Chapter 4: A Whole Lotta Ouchie-Wow-Wow
This is the fourth chapter of Sanni and my journey to Lagos, Nigeria. These words are my interpretation only and shouldn’t be taken as anything but my observations of a foreign land that has done everything it can to accept me and I it.
Take a look down at your keyboard and mouse. Take your left hand – or whichever one is not on the mouse – and glide your fingertips through your hair. If you’re bald leg hair will do. If you don’t have leg hair then find a hairy part of your body. If you’re completely 100% without hair, you’re a wonderful kind of freak and need to find a hairy friend/pet for this exercise (fair warning, they’ll probably hate you for a while).
Right, so, here you are with your left hand. It’s gliding over your head. It’s a calming feeling. Feels soooo good, right? Now locate a small tuft of hair above your ear, no more than about ten strands and pull on it. Don’t be soft. I mean really pull it. Hurts, right?
Now, don’t let go. Don’t soften the tug. I mean it. Until the end of reading this post, do not let go.
That small pain you’re feeling now is only one-millionth of the pain I felt when I got my bra-strap-length, thick, luscious locks braided.
You just let go of your hair, didn’t you? Ha.
I arrived at 9.30am but of course my sister-in-law and her seven apprentices (probably more like four but a few neighbourhood girls joined braiding the oyinbo’s hair) didn’t actually start braiding until 10.30am. Apprenticeships here are something people pay to do. They’re not jobs you get paid to do, rather you pay to do the work. Employers, like Mummy Malik, will school the girls in all the different styles, train them as you would expect from an apprenticeship, but they’re working and paying for it themselves. The privilege of learning from the best.
Mummy Malik – women lose their names after they give birth, they become Mummy XYZ, it can be any child’s name but it is usually the first-born’s – began with a tiny part of my hair above my right ear. The soft tender skin pulled taught as she wound the first strands of hair extension around, her deft fingers weaving the braid in with my hair. I felt the pull and the sharp stinging pain.
After half an hour and about five braids, I am already tired. I have a lot of hair and begin to question if I really want this. I have, well before I met Sanni, wanted my hair braided. It’s the only hair style I haven’t tried. I’ve been skin-bald. I’ve had a #1. I’ve had every colour. I’ve had dreads. I’ve even tried a perm that became, almost immediately, an afro due to the high humidity of Northern Queensland where I was living at the time. I’ve had all lengths, the longest down to my backside when I was a child, but never braids.
I was adamant that the style I wanted was close, tight, tiny braids so that my white scalp wouldn’t shine through. I do not think there is anything worse than a western woman trying to look like an African. There are simply some hair styles that western women shouldn’t try and braids, especially cornrows and fat braids are among those on the hell-no list. Mummy Malik knew the style I was going for so she braided each one very close to each other, taking only a few strands of my hair at any one time.
I made the mental decision that I would go through with it. If only once in my lifetime. And would lyelye (never) do it again.
Sanni and my niece and friend, Adeola, assisted me to explain in greater detail the colours I wanted threaded throughout, not just block braids of blue, pink, green, purple and white but also mixed with the brown that they had blended for me. There were no extensions that matched the brown tone of my hair, all of it was either too dark or too light so they took small amounts of dark brown, blonde and deep red and mixed them together. It was an interesting process of pulling the extensions apart and folding the colours back in on themselves in a fluid, repetitive motion.
Mummy Malik started the braids. She would braid a third of the length before one of the other girls would take over with yet another one holding it against my head so it didn’t pull my scalp. She was just above my eye when I asked whether another girl was skilled enough to start on another section. Mummy Malik wanted to ensure the best possible job was done but I realised quickly that we’d be there until dawn the next day if she was allowed to continue on her own. It took some general questions about who was the most senior girl and suggesting she start at the back before Mummy Malik relinquished her control.
I had refused to get out of the chair. Hours went by. The tugging of my hair, the braids falling across my face, the aching of my back all melded into the thoughts flowing through my mind. ‘Just get through this, just get through this,’ I kept saying to myself over and over. With every ‘ouch’ came a chorus of ‘sorry’ from each of the girls.
When someone says sorry, it is not only because they are sorry they’ve caused you harm but they are sorry you are feeling something bad. In other situations, like when I was sick with the Harmattan Cold or had diarrhoea for a week, people would say sorry. They didn’t do anything wrong, they were simply sorry I was uncomfortable. If someone hurts themselves, you say sorry because you are being empathetic to their pain, somehow you share that pain. I think it’s lovely.
Finally the pain was becoming too much. I asked Sanni, who would pop in and check on me every now and again, to get me food. I asked Adeola for paracetamol.
Sanni returned with these awful sausage roll things that were the only thing I could’ve eaten (eating here is a pain in the backside – literally!). I ate. They kept working. I drank water and took the pills. They kept working. I tried to read my book, even though I had braids covering my face the whole time. They kept working.
I felt the effects of the four tablets begin to make me sleepy. A strange, opaque, dopey sleep, still awake and still in pain but able to now withstand the sharp stings of my knotted hair getting pulled without a brush or comb and the tugging of yet another braid getting started. My head would roll and rest on the closest person’s stomach, my shoulders slumped with my hands resting on my lap or gently hugging the legs of the owner of the stomach-pillow, usually Adeola’s as she softly sang choir songs in my ear.
As it was when I sat for hours getting my tattoos, I decided to meditate. I pictured a candle in my solar plexus. I concentrated on the flicker of the light, how it danced with the movement of my body. I didn’t think about how that movement was caused by my head getting pulled, I only felt the dance. I was lulled into a peaceful place inside myself. I told myself to go within, that whatever was happening outside of me was not a part of this inner world.
And like this the day continued. A sharp pain, too strong for me to ignore would invariably jolt me awake and make me keenly aware of the stabbing pain all over my head. Everything felt grossly over-sensitive. Even areas of my scalp they’d not commenced. I stood abruptly. “I need a break,” I announced. “Mummy Malik, which bathroom can I use?” I didn’t really need to go, but I needed to escape the heat of eight bodies surrounding mine.
I get claustrophobia in large crowds so this took a lot of self-control and breathing to keep me from freaking out. It helped that I had braids covering my face. They shielded me from the outside world. I kept asking Adeola if there were people in the room that didn’t need to be there. People would come in and just stand around me. Curious gawking.
One lady started taking photos before I put my hand up and said no. I told her, and it was carefully translated, that she had not asked to take my photo. “I am not an animal in the zoo,” I told her. She was suitably embarrassed and apologised. Adeola explained that she wanted to show me off to her friends. I said that it was normal for me. That kind of thing happens all the time, to not ask though was an inappropriateness I wasn’t going to put up with when I was already feeling vulnerable. In the end, I let her take the photos because I knew that to not allow it would ultimately cause whispers around the community that would affect Mummy Malik’s reputation.
I have to be careful about everything I do and everything I say because I am constantly being observed as an example of Western character. Forget that everyone is different and all behaviour is unique to the individual, here I am the only example many people will ever get in their lifetimes of a Western person. So each ouchie-wow-wow (code for Dear-Holy-Mother-of-Fkn-God-That-Hurt) was carefully tempered and controlled. Each knot of my own hair they pulled on was carefully taken from their hands so I could slowly, delicately finger comb it out. Each over-pull was delicately pulled back in. All to protect this careful image of a Western person’s behaviour.
Western people are not as strong as Africans. I mean that quite literally. Mentally and physically we are weaker. Africans can withstand a lot more punishment and never, not once, utter a complaint. But Westerners, we’ll complain if the slightest thing isn’t to our liking. It is the reason you let go of the tuft of your hair at the beginning of this post. We might decide to put up with it, but, and here’s the biggest differentiation, African’s don’t need to make the decision to put up with it. It simply is so they deal with it.
And so I did everything I could to deal with it. It took a total of ten hours to finish and twelve paracetamol.
Two days later and I was still in pain. Sanni’s eldest sister inspected the braids above my right ear, the first ones completed to find they were far too tight – even for an African – so she took them out and applied hot water on a towel to my scalp to relieve some of the pain. Afterwards, Sanni simply cut those strands of hair off. It’s funny how something so small and insignificant can cause so much discomfort. My niece, Ruka, then wove cotton thread around bundles of the hair and soaked each in boiling water to produce a beautiful curl to the length.
To be honest, prior to getting it curled, I hated looking in the mirror. I felt so different. I felt ugly. Fearing the wannabe African look was a reality. Everyone has told me that it looks really good and that it suits me. These compliments haven’t been enough to convince me though. This is a normal appearance for them. We all want to be accepted for how we appear (whether we admit it or not) and my tribe isn’t here. It’s a lonely confidence I feel when I say, “feck it, life’s a game. Let’s play!” Even if I’m playing on my own. With the new curls and reduced pain I am beginning to accept my new beautiful appearance. It’s unique. It’s an African’s Queen.
Oh, and friend, if you’re one of the rare few still holding your hair, it must be hurting a lot by now. Sorry. You can let go, thanks for sticking with me.
Stay tuned for Chapter 4: Fields of Dreams
Photos are in the Gallery. Go, see, play. It’s chaotic there.
Got a question to ask or a comment to share? A request?
So far you’ve asked me to:
- Dress in traditional clothing and eat local food – COMPLETE – See the gallery
- Francesco & Kristini: Send a post card home (still haven’t seen a post card or even a post office yet)
- Meg: Bring home traditional and modern Yoruba music – COMPLETE
- NEW! Mages: bring something (an object, a photo, a video, a song, etc.) that represents the essence of the journey. (I’m pondering…)
What else would you like guys? Let me know below.