I went for a hair shaving today. Grace knew an expert and told Sam the directions. Leaving her house I was uneasy. I felt like we were being sent into a strange world. Neither Sam or I knew who or what this expert was going to be. This was the only time I have ever hesitated with Grace.
Reaching the shop it didn’t sit well. This was a beauty salon, not a barbershop. Fortunately the expert was out; she was at a funeral. Had she been in I would have been forced to sit like a carnival exhibit. The ladies in the shop had already given many glances my way suggesting this was not the place big white men should wander.
Sam knew of another shop so we headed off. Walking into this shop it was much of the same only a little less high end and there were two men working there. All of the clients gave the same look as the other shop, but the stylists started a conversation with Sam. They knew where I should go; I should go see Peter.
Sam knew Peter and was excited to find out he too was an expert in cutting white people’s hair. “You see it’s easy for us. They just shave it off. But with you it’s more complicated.” Being a hairdresser’s son I thought, you don’t know the half of it.
It turns out Peter was more than ready for the challenge my hair had become after three months without a trim, let alone a cut. I kept hearing him say “hair shaving” in my head as Peter started working. He started as he should with the sides and then the back. With this done his rate of speed dropped dramatically. It was now left with the top and I could tell by his technique that “expert” may be a bit of a stretch. So I turned to Peter and said, “lets just take it all down.” With that we were back at normal speed and confidence.
As Peter lowered my ears Sam chatted him up with gossip and helped himself to their razors to trim his aspiring goatee. “Florence,” he said, “she works next door.” I knew Florence was a hairdresser and that she worked in this general location, but I was surprised and amused to think she was just next door. Florence and Chimwemwe have proved the real hold outs in the youth choir. Almost all the others have come to Rev. Hara’s house to apologize. Anthony hasn’t, but I don’t think that will last; Lusaka came with two others to apologize but had to take a call before the apologizing started. Florence and Chimwemwe, though, flat out refused.
“She ran off when she saw us coming,” Sam said. I guess Florence has a habit of running when things get dicey. The image is both funny and sad. “I went next door and asked about her and they said she just left. She knew we were here.”
With my hair ready to pass boot camp inspection, I gave Peter a generous tip and told him he was indeed an expert.
After lunch Sam and I came back to Peter’s shop with my camera. I wanted a picture of Peter. It was a moment to remember. With the picture done, Florence appeared. She said hello and shook my hand. “I thought I saw you before,” she said. “Are there a lot of mzungu that get their hair cut here?”, I asked. She laughed. “Have you spoken with Rev. Hara?” “Yah, three days ago.” With a little more awkward chitchat done I thanked her and walked away.
Later in the day I spoke with Rev. Hara to see if what Florence said was true. It was not. That was my suspicion, or my expectation. Yet, I still don’t understand it. How can truth be so fluid in such a small place? I mean I can’t even get my hair cut in a town of a quarter of million folks without running into one of the fifteen choir members. What sort of world is this that no one believes anyone can just not tell the truth? I would expect truth telling to be tantamount here.
In a moment like this I feel like quite a novice, quite a beginner. I have experienced lies before. Seen people lie to themselves and others. And I know the words of Shakespeare, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive. Standing outside of the “hair shaving” shops I felt the dizziness and disorientation a fly must feel in an intricate web.
Extreme Dambo Makeover Edition
I felt like I was in a strange version of extreme home makeover.
I loaded up the ambulance with Kathy, Laura, Zoe, Sam and Rev. Hara and we headed for the dambo. Our purpose was to visit all the houses that received new roofs thanks to the Widow’s Fund and Mark Purcell. We visited six houses altogether and each one had it own surreal quality.
The first house was a kind of showcase. It turns out the widows fund built the whole house. When we arrived the widow came and hugged everyone and there was a lot of “tawonga chomeni” (thank you, thank you so much). We toured the house and thought it was quite nice compared to the other houses we had visited. (Later we would come to find out this widow was the victim of greedy in laws and had lived on a different social level before this. It showed.)
As we were leaving the first house Laura said, “does she have bed nets?” I was not used to offering things, leaving this in the hands of the Malawians it never occurred to me. Of course they didn’t. I asked the widow if she and her six children would use them she said yes. So Kathy got out her small notepad and wrote six bed nets.
At the next house we could see that the house, while improved with the roof was still a bit on the rough side. There were no windows, the chambuzi was a scary sight, and the gaps below the roof were sometimes a foot deep. “What would it take to finish this house?,” I asked Sam. He spoke to the widow: bricks for the gaps and glass for the windows. We tossed in bed nets and a concrete slap for the chambuzi. I handed her 1,000 kwatcha to start her on the purchase of glass for the windows and this was a nice moment.
At the third house we found out that bed nets would be a bit of problem as she and her four grandchildren don’t have any beds. They sleep on the dirt floor. How much are beds? We found this question coming up again in the next three houses. In the last one the widow was willing to forego a bed if she could just have a blanket. (Weeping here is fine.)
The fourth house was when the whole extreme hovel makeover took hold. When I found out she didn’t have a chambuzi, that she just went in the bushes, something just snapped. “If we built a chambuzi,” I said, “where would she want it?” Sam liked this question. After we handed her 500 kwatcha for bricks and mortar and labor to fill the gaps beneath the roof Sam said, “after you leave she is going to dance then cry.”
When we were at the next house, which was literally the next house, we could hear shouting. We looked back and the widow was indeed dancing. Then she did something I have never really gotten used to: she rolled on the ground at our feet. This is a Tonga custom to express extreme gratitude. It is definitely extreme.
The last house a safety code nightmare. It was small, not just in terms of square feet, but also in proportion. The doorframe couldn’t have been more than five feet high. The widow wasn’t much more than four feet and her grandchildren were all small so this was not a problem for them. Here too we tried to find out what it would take to finish off the houses to get them a moment where the widows felt done. I don’t think we provided more than $100 to each, but it was as if it were $100,000.
The roof for each house cost about $500 so our “finishing” touches were nowhere near as substantial. But there was something in the flourish, the lottery win, the dream. Sometimes when I have watched our version of extreme home makeover the extravagance is a bit much. Yet, with our widows today I felt like extravagance was the point. It was supposed to be big moment.
It is a sobering moment, though, when a blanket is a really big moment and a bed is just too much to even hope for.