Hair! A Barbershop Blog

Gus Ruchman - Senegal


November 12, 2010

So, it was not quite a barbershop. It was more of a decrepit barber-shack on the side of the road, huddled among the other barely-standing, hand-built structures under which people house their livelihoods, selling fruit by the kilo and plastic bags full of sugar to saturate morning coffee and the grotesquely sweet third cup of àttaaya, the Senegalese tea that for some aficionados might as well be consumed perpetually through an intravenous drip.

I had to hunch over to enter the hair-box, which is probably the most applicable term for the venue, and was greeted with a look of surprise from the barber, who was probably a few years older than I am, and the girl passing her day by his side. Some rapid Wolof was fired in my direction, and I looked at Mohammed, my eleven-year-old host brother who had led me there, for support. Finding none, I did the only sensible thing, which was to smile, respond with my own brief greeting, and sit down in the chair, which groaned like a grumpy teenager being woken early for a cappella rehearsal on a cold, dark Monday in the doldrums of January.

More Wolof ensued, none of which I understood. “Ahem, um, erm, dégg uma. Man dégg naa Wolof tuuti rekk.” The splintered wall was lined with faded photographs of hairstyles exhibiting only the slightest variation. The overarching pattern was clear: anything other than entirely buzzed was out of the question. I am fairly certain that they did not own scissors, rather, only true implements of destruction filled their arsenal for the speedy annihilation of hair.

For the briefest of moments, as I did my priceless rendition of “blank-look-and-uhhhh,” I pondered how to phrase what inevitably would be my famous last words. I wanted my auspicious thoughts to resound, bold and eloquent, in the visage of such noteworthy circumstances. “J’ai beaucoup de chevaux, mai je voudrais avoir un peu.” “I have a lot of hair,” I stammered in poorly phrased French, “I would like to have a little bit,” and made a scissor motion on the overgrown garden on my head. Write it in the history books, folks.

As my Senegalese peer, like a lumberjack or a gladiator, felled the first foe with one swift stroke, I had a minor heart palpitation, realizing that there was no turning back (unless I wanted a really special haircut). I committed to the full jarhead electric-razor trim, as well as a single-blade shave of my face and neck, which felt like a match lit by a swarm of hornets but was somehow cathartic once I understood that I had indeed survived. The answer to the question you are wondering is 400 CFA, or juroom-ñetti fukki dërëm in Wolof, a grand total of just under 90 cents for the complete package.

“Whoah,” was my yaay’s wide-eyed reaction when I reappeared at the door. My new host family in Sangalkam could not understand why I kept asking where I could get my hair cut. “Il fait chaud,” or “it is hot,” was the best explanation I could give, and that is true among others. One reason I did not give was that it would be a little way of reassuring my worried mother in the US that, despite everything I am dealing with, my hair is cut and clean and the issue will not need to be addressed for at least a couple of months.

Finally, this fashion saga was as philosophical as it was practical. Since arriving in the village I have felt psychologically vulnerable, an emotion I have fought unyieldingly within myself. On Sunday I welcomed nangu, the verb for accepting whatever is given or at hand, by voluntarily shedding the few remaining vestiges of my rusted, dented armor. Now I can quite literally feel the breeze dancing around my head, and it flows with the cool whirl of liberation.

I am still not ready to face it all. But I am a little more ready than I was before.

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Stay tuned for more serious posts to come. I need some time process before I can put any honest observations into words. Until then, enjoy the photos.

Gus Ruchman