I’m not sure how many times it took me before I realized that trying to cut my own bangs is a big mistake. I don’t know why I was ever in such a hurry to have my hair trimmed that I couldn’t schedule an appointment at the salon or even make a trip to Great Clips. But more than once I could be found leaning over the bathroom counter armed with scissors whimsically chopping away. For me, the outcome was always the same: too much exposed forehead and way too much time before I felt comfortable appearing in public. I’m happy to say that I am smart enough now to keep the scissors away from my hair, but today another spontaneous act left me wishing I had a bag to put over my head! Before I left the States for Africa, Rosie Garret had told me that one o f things her daughter Holly enjoys doing in Ethiopia is getting her hair washed. She told me that the Africans take so much time and care washing her hair that she sees it as a bit of a treat for herself. This conversation has been in the back of my mind since I arrived, but, until today, I hadn’t had the time or courage to try it for myself.
After three months of washing my hair one-handed (because the other hand is busy pouring the water from the pitcher) and a week of standing under trickling, semi-warm showers, I decided that today was the day I would treat myself to a hair washing in an African salon (or saloon, as they tend to call them here). As I had thought about having this done over the last couple of weeks, I had decided that the best thing to do when I went would be to take my own shampoo and conditioner. But, because I have been traveling for more than a week now and staying in places that do not provide either of these things, I had used the very last drops from my airport-security-approved-and-way-too-small bottles. So, regardless of the fact that I was empty handed, I headed towards the market to find a salon.
I walked past a small supermarket not too far from my hotel and continued on towards what I knew to be the main market area. I kept my eyes open for the telltale signs of a salon: a signpost with a picture of a woman, a store with barber-style chairs, or a shop crowded with women. I walked a couple of blocks with no success and finally decided to ask someone to point me in the right direction when I wandered into the woodcraft area of the market. I found a woman roasting some maize and inquired as to whether there was a ‘saloon’ nearby. She tilted her head to the side, giggled, and then asked “for your hair?” I affirmed by nodding and she gestured for me to follow her. “Come follow me, I will take you,” she said as she took off down the street.
As I followed her weaving in and out of parked cars and down side streets, I thought about how often during my time here in Africa people have done nice things like this for me and also whether or not I would have left my place of business to show a complete stranger the way to a salon. Within a few minute we were standing in front of a shop filled with chairs and mirrors on the wall. My guide said something to the woman seated inside, and they both laughed heartily. I smiled having heard the word “muzungu,” which means foreigner, and knowing they were getting a kick out of the American wanting her hair washed.
The beautician pointed to a chair, told me to sit and disappeared into the back room. I followed her instructions while thanking and saying goodbye to the woman who had led me there. When she returned, I asked to see the bottle of shampoo that she was going to use in hopes that I would somehow, magically, know what affect it would have on my hair. Unfortunately, she shook her head at me to inform me that she had no idea what I was saying. I shrugged to myself figuring it was too late now.
She came in and out of the back room a few times before finally telling me to “come.” I followed her into the wash room where she pointed to the water and said “cold” and then lifted her palms in the air while shaking her head and saying “hot.” I guessed that was her way of saying that there was no hot water; I discovered quickly enough that I was correct. I’ll tell you, though, hot water or not, there are few things more relaxing for me than having my hair washed.
She washed and rinsed my hair no less than three times! I closed my eyes and enjoyed every second of the 25 minutes she spent washing it. I especially cherished the fact that I could simply relax rather than having to make small talk, thanks to her limited understanding of English. After I felt her rinse out the last of the suds, she dried her hands and headed for the other room again.
When she returned she was carrying a white tub and was getting ready to dip her hand into it. I sat up slightly so that I could take a look at what was inside. The cream was thick, and I knew instantly that it was heavy-duty conditioner. All of my life hair dressers have told me how fine my hair is, and I have learned that the smallest dab of conditioner is enough. As she came at me with the heavy cream, I waved my hands in denial and shook my head. She looked at me strangely and then put the tub down and clicked her tongue, a gesture that I have come to know signifies disapproval. ‘A near miss’ I thought to myself.
I followed her out to the front room and sat in front of one of the mirrors. By this time a gentleman had come into the shop and was seated in the corner. As she reached into the drawer looking for a comb, I happily remembered that I had put my own comb in my bag. I handed it to her and she went to work on the tangled mess that was my hair. After a few minutes, she turned and said something to the man in the corner, putting down my comb in what seemed like defeat. They conversed back and forth for a minute, both gesturing to the row of bottles on the counter in front of me.
“You must pick one,” the man said to me, “so that she can treat your hair.” I knew that she would never get the comb through my hair without the help of at least a little conditioner, so I took a minute to study the bottles. I rejected the ones that said “Olive Oil” on the front of them and finally decided on one that claimed to be a leave-in-conditioner.
“Only a little, please,” I asked her emphatically and then tried to explain to the man that my hair really did not need much conditioner. “Okay, okay” she said as she filled her palm with the stuff. I took a deep breath and conceded, still hoping that she would at least keep the conditioner away from my scalp.
She didn’t. She rubbed the conditioner all through my hair and then filled her hand again. She started on one side of my head, combed a section of my hair, and then massaged the conditioner into my scalp. I knew that this much conditioner was going to cause trouble, but didn’t have the courage to ask her to stop. She continued combing and massaging until my entire head had been covered with the stuff. I was stuck somewhere between complete bliss from the much enjoyed scalp massage and complete fear that this stuff was going to eat through my hair and cause it to fall out.
I chuckled to myself a little, wondering what exactly I had gotten myself into. By this point, the man had started talking to me about America. He was telling me that he had always wanted to go and was asking if there was any way I could find him an American girlfriend. I was overjoyed when she pulled out the hairdryer, which put an end to our conversation.
She combed and dried and detangled for thirty minutes or so. As she did, the ends of my hair dried, but my roots continued to shine as if they were still wet. I wondered if it would be possible for her to dry it long enough to evaporate the oil, because I knew for a fact that my hair wasn’t coarse enough to soak it up.
Eventually, she put the dryer down and walked over to her purse. Again, she spoke to the man and then gave him some money out of her wallet. He was out the door quickly and she returned to the hairdryer. I have gotten fairly used to having no idea what people are saying and much of the time, no matter how hard I try, I’m pretty clueless as to what is happening. When she finally switched of the drier, I smiled and began to gather my things while thinking to myself, ‘This won’t be so bad. I’ll just have to pull it up in a ponytail so the oil on my scalp isn’t so obvious.’
But as I went to stand up, she put her hand on my shoulder and shook her head. “Wait,” she said.
The man returned a few minutes later and handed her a little bag. She unwrapped the contents to reveal a small tub full of a neon green gel-like stuff. She lifted the tub in her hand, smiled as if she was about to give me the best gift in the world, and turned the label so that I could see it: Hair Food.
Although I had no idea what in the world hair food was, I was certain that it was not going to help the greasiness of my hair in the least! Again she began the routine of parting, combing and massaging. The hair food caused my scalp to tingle slightly, which was quite refreshing, but watching my hair become more and more saturated in oil was pretty frightening. The worst part of the entire debacle was the moment it dawned on me that I had already checked out of my hotel room and that there would be no way to wash my hair before beginning my long journey home this evening! I was almost breathless.
I allowed myself to think for the shortest of moments that maybe, when she finished feeding my hair this certain-to-be-fattening-because-it-was-so-greasy food, she would take me back to shampoo it again. I knew there was no way she had any intention of doing this since she had already spent so much time drying it, but I allowed myself the comfort of hoping anyway.
When she had used more than a quarter of the tub of the neon stuff, she put it down and proceeded to style my hair. She combed all of it straight back and attempted to make my ends curl upward. To my surprise, even though my hair now falls far below my shoulder, she had put enough of that green stuff on to reach the ends of my hair, and it was so thick that it made my hair cooperate!
A few minutes later she set my comb down again, stepped back and smiled, indicating that she was finished.
I was horrified.
I paid her and began to formulate a plan as to how I was going to get myself out of this mess! I quickly walked to a little grocery store on the corner and prayed that I would be able to find shampoo that would be okay to use on my hair. I had no idea where I was going to use said shampoo, but I am a firm believer that with determination anything is possible.
I was elated when I found a bottle of Herbal Essence that claimed to be for all hair types. I chuckled to myself as I checked the tag before picking it up, remembering the outrageous price I had paid for some gum earlier this week. I kept my head down on the way to the checkout line, completely embarrassed by the mess on my head. I wasn’t about to make the 20 minute walk back to the hotel looking like I did, so I quickly found a motorbike taxi and asked him to take me. For the first time, as I climbed on the motorbike, I thought I would feel LESS ridiculous if I were wearing a helmet!
I had decided that when I arrived back at the hotel I would plead with the receptionist to let me quickly use a shower. I was trying to work out, however, how much I would be willing to pay if she required it. As my luck today would have it, there were more than five people standing around the desk when I arrived. I explained as quickly and as quietly as I could to the receptionist what had happened. She gave me a confused look and told me not to worry. “It just needs to dry,” she said.
I think my hair drying like this was my biggest fear! I was afraid that the stuff would soak into my hair too much, the greasiness would settle in for good and I would have to wait for it to grow out. Either that or my whole head would go up in flames if I got anywhere near a spark!
I tried to explain politely that because of the type of hair that I have this stuff could not be good on it. She sighed deeply and asked exactly what I wanted her to do. I reiterated that I just needed somewhere to wash it out: a shower, a sink, a hose, anything to wash it out so that I wouldn’t have to spend the next 48 hours flying halfway around the world trekking through airports looking like a greaseball! “We don’t have any shampoo,” she said. I assured her that I already had that covered. As she stood there and thought, I prayed silently, more than a little embarrassed to have to ask God to help me out of this situation.
Then, out of nowhere, I heard a man say “You can use my shower, it’s no problem.” I felt my face start to turn a little red; I had been hoping that no one else had heard me pleading with the receptionist. I turned around to see a man I had spoken to briefly this morning. Earlier, he had introduced himself and asked me if I was from America (as is pretty typical). When I explained that I am from America but have been staying in South Sudan, he concluded out loud that I must have been there looking for oil, which I thought was a very strange conclusion. I had corrected him and told him that I have been working with the church. He thanked me for my work, wished me safe travels home and we were both on our way. Now, as he was offering me the use of his shower, I felt like he was quite possibly, my knight in shining armor, or something like it.
The thought of going into someone else’s room to wash my hair felt a little awkward, but let’s face it, I was desperate. I followed him to his table, he handed me the room key, and I headed off towards his room as he sat back down. I took the stairs two at a time and laughed out loud at the thought of telling him that I had, indeed, found oil; more oil than I ever wanted to find again. I locked myself in the room and then locked myself in the bathroom. At this point I had the presence of mind to think that maybe, someday far in the future, I would want to remember exactly how awful my hair looked. I snapped a picture, but by no means will I be posting it with this blog! You all are just going to have to use your imaginations!
When I turned on the shower I was unhappily reminded of one of the reasons I had been so excited to get my hair washed in the first place: poor water pressure and very little hot water. I used a generous portion of shampoo and scrubbed, rinsed, and repeated. By the time I was finished, I was down to half a bottle of Herbal Essence. My hair smelled lovely, but the oil was still not completely gone. I wrapped my hair in a towel to soak up as much of the oil as possible; much like you use a napkin to soak the grease off the top of a piece of pepperoni pizza. I actually looked at the towel afterwards to see if it had done any good. The examination was inconclusive.
Now, I am sitting outside under the warm Ugandan sun, hoping against all hope that a few hours from now my hair will no longer look like its dripping wet and someday it will again move when the wind blows. I am also praying that this intended-to-be-relaxing-but-turned-out-quite-the-opposite trip to get my hair washed will not have long-term negative effects on my hair. And if it does, and in a week or so when you see me back in States and think to yourself “what is going on with her hair?”, I beg you to remember my fiasco and please keep your laughter to a minimum! Regardless of my hair, I can’t wait to see all of you!