I received a mail today from a guy who happened upon my blog – always nice when that happens… Anyway, after the usual ‘niceties’ between bloggers, “Great blog! Keep it up!” etc., he directed me to his blog, which is actually a link to his book called The Year of No Money in Tokyo. My curiousity was peaked so I went to ‘visit’ the site. It’s got a lot of great photos he’s taken in Japan that appeal to the ‘kitsch’ in every westerner. I love the ‘lost in translation’ signs in Asia…
I also jumped around on the site and found a great post he had written, which was featured in the Washington Post, about his experience getting his first haircut in Tokyo. He is a black American guy and had avoided the barber shops for fear of the blank looks he’d get when he walked in. The complete lack of experience they would have with his type of hair, and the social awkwardness that would ensue. And it did…
I can totally relate. My hair has been subjected to a myriad of cultural ‘mishaps’ in Ghana. In fact, in hair terms, it could be called abuse.
First memory I have is back in my volunteer days – the days where I would try anything... I had happened upon a free hair treatment offer at a trade fair near my office. A local company that sells African hair products had set up a makeshift salon and was offering a variety of treatments. I decided I would be spontaneous and dye my hair.
I have had it dyed every colour in the book over the years, from nasty brass blond courtesy the 80’s fad spray, Sun-in, to black and accidentally green in my teen years (trying to mix permanent black dye with a temporary rinse that hadn’t been drastic enough), to pink (during my downtown Toronto punkish-steel-toe-boots-with-miniskirts phase), to every colour of highlights, from chunky blond to 6 colour tiger stripes…. SO, what harm could a box of free hair dye, applied by professionals do?
Bad question, worse answer. The first thing is that I got that blank stare when I entered the little flimsy walled salon (however to be precise, it was a saloon- all hair salons in Ghana are called saloons… bring to mind some bar in the wild west with swinging doors! But I digress) –the blank stares from the hair technicians and the chattering ladies in the seats. I know what went through all of their minds, “An obruni?! (the local Twi term for white person or foreigner). Obruni hair is different. It’s like straw! What would she want us to do to it?!”. In retrospect I should have followed their instincts… and turned right back around. But I am stubborn and was determined.
I piped up and shoved my way to the front of the loosely formed queue. I chose my box of dye from the shelf – it showed a confident African American lady, with a relaxed smile and very short, tightly curled golden blond hair.
The hair colour made a nice contrast with her toasty brown complexion. And then there is me. Dark brown hair. Long, straight. Somewhat pale skin (some say olive complexion, but my high school science teacher was convinced I had yellow jaundice due to the yellow undertones in my skin). Basically blond hair would not compliment my complexion. The chances were it would make me look sullen and ill, but as I mentioned, I am stubborn and was now fully determined.
The lady sat me down and a small crowd formed to watch her section my long, bone straight brown locks and lather with the strong smelling dye. Though she pulled my hair in the most awkward way and tangled it beyond recognition, she managed to sauce it all up and then tied a plastic bag around my head. In the busy salon I was promptly forgotten. I sat observing the activity around me. Sweat trickled down my scalp and the itching was intense, but I feared touching my head, thinking it might squish the toxic dye out around the corners of the plastic and scorch my neck or ears or even blind myself. So I sat patiently and waited. And waited.
And time escaped me, and eventually many of the women who had been in the salon when I arrived had left and a new set of chattering bodies filled the space around me. I was gripped with panic. I knew they had forgotten me and that the dye had been left in too long.
I frantically pointed to my head and said “excuse me” to the general area where the technicians buzzed about. One of them looked at me. I saw surprise and fear pass briefly across her face. She had realized exactly what I had realized. The obruni!! We forgot about the obruni!
They all whisked me over to the sinks and spoke in hushed Twi, one of the local languages that I am semi proficient in…I heard enough to know they were worried.
They washed and rinsed and gasped. They literally gasped!
I forced my torso upward like a rocket, pushing against their hands that fought against me. I caught a glimpse of myself and also gasped.
My wet hair was white. Bright, milk white with a yellowish tobacco stained hue to it. It glowed.
No one knew what to do. But in true Ghanaian spirit, the same enthusiasm that can convince you a shoe fits you when your heel is hanging an inch off the back, they tried to console me.
“Madame, it looks nice! It will be ok.”
I was incredulous and sick to my stomach. “NO! You have to fix it! I have to give a presentation tomorrow!” (and that was true).
They explained that there was nothing they could do for at least two weeks as my hair was now very weak and might all fall out if they tried to dye over it.
I was weak in the knees and just stood up and walked out the door, back toward my office. EVERYONE stared at me.
On the way, through my tears, one man approached me. “Are you albino or a white?” he asked, genuinely curious and definitely not shy. I just kept walking.
When I got to the office the gasping continued. My boss took me aside. “What happened? What have they done to you?!”. I broke into tears. (Tears do not go over well in Ghana unless someone has died.). Everyone was awkward. My boss started shouting about these stupid, uneducated, inexperienced girls…and she demanded we walk straight back there and force them to fix it.
My other colleagues came up and touched my hair. Many laughed, most shook their heads and commiserated with me. I just wanted to disappear. I wanted my mommy, I wanted to start the day over and not have decided to be bold and spontaneous…
My boss was a very powerful Ghanaian woman. Standing 6 feet tall with an unforgiving stare and steel eyes, you never wanted to be on her bad side. She dragged me back up to the salon and through the crowds, who parted and whispered, and she presented me like something the cat dragged in. She laid into them all, pointing at the disaster they had created. Their comeback was priceless:
“But madam! The obruni! Her hair is different! She insisted we use the product on her hair but it is not meant for her! The hair is weak and soft! It’s not our fault!” and the others all nodded in sympathy. And the all looked at me as if I could explain. How dare I try and circumvent nature? Be something I wasn’t…
I wanted to disappear.
Eventually one of the women begrudgingly agreed to dye it over with a midbrown, but her disclaimer was shouted to all the witnesses in the room. “If her hair falls out, it’s not my fault.”
The next fifteen minutes of dye time was carefully measured, but took a few slow hours, while my stress levels reached a crescendo – convinced I would be bald…
My hair did not fall out, though it remained a strange, tye dyed reddish colour for weeks and I feared even brushing it as it felt like powder that could blow away at the slightest tug…
Sadly this is not the end of my hair nightmares in Ghana. It takes a lot to tame a stubborn girl and many more cultural faux pas before I gave up on the cross cultural hair adventures…
To be continued….