my hair this way, it is my style mom, I would respond. But you would look nicer with shorter hair, trust me, she would plead. Your hair is jareer, if it were soft, it would have been ok to grow it out, she would go on. I would just laugh and she would let it go, at least for some time. My mother’s preference for straight hair is something that is ingrained in Somali culture and existed even before the end of slavery in the 1900s. The physical appearance of the Somali had been influenced by their intermarriage with Arabs, Persians and the Oromo, who possess lighter skin, softer hair and were considered beautiful by Somalis. The derogatory term, jareer, was used to describe the former slaves from Central Africa who formed an underclass of the Somali society after the end of slavery. Somalis have historically considered kinky hair ugly, and since most Somalis have hair with softer texture that makes it easier comb and braid. They consider those with kinky hair as being racially inferior, and called them ,ooji or addoon. Slaves.
My stay at home during these breaks would be full of such awkward encounters that would make me feel out of place. Though I would often not shave by the time the uncomfortable holidays ended, my parents would hope that come the next holiday I would have miraculously grown up and would come home a good boy, their prodigal son truly returned, remorseful, hair gone, draped, as though an offering, in a shiny, overly pressed, creased beige kanzu. Finally home. But every time I came, it was as though I was the farthest place from home, as though I was lost. I understood that a hippie, a Bohemian can never feel at home in Northern Kenya.
But what was worse for me, more than the open expression of disapproval were the ‘quiet’ periods after—those periods where the only thing my parents could do was simply watch their son from a distance, utterly disappointed, helpless. My biggest source of anguish for me was my father’s dismay. The being ashamed of a child. A father’s failure as a parent. The sigh of hopeless resignation on his face. A parent relishes in the adulation of his offspring by others. A great source of a father’s pride is from the approval of his child, particularly his son, by other men. A traditionalist father’s disapproval of his son by his peers is a painful blow to the gut. On the flipside, a son’s great source of pride comes from the respect and admiration of his father. it is only natural, therefore, that I was hurt by my own father’s disappointment in me.
And for what? Just so I could so I could keep my head of hair, even though it turned his every sense of values and principles helplessly topsy turvy? Just so I could stubbornly be myself? But what about his sense of the self? What about my mother’s sense of the ideal self, my relatives’, and the community’s? Is my hair worth all that trouble, all the anguish, on my part and on theirs? And where is the line, if at all there is one, between a child’s need to forge his own identity and the parent’s—even the community’s—role in wanting the child’s sense of identity to be a certain preferred way? Can something seemingly so ‘trivial’ as hairstyle be so serious as to significantly shift one’s identity and moral perception in the eyes of others?
As a result of these concerns, over the years, I would sometimes bow to the pressure and shave my hair or reduce it significantly. I would become more obedient, more open-minded to the community’s monocultural expectations of my appearance and conform to the standards of grooming. One time when I gave in to the pressure and shaved my head clean as everyone wanted, I realised my entire appearance changed as a result.
One afternoon in 2013 I went to see my law-school friend Abdifatah around Garissa Nursing Home area after I just shaved clean. I put on a shiny, over-pressed, oversized maroon kanzu (which belonged to my father and because of his insistence as well as promise of his blessing and pride), a yellow sarong and some plastic slippers which were fashionable at the time. In keeping true to local fashion trends, I completed the look by having a natural, wooden toothbrush hang from the corner of my mouth, and by strategically placing my mobile phone on the inside of my kanzu’s left breast pocket, letting it hang nonchalantly, its weight pulling down the side of the kanzu. I seemed as though I was finally blending in- there were no bewildered stares from random people.
When I arrived at Garissa Nursing Home, the mid-afternoon sun unforgiving, my feet pale with dust, sweat dripping from my brow, I called my friend to let him know that I was standing right outside the front gate of the building. He said he was actually in the vicinity but that he could not see me. I told him I was right in front of the hospital gate, where some other people were standing. I saw him passing several times, generally scanning my direction, but he called again saying he could not see me. At one point, he looked in my direction, but did not make any indication that he had spotted me. I finally walked to where he was. For a good few seconds, he was unsure who he was talking to, and then he laughed, finally recognizing me.
Waryaa! War ma athigaa? He said, in his typical funny fashion. Is it truly you?
War haa, waa aniga. It was me, indeed.
He looked at me from head to toe, and laughed for a good few minutes. He had never seen me in a kanzu and macawiis before, or without long hair. After laughing, almost to the point of tears, he said: bro, don’t ever shave your hair. It felt as though that was the wisest advice anyone had ever given me.
But often, I would also go back to my old ways and grow my hair out. I would consider that I had a non-negotiable right to choose my appearance, that there was a link between my individual autonomy and human dignity. I felt that hair, as Chimamanda Adichie noted, is political: I felt that the society was forcing its choice of grooming practices—which to me was a political statement—on me.
But these days, my hair is getting slightly less in volume and I attempt to be a bit more well-groomed. Maybe it is due to the expectations of the legal profession which I am a part of. Or perhaps I am more mature now and I am warming up to the spirit of akhyaarnimo.
But I am still attached to my hair. I still go to Jamo, my barber in South C, several kilometers from where I live, because he knows that I favour a subtle trimming of the edges of my hair so as not to interfere with its shape. Unlike any other barber, Jamo knows the exact manner I want my hair to be trimmed. Though I do trust that he will not take away more than I am comfortable with, I still feel nervous entering that barbershop and still distrust any object taking away my hair.
Every time I sit on that chair, I still remember my mother’s shaving rituals when I was a child—I still feel the cold water running down my body. I still shiver.