South African Hair Affairs

Have you ever thought about just how preoccupied humans are when it comes to their hair? It can be a critical part of our identity. How often do you describe someone without saying word about his or her hair (or lack thereof)? “The redhead.” “The bald guy.” “You know, that girl with the long blond hair.” We even ascribe the overall tone of our day by it when we say we’re having “a bad hair day.”

Hair is nothing but a dead, fibrous protein called keratin. That’s the same stuff that makes up your fingernails, and even rhinos’ horns. It’s surprising that we put so much energy, time, emotion, and importance into this dead fiber.

We wash it, condition it, brush it, and blow-dry it. We cut it, and then we cut it some more or cut it differently. We color it, and then we scramble to color the roots as soon as they grow out. We highlight it to make some strands a lighter color and low light it to make some strands a darker color. We straighten it if it’s curly and curl it if it’s straight. And let’s not forget all the braiding, dreading, and extending we do to hair. To contrast all that, some people just shave it all off, which is as much of a fashion statement as all the other hair-dos.

I say, “we” when, in fact, some of us (including me) just neglect it. I wash my hair twice a week, don’t even own a brush, and only use one hair product—lots of conditioner (which I leave in). On the days when I don’t wash it, I do nothing ... absolutely nothing to it. I don’t color it or even have it professionally cut. I just trim it myself ... bent over in the shower with my hair in front of my face like “Cousin It” on the Addams Family. I haven’t even been to a hairdresser in over 20 years.

And maybe that’s why I pay so much attention to all the things that other people do to their hair that I don’t do.

Hair plays a significant role in the history of South Africa. During apartheid, the Population Registration Act of 1950 classified people as White, Black, or Coloured. But it wasn’t always so easy to place people in the proper category based on racial heritage alone. When there was a question about someone’s racial category, the South African authorities utilized “The Pencil Test.”


This test involved poking a pencil into the hair of the person of questionable race. If it got stuck, the person failed, and was labeled as “Coloured.” (Of course, Black people would fail, but they weren’t of questionable race.) If it fell out, he or she “passed” and was labeled as “White.” There were exceptions to the rule under certain conditions with qualifying evidence. These racial labels determined how many rights a person had. Whites had the most rights, followed by Coloureds. Blacks had the fewest.


An alternate version of the pencil test was available for Blacks who wished to be reclassified as Coloured. It was what I call “The Pencil Shake Test.” The Black who aspired to be classified as a Coloured person would stick a pencil in his or her hair and then test it with a shake of the head. If the pencil fell out, it constituted a passing grade and reclassification to Coloured was granted. If it stayed in place, it was a failure and the person remained Black.


From a genetic standpoint, hair is like any other phenotypic feature, such as eye color. And just as all family members don’t have the same eye color, they don’t all have the same hair texture. So, the pencil test resulted in tearing families apart because some family members had pencil-gripping hair and others didn’t.


And what if someone shaved his or her head and didn’t have hair with which to conduct the pencil test? What if someone’s hair was too short to even give the pencil test a try? South Africans remember the test as one of the most ridiculous and disturbing aspects of apartheid.


Here in Cape Town, I see all sorts of hair treatments that intrigue me. I think the vast majority of Black people alter their hair in some fashion. Some of them create absolute masterpieces. The intricacy looks like it took days to accomplish. I’ve seen heads with so many braids on them—long ones—that I estimate a weight increase of at least a kilo or more due to their hair alone. As a person with arthritis, I can only imagine how much that extra weight on my head would make my neck hurt.


I’ve also seen more people wearing wigs here than I have anywhere else. I wonder if they’ve damaged their hair so much with all the other treatments that there just isn’t any left. I guess they’re not fond of sporting the bald look like some people are.


I direct the normal allotment of attention most people dedicate to their hair to my nails, instead. It’s all keratin, just the same. And when I’m at the salon getting my pedicure and manicure, I stare at the activity in the part of the salon dedicated to hair. And there’s always plenty of activity in there!


One of my gym friends, Hilary, goes to the hair salon every other day. She says she’s never even washed her own hair! Philipe, the coiffeur does it. The salon is called Yemaya, and it offers a full spectrum of services—hair, facials, manicures, pedicures, make-up application, hair removal, and tanning. It’s in the same building as my gym—right across the street from our apartment. Since Hilary goes to the gym every day, it’s easy for her to stop by the salon almost every day.


What confuses me is that Hilary is White, really White. She has naturally blonde hair. And it appears to me that it would be quite easy to handle her hair. It’s thick and shiny and always looks perfect. But, with Yemaya Spa right there, why not stop by and let Philippe do it?


One of my other friends, Vanessa, is black. One day, I commented to her about my fascination with the hairstyles I see here. She looked at me, shook her head, and said, “Let me tell you something: Nothing ... I mean nothing ... gets in the way of a black woman having her hair done. The bills may go unpaid or they may have to cut back on groceries, but the hair is going to get done!”


“Really?” After a pause, I asked, “How much does it cost to get hair braided with all those little braids?”


“A lot! Hundreds of dollars, at least. Sometimes, it’s over a thousand.”


“U. S. dollars?”


“Yep. U.S. dollars.”


Shocked at this, my jaw dropped. “And how often do women have to do this?”


“Every few months. Can you imagine? What the hell!” (although, when she says this, it sounds like, “hay-ul”).


I reflected on my residency training in Obstetrics and Gynecology. The indigent patients we took care of used food stamps to buy junk food, and would spend what little money they had on cigarettes and lotto tickets. It always seemed to me like they had their priorities mixed up.


“What about the time commitment? How long does it take to get your hair braided like that?” I asked Vanessa.


“Hours. Sometimes, it takes a couple of days. And women just wear a wig until it’s finished.”


Always curious to learn more and focused on the consequences of various behaviors, I probed deeper: “But, what about damage to the hair? It just looks like it would ruin whatever little hair you do have by gluing long, heavy extensions to it and weaving it into tight little braids.”


Vanessa nodded. “It does. What the hay-ul! Sometimes you have to wait for it to grow out again before you can get it braided again.” Then she cocked her head, grinned, and said, “And would you believe that it is extremely painful?”


“Well, it does look like it feels heavy.”


“No, I mean painful!” She opened her eyes wide to emphasize the point. “Hay-ul! The hairdresser pulls on your hair to get the braids tight, to the point of making some women even cry or scream. And your scalp hurts so much for about three days that you can’t even lay your head on a pillow. If someone even touches your head in the day or two after getting it braided, it’s excruciating. And all black women know to take medicine to relieve the pain for a few days. I know. I’ve had it done before.”


“But not anymore!” I laughed. “Just think of all the money you’re saving and pain you’re missing!



Vanessa has had medical treatments that resulted in some hair loss, so she has just decided to capitalize on it by sporting the bald look. And she looks great! Her head is nice and round and really looks perfect without hair. Her husband is bald, also. They’re Americans who are living here in Cape Town for a year, and they send out regular newsletters with a joint name for the two of them. I think they should call themselves “(Round and Bald)2. ”


Recently, I’ve witnessed a couple of hair rituals that were new to me.


One day, I was crossing the street on my way home from the gym. (That constitutes the majority of my trek home from the gym since we live right across the street.) When I got to the other side and began walking the few steps to our front gate, I heard a woman making a ruckus on the other side of the street. She was hollering at someone in temper-tantrum fashion. Two women who work at the laundromat right below our apartment were standing just outside their doorway on the sidewalk, watching a possibly-deranged woman temper-tantrumming on the other side of the street. They were laughing at her. One kept saying, “Oh, whashe gonna do naw?” I got the feeling that they found her entertaining. Maybe they see her often and look forward to her antics.


Whatever the case, it was clear to me that they didn’t want to miss the show. They were watching her every move.


So, as I reached where they stood, laughing just next to our entry gate, I joined them and looked across the street.


There, on the other side, was a Black or Coloured woman (I’m not good at these labels and haven’t applied any pencil testing). She was wearing shorts (in the winter time). She stood on the sidewalk facing the wall of glass next to her, which was the front window of a restaurant named Knead. Specifically, she was looking into Knead. Only she wasn’t looking at the restaurant; she was looking at herself. She was using the window as a mirror.


She had set her floppy plastic bag on the pavement, and reached into it and withdrew a white rag. It looked a lot like a wet paper towel or a baby wipe. As she looked at the window-as-a-mirror, she used the rag to wash her face. Then she reached back into her bag, retrieved another rag, and proceeded to wipe it all over her head, washing ... or wetting ... or conditioning her hair. (I can only guess here. Who knows what she would call it.)


Then, she reached back into her bag, deposited the used rags and took out a clear plastic shower cap. She put it on her head over her now-washed and conditioned hair. The ladies on my side of the street were bending over, slapping themselves on the thighs, howling with laughter: “Oh, whashe gonna do naw? She gotta shaurcap on ‘er head! Haaaah!”


The lady grooming herself in the Knead window then reached into her bag and pulled out a bright yellow T-shirt. She held it up by its short sleeves and then placed it on her head. With this, the laundromat women cackled loudly. “Lookathat. She placin’ it onner head. Haaah!”


I’ve never been one to walk around with a camera or even with my cell phone. If I have it with me, it’s usually tucked away deep in my purse or cart.


But, seeing how interested the laundromat ladies were, and realizing that something fascinating was unfolding, I grabbed my iPhone just in time to (barely) take a few photos.

In a flash, the grooming lady grabbed the edges of her T-shirt, twisted it, and voilá, she’d formed it into a perfect headdress that looked like a tight-fitting scarf around her face and a colorful bun at the nape of her neck.

She took a final look at herself in the Knead window, bent down to pick up her bag, and headed down the street. She strutted away with a confident “I’ll-show-you-how-to-be-fashionable-without-all-the-fuss” gait.

So, despite all the dollars we spend on our hair, there is an inexpensive way to play the hair game. Just wipe some wet rags over your head and wear a T-shirt headdress!


The very next day, I was at Yemaya Salon for my nail appointment, watching for Hilary. I sat there chatting with Martha, my manicurist, when we heard crying from the hair salon area just steps away. They were obviously the cries of a child, and I assumed it was a baby crying over the typical things babies cry about—hunger, fatigue, etc. But the crying morphed into more mature wailing, and then I started to question my assumption about it being a baby’s cry.


“Someone’s really upset about something,” I said. “Maybe some woman hates her haircut!”


Martha shook her head, rolled her eyes, and said, “Who knows?”


And just then, the crying sounds headed our way.


We both looked up to see a mother with her two children approaching the area between the salon and the reception area. The older, bigger child of about 11 years was bald and quiet. But the younger, smaller child was howling.


As I looked at the crying child, I thought it was a girl of about five or six years of age. She was clawing at her mother, obviously very upset. The child’s hair was a big, loose Afro ... far from anything that looked like it had just been cut. And just behind the family came Antonio, the hairdresser.


Antonio is a swishy, adorable gay guy who wouldn’t hurt a flea. He’s always smiling and shows kindness to everyone he sees. He approached the child with a green blow dryer and proceeded to dry the Afro as the child remained standing and thrashing about.



I looked at Martha and said, “That little girl did not want her hair cut.”


“Actually, that’s a little boy,” Martha responded.


After five minutes of trying to dry the child’s round bush of hair, the family finally stepped toward the registration desk to pay. Antonio came toward us. As he got right next to us, I said, “Antonio, you’re a mean, mean man!”


Antonio raised both hands in a gesture of flamboyant surrender, let his neck flop to one side, and rolled his eyes. “They let the hair just grow and grow for months, without even touching it. No washin’, no brushin’, no nuthin. Then they want me to fix it. I try not to pull on it, but it’s just so mahhtted that I cahhn’t help but hit the tahhngles. I feel so bahhd.”


We chuckled and told Antonio he was the nicest guy the kid could have found. But what a traumatic experience for that little boy.


I looked at Martha, and we both laughed.


What we go through for our hair! What an affair! I think I’ll stick to my hair-neglect plan. I’m due for another manicure soon.





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