Barber Shop Chronicles / 12 January / Ghana
On the 7th of December, I left London to travel through SubSaharan Africa for six week researching a play about barber shops. The project is supported by The Binks Trust, The British Council and Fuel Theatre Limited. This is the sixth, the last of six journey-logs.
Barber Shop Chronicles / 12 January / Ghana
The Sunday I arrive in Ghana, I spend with a friend’s mother. Aunty Mary is her name and she reminds me of my own mother. There is her endless generosity, her fireplace-warmth, the glowing pride she has of her son and her faith in Christianity. Aunty Mary ensures I am fed as though food is her only form of communication and she has novels to tell. When I am done with the plate of rice, I fall to sleep in the dizzying afternoon heat, exhausted from the gauntlet that was getting out of Nigeria. Hours later, early in the eve, when the sun is dozing on the horizon and a light breeze is cooling its day’s work, Aunty Mary suggests we go to the beach and my first introduction to Ghana is this ten minute drive through her neighbourhood, past local salons, large churches, wooden restaurants on the beach front and the beach itself: the couples and families chasing each other where the waves meet the shore, the roasted meat and sausages sold by food hawkers, the eight year old boy selling horse-rides on the brown stallion tied to his waist, and Ghana’s gentle, far saner pace of African life.
The following day, 13th of Jan, I wake early and go out to visit the neighbourhood on foot. It is a small, tight-knit community where I imagine everyone knows everyone else’s business. Opposite Aunty Mary’s house, a church, the third on the unpaved rocky road is being built. At the bottom there are two shops opposite each other selling identical wares. A beautiful puppy thrashes through the rubbish heap, nearby a dozen chicks bully three kittens in the short grass as the mother hen clucks proudly. On the opposite end, there is a salon and opposite that, a barber shop.
When I return, Ebo who runs a business for Aunty Mary asks if I’d like to accompany him on his morning errands which involves visiting a church Aunt Mary is building. I jump in the taxi and minutes later, we are stood before a large but unpainted concrete structure. Inside there is a high-tech sound booth and podium for the preacher, a broad stage with a large blue curtain, a lot of natural light and large windows for cross-ventilation. It can easily seat three thousand people. There is a primary school attached to the church, plans for a secondary school being drawn up and a small tuck shop behind. Ebo explains about the financial ecosystems built around the church, those it employs, the lives it supports, how vital it has become to this community, how some sundays, so many people come they have to set up a canopy and a cinema screen relaying the service to those outside. We talk more about construction and Ebo reiterates one of stories I have heard throughout the trip; that Chinese companies are winning all the construction contracts, that they are cheaper than their rivals (German companies for instance) but there is a streak of shoddy workmanship in their wake. Ebo, as many other have, complains about work being outsourced to foreign companies when there are Ghanians, Africans, untrained and without work. Why won’t the government invest in the people?
Nii Ayikwei-Parkes, friend and unofficial life-long mentor of mine, comes to collect me from Aunty Mary’s place. The first time I ever shared work that I had written was at an event Nii was running in a tiny cafe back in London in 2003. At the end of the night, Nii called me aside to say he liked what I read, that I had something, that I should come back the following month. Nii Parkes changed my whole life. Sometimes, I think he saved it. As we drive through the streets of Accra, I hold down the urge to thank him for this. Instead I ask about what he’d been up to. Nii moved back to Ghana six months ago to save some money and to write. We pick up his children from school and I am shocked at how much they have grown. The son, code-named ‘SonDude’ and the year old daughter codenamed ‘LittleMissDaughter’ sit in the back staring wide-eyed at the stranger that I am to them. LittleMissDaughter says nothing to me, though there is a wry smile and curiosity in her eyes. SonDude doesn’t miss a beat. He is two years old with a vocabulary well beyond his years. He asks impatiently ‘Why are you sitting in Daddy’s car?’ and I reply ‘Because Daddy says I can’.
At home, Nii’s wife code named ‘MissMissus’ shows me around the beautiful house in the North Kaneshie area of Accra. Later that afternoon, SonDude further shocks me with his vocabulary. I am talking to LittleMissDaughter who is five, SonDude taps me on my arm ‘Uncle… equilibrate’ he says pointing to two cups perfectly balanced one atop the other. I look at MissMissus, dragging my jaw up from the table and she smiles saying now and then they teach the kids big words, but they pick up stuff on their own, play with meanings and find things to attach them to. Over the week I fall completely in love with the kids. I nickname SonDude ‘SchoolBoyDude’ after an upcoming rapper, he calls me ‘CoolUncleInua’ winning a lifetime of brownie points. LittleMissDaughter and I engage in intense discussion about Christmas, Christ’s real birthdate and the history of the holiday celebration. She shows me the garden growing in the back and SonDude wants piggy-backs for as long as possible. At night we read books together.
There are two barber shops either end of Nii’s street and we visit them that Monday evening. The one at the top is a set designer’s dream and after checking with the barber I take many photographs to be used as references. It is blue, the windows have red-rust iron bars on the outside and there is a forecourt of crazy paving and chairs where clients sometimes wait before a cut. The barber tells me he does not get that many clients during the week, that it is unpredictable and I should return from Thursday onwards.
The next day, I slip into Nii’s work-schedule: the school run in the mornings, drop the kids off at 7:15, work in the library till 1pm, lunch, pick up the kids, family time and as soon as they are in bed, back to work. The schedule is perfect. I catch up on a lot of work before ten o’clock - comparing Nigeria’s pidgin English to Ghana’s and typing up a few scenes. The following day, Wednesday 15th of Jan, we visit the best bookshop in downtown Accra, the manager talks to Nii as one might a financial adviser and he suggests other ways to generate income using the large space. Before this we’d bumped into a friend (who Nii suspects, given his name and background, is a distant relative) and we have a roving but fascinating discussion which begins when I explain about my project. We talk about dreadlock cultures in West Africa, sex-tourism in Ghana, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, secularism in Liberia, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which predates the Greek Orthodox Church, Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule, his spiritual and blood ties to the Ethiopian church and why he is so revered by Rastafarians. It moves on to how the class system in Ethiopia is closer to the caste system in India - that is it is more about culture than it is about race or skin colour. Nii’s friend describes similarities between creole languages spoken in South Carolina (who knew!) and Sierra Leone’s Krio, how borders never mattered to Africans. Nii talks of a man he met at London’s School of Oriental and Africa Studies who spent nine years in Mexico working on a Swahili/Spanish dictionary in an attempt to cut out the English-language-dictionary-middle-men that he kept translating through. It isn’t 10am yet and I feel as if I have travelled the world.
Back at Nii’s I try to write as much of the conversation down, to detail its sway and nuance, but something I’d eaten, something of the Ghanaian cuisine disagrees with my system and I am too bloated to write comfortably. It worsens over the next few days; nights spent confessing sins for respite from the discomfort, and when that fails, entirely loosing my religion. The pain abates a little on Friday afternoon and I go to meet the barber and spend the evening there. However, in the six hours that pass he has no customers save two. We spend the first hour playing a football video game before those customers arrive. I play as Manchester United, he as Barcelona. His English isn’t great, but he speaks perfect Playstation and guides me through the controls of the game. We talk through football. He could beat me easily but holds back asking me to catch up, to chase him for the ball, how to slide-tackle so I better learn the controls of the game. He is patient. He shows that by depressing the button and with directional controls, I can give long passes and short passes and take precise shots. He pays attention to detail. When I score two goals and I am suddenly ahead, he scores three immediately. He is a master.
The first client that comes is a Nigerian. He says he started coming to this shop after he wandered in and saw how patient, precise and masterfully the barber cuts. He goes on to discuss his views on the laws to do with homosexuality recently passed in Nigeria, arguing that the president responded to the views of his people and the culture of the land; we should hold our culture responsible not the government. The second is an older man whose broad smile is only matched by his knowledge of the continent. I ask about his travels and he has visited 30 of the 53 countries in Africa. He talks mostly though about his wife, she was his first girlfriend, he her first boyfriend. They had dated for 25 years before getting married 15 years ago. A 40 year relationship, three boys, one girl, still going strong. When he leaves, I ask the barber for a cut and rather than using clippers he cuts me with a razor blade, one hand gently turning my head, the other scraping at my scalp. I reach for my wallet to pay the 4 Cedis price tag, but he shakes his head vigorously. Of the six week research trip, this is the first free haircut I have received. I thank him, promise to return the following day.
On Saturday, I buy fresh mangoes and oranges, ask the lady selling them on the roadside to peel and dice them for the barber. When I arrive, the shop is closed, the curtain inside drawn. I choose to wait and after half an hour, the curtain stirs and I see the barber’s face peeking out. I feel guilty as he begins to open the shop, sweeping the floor with broad brushstrokes. If I knew he lived there, I would have come much later. He invites me in and we spend three hours together in which no customers come. Frustrated, I thank him for his time, grab a taxi and go to another shop called Headmaster on the other side of town. This is a far more upmarket joint, and comes with what I experienced in A) Nigeria and B) Uganda. A) The rich men who come do not really want to talk and B) those who do, gossip in Ga or Twi - the local languages. The only customer I engage in conversation actually argues against the founding principle of the project, saying that he doesn’t tell his barber much about himself, so why would he tell me anything? I visit a few more spots, but feel like my luck has finally run out. It is the penultimate day of the research trip and I chose to call it quits, to finally rest.
Sunday, the 19th of January and we decide to go to the beach. All the way, SonDude chats happily; a young commentator on the journey asking searching questions of the ‘are we there yet’ nature. When the answers fail to satisfy, he repeats the declarative statement “I want to get to the beach”. I attempt a little revers psychology, tell him that if he says that again, we won’t go to the beach. SchoolBoyDude is silent, just long enough that I imagine I have won the battle of wits. They he speaks up, “But I DO, want to go to the beach!” and Nii laughs along with his wife… “That’s my boy, they say, that stuff doesn’t work on him, you don’t know who you’re messing with”. We get to the beach and the sun is so hot, the sand so baking, I hop on it for a few minutes. The water though is perfect. We rush into it. We play. I once read that the fabric of the world is thin in the in-between places: in doorways when a person is neither in or out, dusk & dawn, when the world is neither night nor day, or here, where water meets the land. I try to let go of the disappointments of the last few days, to just play.
Hoping to make CoolUncleInua seem even cooler to LittleMissDaughter, I entertain her with backflips in the surf. I wade out to where the waves are bigger and relentless making sure LittleMissDaughter can see and hear me. I jump, kick out my legs as high as I can and land in the water. I flip to my front, to my knees and when I open my eyes my vision is blurred. My glasses are no longer on. The wave I trusted to break my fall snapped the frames from my head and a rising panic grips me. I search frantically as the water begins to retreat. If I don’t find them soon, the glasses will be washed out into the South Atlantic and my impaired vision will ruin the rest of afternoon. I have a spare pair at Nii’s but that is hours away. In the water, I realise I’m trying to see what helps me to see.
I had ulterior motives in researching this play. Though I have lived in England for eighteen years, I have never quite felt like I belonged there, or anywhere for that matter. My cultural make up is Nigerian, Irish (for the pivotal years I spent there), English and African American. London is a city of immigrants and the fondness I have for it is largely to do with that: a lot of people live there, not many call it home and our collective experiences make up its bubble of transience and speed and this common denominator is what we belong to. My ulterior motive to travel through Africa, to travel home, was to find home. And I hadn’t. The visit to Nigeria left me feeling frustrated and the various language barriers in South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Ghana had felt alienating, with cultures that seemed impossible to fully penetrate.
As the water sweeps back out to the ocean, rather than searching frantically as I have these past six weeks, I try something different. I try to stay put. I kneel down, focus and trust the water will flow back to me with its gift of sight. It does. I snatch up the glasses, kiss them passionately, put them on and find LittleMissDaughter waving in her father’s arms. I run out to them, back to the shore.
Later that evening I say my goodbyes to SonDude, LittleMissDaughter and MissMissus. Nii kindly drives me to the airport, to a British Airways flight to London. In the car, my head swims with six weeks worth of gossip with African men. I wonder how to go about stitching it all, how it might work dramatically, how an anthology of conversations will work on a western stage and how much of my own politics I can write into the play; how my sense of belonging (or not) might conflict with the familiarity I hope to conjure on stage. It is further work for further months but as the plane takes off, for the last time, I make a list of things I have learnt in Africa.
1) Despite what Nigerians say, Ghanaians are alright.
2) There are no religious conflicts in Ghana.
3) There is a bike culture growing in urban Accra.
4) There are 70 tribes in Ghana, each with a distinct language.
5) Twi is the most widely spoken Ghanaian tongue.
6) Forget Ambrosia, groundnut soup is the nectar of the gods.
7) Shitor* should be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.
8) It takes a village to raise a child, and villages to raise a nation.
9) Re:finding home, perhaps I have gone about this all wrong.
10) Perhaps if I stay still, home will find me.
Next stop, London, England.
Barber Shop Chronicles / 5 January / Nigeria
On the 7th of December, I left London to travel through SubSaharan Africa for six week researching a play about barber shops. The project is supported by The Binks Trust, The British Council and Fuel Theatre Limited. This is the fifth of six journey-logs.
Barber Shop Chronicles / 5 January / Nigeria
The taxi driver is a little older than I am. I learn this as Lagos’ Murtalla Muhammed Airport is swallowed up by the darkness of the night in the rear view mirror. Wallace is so excited to have gotten a customer after waiting all day, he cannot stop talking. I cannot stop listening. He is a natural born storyteller, peppering his tale with exaggerated facial expressions, body shifts and changes in posture from behind the wheel, where the moon and passing headlights illuminate his face like a mobile lighting rig. It is a forty minute drive and Wallace tells me his own creation myth. He used to be a teacher in Imo State where his best friend who came from a far wealthier family taught him how to drive. He moved to Lagos to live with his aunt and his uncle bought a car for her. Because she did not know how to drive, the car lay dormant. After two days of gathering dust, Wallace persuaded her to give him the keys. He took it out for a spin. A week later, he was on the motor way and two weeks after that, he was making money as a taxi driver. Wallace tells another story of rich man, similar to my height and build he says, who he drove from the airport to Benin, a four-hour drive and a price tag of 40,000 Naira - a fortune compared to 5,000 this will cost me. The rich man was so impressed at Wallace’s speed, he let him shower in his hotel room, took him out for dinner, payed for meals (including barbecue chicken which Wallace says he had never tried at the time), bought him two meals worth of takeaway food, and gave Wallace an extra 10,000 just for keeps. We arrive at the 1004 apartments in Victoria Island where I am to stay with a man who I have called uncle since I was born. He may be my mother’s brother’s wife’s uncle’s eldest son, but Uncle is what I have always known him as. He welcomes me as if I’d seen him only yesterday instead of the decade that had passed and this is what I expect of this stage of the research trip: An even greater shorthandedness, a sense of belonging old and natural as blood, barber shops crammed full of stories so fluid, I’d be spoilt for choice. I did very little preparatory work before coming, so it’s failure is entirely my fault.
Also, a travel fatigue is setting in and the writer’s need to sit quietly now and then, internalising experiences, excavating immortal truths from darkness or whatever has been ignored for five weeks, I’ve been out and about externalising everything. I’m tired and the West African heat is completely unlike the Eastern African heat, it is unrelenting, sticky and heeds not the pleas of man. I am baking. Monday, 6th of January, I meet up with Fusi, a friend who works for the British Council and we go to his local barber shop in and area called the dolphin estate. The talk begins with football, as always, but suddenly shifts to how tribal politics sometimes play into football politics, how for instance it is bad enough being an Edo man (as I partially am), but to be Edo and support West Ham is unforgivable! It shifts to a critique of Kenyan Manchester United fans and I push record on my device as we talk. I eventually choose to sit for a hair cut. My glasses are off and so immersed am I in the tribal football conversation, the cut goes unchecked and barber does what he feels suits my face. When he finishes I replace my glasses, squint into the mirror. My eyes adjust and it is without doubt the best haircut I have every received. Something to do with cutting my beard differently and a moustache that isn’t too prominent. A few of Fusi’s friends joins us. We order food from the vendor just bedside the barber shops and over a dinner of suya and chips, we reminisce and tell harrowing incidents from our various boarding school experiences. I gather information about the best barbers on the island and make a plan visit the following day. On Tuesday, I write till late afternoon, wait for the heat to subside and go out to a spot a ten minute walk from the apartments. The shop is well air-conditioned, everything is silver and black and spotless including the uniforms of the waiting barbers. This an ‘exclusive’ spot where cuts cost 3,000 on average. I explain the project to the receptionist seated behind the oak desk and the old man asks me to return at 2pm the following day to speak with the manager. I have learnt not to bother visiting barbers between Monday and Wednesday - they have so little clients, it is a waste of time - so I do not bother seeking another place, call it a day and meet old friends at Bogobiri, an arts venue on Victoria Island.
Fiona (a fellow Irish-Nigerian) from London who relocated to work in the advertising industry comes to collect me from the apartment and at Bogobiri, we meet a friend of hers who runs a package holiday company. The fourth of our company is Wana - a fellow writer/performer and radio personality with an enthusiastic loyal fan base (who pray for her on a daily basis). They call Wana with their problems and she tells animatedly about the day’s discussions, about ‘allowances’ girlfriends request of their boyfriends or male acquaintances in general; how natural it is for a young woman who needs more airtime on her phone to rather than going out to purchase some, sit and scroll through her phonebook looking for a benefactor. They ask for everything Wana says, from cash for hair-treatments to funds for deep-tissue body massages. Sometimes the allowances climb into the tens of thousands of Naira per month and some girls will have multiple benefactors. Fiona agrees, says she has friends who think she is foolish for spending her own money on herself, who tell her it is part of the way life - “This is Naija… [they say] …hustle or die!”
Wednesday 8th, I venture out again to the first barber shop and I am told the manager is not around. However, I spend a few minutes there and notice that no one is speaking. The barbers barely talk to each other or to their clients. I leave thinking this is unusual. I try to follow my uncle’s directions to find another spot on the island and end up walking for two hours, twisting and turing down unpaved rocky roads, dodging motorbikes and taxis. I ask various security guards about the place, none of whom seem to know, give up, retrace my steps to the exit of the 1004 estate and start again. This time I accept that my internal compass doesn’t work as intuitively as it seems to in London. I ask every step of the way, eventually find a little two-chair barber shop tucked inside a gated community. I pull back the sliding doors, collapse into a chair then launch into the spiel about the project. The three barbers are a little guarded at first but eventually are relaxed enough to tell me they do not really talk to customers either. Their rich clientele sit and barely speak a word for the entire duration of the cut. Some clients even ask if the barber is ambidextrous so they won’t have to move when the barber switches from one half of the face to the other. Unanimously, they tell me to get off the island; the stuff I need for the play won’t be found here, rich men think they are better than us, they don’t care. I thank them for their advice and get a taxi to Tera Kulture an arts venue where I meet Tolu Ogunlesi one of the youngest, most celebrated and popular of Nigeria’s emerging columnists.
Tera Kulture is a low-lit, two story building with a library/restaurant on the ground floor and long winding staircase from the centre of the room to the second floor. Tolu is sat behind the staircase with a friend and I slide easily into the conversation on Nigeria’s film industry. Tolu’s friend says the World Bank is investing; they have a fund set up to support the industry. I ask how it is such a body can fund an entire genre of entertainment and one as big as Nollywood and he explains the fund is to support bigger budget films (directors apply) and to help re-establish Nigeria’s cinema industry. There are only ten or so cinemas in Lagos to supply a population of 17.5 million. All the primetime slots are taken by Hollywood films. The cinema is the first place where directors and investors can make their money back. Because there are not enough screens or programmers willing to take risks, they look to street hawkers for distributors and the hawkers pirate the movies for the demanding public. The conversation switches to Beyonce’s use of an excerpt of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s TEDx Talk in a song from her latest album, and if Chimamanda might have made any money from the deal. We search online for the video and after ten frustrating minutes, laugh at the idea that this late at night, three grown men are searching frantically for a Beyonce song.
Thursday 9th of Jan, I’m tired, loosing focus and a little disheartened by the previous day. I potter about the apartment willing myself to write. I sit, completely dispirited before the computer till a friend, the prolific playwright and director Wole Oguntokun texts to say he is on his way to me. We had spoken earlier in the week when he offered to take me round visiting barber shops on the mainland, but he’d since taken ill so I was unsure if we would meet. We drive to three different spots. The first one, a sleepy place established 20 years before, is run by the lone attending barber, an older, straight-backed, softly-spoken man. There are no ceiling fans or cooling devices and though the door is open, it is stifling hot and breezeless. The barber is shaving a client’s head and he is so skilled, so light of touch, that the client is falling asleep. I explain to Wole that I need a place with people talking and I’d heard of a spot not too far away. The second place is bustling and I attempt to speak to people, but for the noisy ceiling fans fighting to make the temperature customer-friendly and the music shaking the walls and mirrors, it is hard to converse. The clients and barbers are not really speaking to each other either. We leave for the third place where barbers and clients ask if I will pay them for the conversation and more or less clam up when I refuse. Back at the flat, an old friend Ore Disu comes to visit and I explain the problems I had encountered. She assures me an acquaintance Oscar will sort everything out on Saturday.
I spend much of Friday attempting to build a scene from the first conversations I had had and trust that Oscar will deliver. We are too meet on Saturday morning. I finally get through to Oscar at 12 and he says he will be busy till four o’clock. I call Oscar at four and he asks for payment for himself and the barbers he’d found for me to speak with. I explain again that I cannot pay people to talk to each other or to me about anything and everything, but he refuses to engage otherwise. I hang up the phone and everything comes crashing down: my fatigue, frustration at having to give security guards and police officers money to let us pass, haggling with various taxi drivers, the relentless heat, the growing loneliness of the trip and the fluctuating confidence I feel in the entire project. I try one last time, one last attempt and go out to the first barber shop on the island, show the barber a picture of my previous cut to recreate, take off my glasses, sit back and attempt to talk to him. His answers are monotone and monosyllabic. I put on my glasses after he is done and it is the worst cut I have received, ever. The moustache he has given me is two strokes short of Adolph Hitler’s. I slip three 1000 Naira bills into his outstretched palm and leave.
I pack, wait for Sunday’s dawn to come and at 5am, go downstairs to meet Wallace who is to take me back to the airport for the flight to Ghana. Wallace had had a busy week and when he asks about mine and I tell my problem, he says that I should have let him know, that he would have sorted out everything, taken me to Mushin and Ajegunle where his barber is located, that he’d spent half of the previous day in a barber shop. As we drive, he recounts conversations he’d had, does his best to give an impression of what I had missed. I give him a large tip and join the queue for Arik Air’s 7:20 to Ghana. I’d read about and been warned of the airport’s inadequacy and Arik air’s particular ineptitude, but my experiences to date had be fine. On this occasion however, the staff really outdo themselves. Firstly they ask passengers from separate flights to queue up together, after sorting through the chaos and checking us in, we wait at the boarding gates as usual. At 7:47, 27 minutes after the flight was due to take off, we are informed that the flight will be delayed by an hour, but we do not leave till 9.40. We swap boarding gates, exit through the fire escape to the runway, gingerly stepping over pipes and wires towards the airplane where one groundsman is sat sheltering beneath the airplane, surfing the internet on his phone. As we walk past Arik Air staff who are entirely unapologetic for the delay, they ask us what presents we have brought for them and suggest we give a 1000 Naira each for the trouble of seeing to our luggage.
As the plane lifts I sink into my chair feeling guilty to be pleased to be leaving my own country, to be rid of its brand of double think and heat. Wole said there are phrases you see when arriving into major cities, ‘Welcome to LA’ a billboard will say, ‘Welcome to London’ another chimes, but ours reads ‘This is Lagos’. It is a statement. It’s subtext is ‘Enter at your own peril’ or ‘sink or swim’. On this occasion, I have sunk. But I am to return in March for three days and I pray cometh the hour I’ll swim again. Mid-flight, I make a list of things I have learnt:
1) In Nigeria, nothing, nothing comes for free.
2) “Nothing ever happens quite the way you expect it to”
3) THIS IS NAIJA, HUSTLE OR DIE!
4) ‘419’ refers to section 419 of the Nigerian criminal code.
5) 419 deals with obtaining property by false pretence.
6) The Yoruba are natural dramatists.
7) The Igbo are natural prose writers.
8) The Hausa are perhaps better served by poetry.
9) 100 years ago this year, Nigeria was created.
10) What a creation it is.
Next stop, Accra, Ghana.
Barber Shop Chronicles / 27 December / Uganda
On the 7th of December, I left London to travel through SubSaharan Africa for six week researching a play about barber shops. The project is supported by The Binks Trust, The British Council and Fuel Theatre Limited. This is the fourth of six journey-logs.
Barber Shop Chronicles / 27 December / Uganda
If I thought Kenyans were relaxed, they are absolute firecrackers-on-speed compared to the ever-at-your-own-leisure-ease Ugandans seem to stride with. Even at the airport the staff are so relaxed, I feel as though I’m queuing at a supermarket, casually checking myself into their country. My bag is the lone luggage on the conveyor belt, I grab it and head out searching for a taxi from Entebbe where the airport is, to Kampala, the capital city. My driver is a fast-talking uncle of crisp movements and quick eyes. I climb into the passenger seat and we are off. His name is Mugasa Blick and he tells me a little about how Swahili is used; only 30% of the country speak it compared to the 100% of Kenya, that there are various ethnic groups, so various languages, but the most commonly spoken is English. We drive past shops entirely painted and decorated with the logos and colours of rival mobile phone companies: Airtel and MTN, red and yellow respectively - aggressively advertising in a country where I imagine aggression won’t work.
I check into the Shangri-La hotel, leave an hour later to explore my neighbourhood. The hotel is tucked just behind the Sheraton, a ground-hugging-sprawling bungalow compared to the multi-storey sparkling tower of the Sheraton Hotel, rising up from this hill, one of the seven Kampala is built on. The public modes of transports are the Matatus (buses similar Kenya’s) and Bodabodas - unlicensed motorbikes that dart in and out of traffic, by far the fastest way to travel. I hop on a boda and ride to the Nakumat, a local shopping mall to purchase an MTN SIM card. The mall is three stories tall and is busy for a lazy Sunday afternoon. Kids ride up and down the escalators as if in an amusement park, laughing at the sensation of moving whilst standing still. I eat at a food court, letting the warmth of early evening slow down my racing thoughts on what to do tomorrow.
Monday, 30th of December and I meet Patricia who works for the British Council in Kampala and she further contextualises Uganda’s relationship with the English language. She says that during the Liberation War between Uganda and Tanzania, the leader at the time, Idi Amin, was distrustful of Ugandans who held positions in the government, who’d completed their education in England and spoke English far batter and fluently than he did. He deposed a lot of them, gave their jobs to those he trusted and insisted they speak Swahili. They were brutal times and after the war, Swahili became synonymous with hard time and the military. The people refused to have to acknowledge that in every day conversation should it be chosen as their national language. To avoid further problems by favouring a local tribal language over others, English was settled on. I explain the barber shop project again to Patricia, where it began, what it is trying to do and the experience thus far. She suggests a bunch of places to check out, a strategy, a plan of action and insists that I visit Alex, a friend of hers who runs an arts organisation. We drive for a few minutes and the landscape changes from the presidential and business side where I am based, to the packed pedestrian of the city centre, and eventually, the partially rural ‘roaming-goats’ working class side of town.
Alex is direct, intelligent and hardworking, you can tell by how he talks, how as I explain the project again, I feel like he is underlining lines and phrases from the play’s sales pitch. He leans back and says that I need to stay away from affluent barber shops, that I must go to other places for local conversations, everyday problems. He says they will not be kind to a foreigner recording their talk, so I must do it discretely. There will be langue-barrier he says, people gossip in their dialects not in English. He suggests hiring an interpreter for the day: Jackson, a friend, playwright and actor, who everyone knows as ‘Dre’, “Like the doctor” Alex says laughing. Dre is an easy going, softly spoken, loose-limbed starving artist like I am and I find camaraderie and kinship in his views on Nigerian literature and the implications of being an “African Writer”.
The following day we travel by foot and matuatu to three barber shops. Dre explains that the largest tribe is called Buganda, where the country gets its name, Uganda, Baganda is the plural for Muganda (what you call a lone Bugandan) and Luganda is their language, which Dre speaks in the barber shops, doing his best to initiate conversations. I discretely push the record button on my device and try to guess what is being talked about, I watch the familiar dance of testosterone and intimacy, bravado and humility, storyteller and his audience, play out in a different tongue. After the third barber, Dre and I sit and he translates. With a sinking feeling, it becomes obvious that this arrangement is not working. I have never recorded without asking for permission first. As Dre speaks, I realise I would have been more active if I could understand what was being said. I would have asked this question at this point, agreed here, disagreed there, teased this topic out because someone else had spoken of it in London or in another barber shop… and a host of other things I had been doing automatically before pressing the record button, and during the recording. I thank Dre for his time and resolve to find another shop where English is the language of gossip. Michael (from Kenya) had paired me with a lady called Beverly, a friend, fellow poet and member of Kampala’s literati. Beverly gives me the number of a barber called Simon based in the Ntinda shopping complex in Bugolobi and later in the evening, I wrestle the price from 7,000 shilling to 5,000, hop on the boda and we weave through the red tinged-world that is the sun setting on Kampala. The journey takes a little over 15 minutes and from the moment I walk into the beauty salon where Simon rents a chair and works from, it is non-stop with talk. Simon is a diamond of a barber of a man. He has been cutting for 15 years, his clients go back a decade and they trust him so much, after he explains my project and I ask hesitantly if I can record our conversation, one says ‘I don’t give a fuck’ and another looks at the recording device as though an insect before the unstoppable locomotive force of his opinion on the world. He talks about love. In a rich thick accent, he lectures passionately, wildly on the dangers of loving to much. I don’t ask who hurt him in the past, he tells everything unprompted. Another client discusses surprisingly contemporary attitudes to dating, to Uganda’s dowry system, to fatherhood and when they ask about my own marital status, they collectively chastise me on being single, how unusual it is (they say) for a Nigerian not have two or three girlfriends at at time. Back at the hotel, I fall to sleep listening to the conversation and dream I have two girlfriends. I wake up sweating from the stress of it.
It is the early hours of the 31st of December, new year’s eve and a sudden loneliness is a gulp in my throat. I spend most of the day writing, half planning to mark the year’s end from the comfort of my bed, but eventually, I go out to meet Phiona Okumu, writer, journalist, curator, country-hopper, enthusiast; an everything woman. Above all, she is an old friend and we see in the new year together. The first day of 2014 passes uneventfully, I write for all of it and on Friday, head out to meet Simon for the last time. We leave the mall in Ntinda, take the first two left turns and enter a health centre. There is a pool table by the pool side. The soundtrack to the music of striking cue sticks, is child’s play, laughter and splashing water. Now and then, a daughter runs to us from the pool to high five her father, who is among us, before diving back into water. Simon buys a round of drinks for everyone and I’m drawn against an experienced player, smooth and precise to the clumsy ogre that is my style of play. We play three rounds, he takes the first match when I have two reds left to pot. Miraculously, I take the second, and he destroys me in the third. As we play, Simon explains that he had been working since 6am that morning, he’d driven to a client’s house before coming to the mall, that it had been non-stop. I ask if he will ever open his own barber shop, he says he has been saving for it already and also plans to open a shop for his girlfriend. Simon knows his business well, he discuss work incentives for future employees, ways of generating positive attitudes to life for the mental well-being of clients, how to sustain longevity and the best location for his business. After the match, I thank Simon for his time, for allowing me into his world and flag down a boda to take me back to hotel. It is night time and the driver dodges potholes and speed bumps so smoothly, I drift off and imagine a thriller set within Kampala’s bodaboda community - think Spartacus meets Biker Boyz meets West Side Story with an oracle figure loosely based on Simon.
Whereas the South Africans mostly spoke on politics, Zimbabweans mostly on music and Kenyans on African development, the Ugandans overwhelming spoke of love. As if to confirm this, behind the breakfast buffet table, Jimmy, who works at the hotel, tells me about his last relationship. He walked in on his girlfriend cheating on him. He recounts a joke by the Nigerian comedian Basktemouth. Basketmouth explained how Hollywood had colonised our ideas of relationships; in movies, you have guys climbing mountains, threatening to jump from heartbreak and it turns out okay in the end, but in Africa, you’ll jump and die! Hollywood romances he says, should come with the same warning that precedes WWA (World Wrestling Allstars) t.v. shows: ‘Don’t try this at home’. We swap email address, promise to keep in-touch, and after packing, I make a list things I have learnt:
1) Storks are common as muck in Uganda.
2) Kenyans believe Ugandan girls are aggressive.
3) Swahili is regarded as the language of the military.
4) The bodabodas are the bad boys of traffic.
5) Ugandan soil is very very red.
6) The dowry culture is still thriving.
7) The source of the River Nile is in Uganda.
8) There are 56 tribes in Uganda.
9) The largest tribe in Africa are Manchester United fans.
10) I am a superficial tribesman.
Next stop, Lagos, Nigeria.
Barber Shop Chronicles / 22 December / Kenya
On the 7th of December, I left London to travel through SubSaharan Africa for six week researching a play about barber shops. The project is supported by The Binks Trust, The British Council and Fuel Theatre Limited. This is the third of six journey-logs.
Barber Shop Chronicles / 22 December / Kenya
The airplane taxis into the airport from Johannesburg. I find the nearest cash machine, line my wallet with the local dough and slip into the Nairobian night. The cab driver is chatty as we drive towards the city, it is his last day of work before the Christmas holidays. He intends to park his car outside his house, get to the coast and lie on a beach for five days. We arrive at the accommodation for the duration of my stay, the Kenyan Comfort Hotel on Mundi Mbingu Street. The staff who are sleepy at this late hour of night, perk up at a new arrival. The computers are down so the receptionist checks me in on faith alone, says she has upgraded me to a double bed, but should a woman stay the night, I am to pay an extra $20 dollars. I’m too tired to question why, so I sign, climb to room 305, unfurl the mosquito net, crawl into its belly and sleep.
What I know of Kenya is limited to its language, its mispronunciation by Britons of a certain era (Keeeenya), and for its closeness to the word ‘Nubian’, a faux romanticism about its capital ‘Nairobi’. In the morning, I shower, go down for breakfast and discover that though English is the lingua franca and everyone speaks it with a reasonable command, most people think in Kiswahili, so gossip in Kiswahili, so in barber shops, most of the conversation will be in Kiswahili. I do not speak a work of Kiswahili. The bright morning dims a little at the prospect, but I go out to meet it and complete the task for the first day: find barber shops, get a local SIM card. I turn right out of the hotel and following a market worker’s advice, walk down to the Gilfillan building, up the first flight of stairs and into two barber shops right beside each other, bursting with customers. The first on the right is a relaxed affair, pinkish walls, the barbers are in casual clothes and are sat at a sofa close to the doors, confidently asking passer-buys to come in for a hair cut. The second on the left is a visually superior setting. All the workers are in a navy and white uniform/tunics. The walls are lined with mirrors, they see to both women and men’s hair and every corner of the shop is taken with a chair, a customer and someone tending. I ask to speak with the manager and the older gentleman/receptionist with rust coloured teeth, points me to a younger man working hard on his client’s head. I explain, or rather try to explain my project but I get the sense that because I am not wearing a suit and that I am not there to spend money, I am of little importance to him. I tell him I will return the following day and leave.
Back at the hotel, I spend almost two hours speaking with friend and fellow writer Jessica Horn via text message. She links me with the few friends she has in Nairobi all of who are excited by the project. The one person I know is a Michael Onsando who I’d planned to meet that evening. Mike calls to say he is downstairs and because we have a good friend in common and because he is a writer, there is a shorthandedness to how quickly we speak and for the first time, I’m relaxed and confident I will get what I need from this city. Mike takes me to his parents’ house for dinner. His parents are welcoming and charming in that old-African-hospitality kind of way and I greet them the way my parents taught me to, on my knees. Mike’s father asks me to sit immediately and his mother visibly blushes. I explain about the project and where I’d just come from. Mike’s father talks a little Kenyan history, how it was considered a potential site for the jewish homeland - that is to say when it was under British rule, it was optioned as a location for Israel. After dinner we go to Michael’s barber’s, a shack of a shop he’d been visiting since he was a boy. It is small, serves only two customers at a time and is utterly aesthetically perfect. I take pictures as Mark, Michael’s brother who I asked to come along and get a hair cut, sits for the barber to begin. The conversation is about rugby vs football & basketball, Kenya’s television/digital migration, an attempted mugging and township tours for tourists in South Africa. Michael is going away with his family for Christmas, as I board the taxi back to my hotel, I thank him for his time, wishing him the season’s best.
It is the 24th of December and the city is rapidly loosing its population. As it is with main cities during holidays, numbers diminish as folks leave for their family homes or ancestral villages and Nairobi is no different. I return to Gilfillan where in the pre-Christmas bustle, everything is being talked about. I can tell from facial expressions and vocal tones that what I want for my play is within reach, close, but for I don’t speak Swahili, so far away. I go to the other shop where the brash manager asks the rust-toothed receptionist to deal with me. His name is Daniel, his also works as an actor, sometimes a writer. When I explain the project he says “ah, you are looking for things like that scene in Coming to America, when Eddie is in a barber shop” and I have to restrain myself from hugging him. He suggests other barber shops where English is spoken and should that fail, I should return on the 27th and he will tell me stories from his shop. Later that night, Aleya who worked for Kenya’s the Storymoja Kenya’s literary Hay Festival puts me in touch with Ian, a friend of her’s, who directs me to a barber shop where indeed, English is partially spoken and the conversation there begins with business. Swiftly, it moves to the dwindling influence of the west over African economies, laws for same-sex and inter-racial adoption and what effects financial/gender equality might have on Kenyan households and families. The gentleman and I talk long after I stop recording and I get the fleeting sense that there is a loneliness in his life, one he cannot express or divulge to the wife and daughter he “must return to” he says as we shake hands and part ways.
It is the 27th and my social network has widened to include the vibrant, chatty and infectious Njoki who works at a respected arts centre called The Nest. Not only does Njoki invite me for Christmas dinner with her parents, but she comes over to the hotel to help translate some parts of recorded conversations from Kiswahili to English. As we climb the stairs, the friendly receptionist reiterates the rule, that Njoki must not go up to my room without the $20 fee and the reason settles into place. At night, the streets of Nairobi are lined with prostitutes - at traffic lights, junctions, the mouths of alley ways. Rather than banning the practice, the hotel makes a little on the side by charging extra should their customers wish to indulge themselves. Njoki laughs at my naivety as we type up the conversations. Two friends of her’s arrive in a beautiful black people-carrier (Njoki had told them about the project) and the plan is to visit their barbers. As we drive through the city, they comment on how unusual it is to go at this speed, at this time of day, for Nairobi is overpopulated, congested and thick with traffic every other time of year. We go to to the Unga House shopping centre in Westlands and in the barber shop there, the talk is of Kenyan infidelity, sexual repression in Saudi Arabia and incredibly enough, what vegetable is best suited to a woman’s… needs.
The 28th is my final day and Njoki pulls out the Ace in the deck of dazzling cards I believe her friends to be, his name is Brian and ten minutes after we meet he had convinced me that “morals is the new cool”, we need to bring them back in the stories we tell if we are to save our societies and ourselves, he says of the media’s sensationalist tragedy stories that “we began to focus on people who have problems and forgot that everyone has problems” suggesting this is why we can step over the everyday hungry and downtrodden on our streets, but willingly give to huge disaster-relief efforts. Brian takes me to visit Calif, his hood in Nairobi. We take the public mode of transport called Matatus (taxis in JoBurg) - a rudimentary bus system. Brian breaks it down thus: ‘Tatu’ is short for ‘Mapeni Matatu’ which means ‘30 cents’ which was the original flat rate price to use one. As we drive, there’s evidence that Obama’s influence is alive in Kenya. We pass shops called ‘Obama’s corner’ and ‘Yes We Can Limited’. I tell Brian about the trend in Zimbabwe of odd-sounding names, and he says the same exists in Kenya, he has met people first-named ‘Eminent Person’, ‘TearGas’ and ‘Coalition Talks’. The barber shop is small, seats four clients at a time and each one is occupied when we arrive. Brian introduces me to the staff who ask questions about the project and the talk is a dream-find of conversations, one of those roving funny and at times alarming ones. Topics rang from Nigerian and Kenya witchcraft, to love potions and urban legends, to adequate punishment for rapists, to men having sex with hens, to bestiality, cross border travel and the strength of the Kenyan shilling weighed against the Ugandan shilling. When Brian’s cut is done, we leave the little bustling shop and Brian speaks excitedly of his ongoing projects. He writes ‘Classmates’, one of the biggest and most successful comedy series on Kenyan television, currently in its 9th series. Brian talks of a pilot he had just made about Matatus, how years before, there used to be a culture of showmanship built into them, they’d have neon-lights and 42inch t.v. screens mounted on the sides, some with lasers and hydraulics. He says folks would spend nights riding around town in them for entertainment - forget about bars and clubs, these were venues themselves - but the new government outlawed the practices. He speaks nostalgically of those days, says Nairobi seemed like a different city and his show is to celebrate those times.
We go to a local fast food joint where Brian introduces me to four close friends, all working in the television and film industries. We discuss ‘authenticity’ regarding African stories. Bruce is adamant that there is no such thing, there are just stories. I argue that some stories are culturally specific, therefore, if the culture does not exist in Africa, the story cannot be African, thus, the opposite must be true; there must be stories that are specific to Africa, therefore ‘African stories’. Brian asks for examples, I suggest global warming in the Inuit community; those who live in Igloos. If a story is about melting Igloos, it could never be an African story, it would be alien to this continent. Brian disagrees, explaining there are some Kenyans who live in mud huts. Because of global warming and increased rainfall, their huts are ‘melting’, turning to liquid, so such a story could play to Inuit audiences; there are stories and regardless of how specific, they can be adapted and made universal. Later on, I recount a crude joke I’d adapted to suit Kenyan audiences to make Brian laugh. Usually it features an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman, but I replaced them with three of the 42 Kenyan tribes. They are discussing making love to their wives. The Luo man says when he finishes making love, so satisfied is she, she levitates two feet off the bed. The Luyah man says that’s nothing. When he finishes, he gives his wife a deep tissue massage and she floats ten feet off the bed. The Kamba man dismisses both of them, says when he finishes, he wipes his manhood on the curtain and his wife hits the roof! The joke worked in this context, somewhat proving Brian’s point: contexts can be adapted: there are just stories and how we respond (or don’t) respond to them is a measure of our life experience and knowledge of the global human experience.
I am to meet Aleya and her friend Njeri for my last night in the country, to eat at a Koroga, an India outdoor restaurant where you are provided raw ingredients and you cook your own meal. Before the taxi arrives, I stare out at the sun kissing the Kenyan horizon and make a list of things I have learnt:
1) Kenya was a potential site for Israel.
2) There’s a place called Soweto in Kenya.
3) Of the 42 tribes, Luo men are the flashiest.
4) Assumptions are made of men who travel alone.
5) Kenyan mosquitos are as relaxed as Kenyans.
6) Kenya’s class system is very similar to Britain’s.
7) Israel built parts of the Eastlands region of Nairobi.
8) The soil from the region was shipped to Israel.
9) Israel, it follows then, is built on Kenyan soil.
10) History is truly, effing incredible.
Next stop, Kampala, Uganda.
Barber Shop Chronicles / 15 December / Zimbabwe*
On the 7th of December, I left London to travel through SubSaharan Africa for six week researching a play about barber shops. The project is supported by The Binks Trust, The British Council and Fuel Theatre Limited. This is the second of six journey-logs.
Barber Shop Chronicles / 15 December / Zimbabwe*
I wasn’t granted a Zimbabwean visa before I left London. The plan was to visit the Zimbabwean consulate in JoBurg, first thing on Monday, 9th of Dec and apply for a visa. The plan failed. The back up plan now is to visit on Tuesday, but all of Joburg is shut for Nelson Mandela’s funeral ceremony. This plan fails too. The consulate do not open on Wednesdays, so on Thursday, I finally make it and the queue is long, boisterous and baking in the heat. When it is my turn, the attendant asks that I have the hotel in Zimbabwe reprint my reservation on a letter headed paper and I should return with it later today. I ask, assuming that were possible, how long it would take to process the application. He replies ‘ten working days’. I will not get the visa in time. The new plan is to find Zimbabweans in JoBurg, to speak with them in barber shops they frequent.
It is Monday 16th of December. Christmas is nine days away and many Zimbabweans have gone home. Those left are running around buying gifts for relatives and preparing to leave. I am sat outside the hotel in Braemfontain weighing my decreasing options against the indifferent and beautiful skies, when my friend Milisuthando points to a waiter running by saying “His name is Jackson, he served my friend well at a bar, he is incredibly knowledgeable and politically astute about Zim.” I give chase, catch him in a tiny corner shop and ask if he’d mind speaking with me, if I can have his number. He agrees and we plan to meet later in the week.
Shoni mentions his brother in-law is from Zimbabwe but is running around, moving house, gathering for the migration home for Christmas, but he will try to set something up. The conversations I have heard about the Zimbabwean presence in Johannesburg have been overwhelmingly positive, to the point of being negative. ‘They are hard working’ becomes ‘They work too hard working’ becomes ‘They are taking our jobs’ becomes ‘They work twice as hard for half the money’. During the Windrush period of British history, such sentiments were levelled at Caribbean and West Indian immigrants, then at Black Africans, and now such is levelled at Eastern Europeans in the UK. A dark part of me takes pride at having found final, first hand proof that black Africans are at least partially as prejudiced to one another as some Europeans are to themselves, that “we are not all the same”. Instantly, a lump of bitter shame rises to my throat at the realisation that I still on some level, judge African humanity by European characteristics and standards, negative or positive. Exactly how deep does the colonial rabbit hole run through me? If an African is an island, is he still a man? What is a man? I choke on the shard of self-hatred and carry on.
Tuesday, I meet Dwain, a slim-built, dreadlocked Zimbabwean musician living in JoBurg, who regularly visits Harare. He confirms what I imagined, that I was not granted a visa because I applied as a writer from the UK, Zimbabwe is not kind to such folk. I ask why and he says it is because of what the west say about Mugabe, how he is spoken of. Dwain adds that because I have a Nigerian passport though, I should have just boarded a flight to Harare, that despite the restrictions detailed on the consulate’s website, I’d have been able to purchase an entry visa at Harare’s airport. He adds that many guys have dreadlocks in Zim, it’s in fashion now, so at the moment barber shops are not frequented that much. I ask why this is the case and he replies Bob Marley played at their celebration of independence in 1980 when, after bitter, bloody battles, they finally won the struggle against Imperialism and British rule - Rastafarianism is big in Zim. I tell Dwain about the Ghanaian barber in London who loves Mugabe, claims he is what a leader should be: one who fights for his people come what may. I ask what Mugabe did exactly, why he is so hated and Dwain says simply ‘he took back our land’. It’s that simple. No theory, no fancy political rhetoric, he took back what was ours, force was used where necessary. I ask if this is why sanctions were placed on the country and he confirmed it so; the Zimbabwean dollar plummeted, because of this and the battles, Zimbabweans left the country, but things are brightening up, people are coming back, banks are reopening, cash machines are working, he makes more money playing in Zim than he does in South Africa, when he returns, he plays Chimurenga music (Chimurenga means ‘struggle’ in Shona, a Zimbabwean language) in an attempt to counter reggae and Marley’s overwhelming influence. He says I would have loved Harare, a city that never sleeps, that is what its name means and I promise to visit in future.
It is Wednesday the 18th. Evening. Jackson is dodging my phone calls. Shoni’s in-law is too busy. I have three days before I leave South Africa and there isn’t a Zimbabwean in sight. Hours before, I’d journeyed to Pretoria, a town close to JoBurg, following a lead to a Zimbabwean barber. When I arrive, he tells me he only does dreadlocks confirming what Dwain said, but he has no more clients for the day. Before this however, he grills me on the project. 1)Why barbers shops? 2)Why Zimbabweans? 3)What kind of conversations? 4)Will I pay the barbers and clients? I reply: 1)Because men talk freely there: 2)Because Zimbabwe is English-speaking and I can understand such conversations and there are Zimbabweans in the UK - I am travelling to countries that have a significant presence in there: 3)Any kind of conversation will do, the play is an anthology of subjects, not a single theme or narrative. 4)No I cannot pay the barbers or clients, I cannot afford to pay people to talk to me about anything and everything; it isn’t financially sound. He nods, satisfied at my answers having grasped the scope of the project, maintains he cannot help, but wishes me good luck, shaking my hand warmly.
Thursday and I am even more desperate, I begin asking anyone and everyone. Titus a taxi driver promises to link me with a place he used to frequent, calls a couple hours later with a number and an address. The following day Titus drops me at the spot, a tiny shack of a barber shop in Hillbrow. The language spoken is a mixture of Zulu/Shona and I do not understand a word of what is said. Titus had already explained the project to the owner, who welcomes me warmly, gestures to a place prepared for me to sit and watch how this, his tiny, hot, bustling world works.
The walls are the dirty side of off white. When the clients arrive, the barbers speak over the deep South African house music blasting from the speakers, just loud enough to whisper jokes, set them at ease, then send their shoulders shaking in ripe, plump laughter. One barber sips a bottle of Heineken as he works. The clients are mostly women - for the barber shop is unisex - and they all seem to want the same thing. The barbers comb thick white relaxer into their hair, starting from the back, the neck, combing upwards to the crown and finally the front. They let the relaxer cook the hair, thinning the strands for a few minutes before the wash. The barbers guide them gently by the elbows to the even tinier back-room, where they wash throughly and deeply, massaging the scalp, sweeping and rubbing with their thumbs. When they return, the barbers comb and blowdry in long strokes, blasting clouds of water and chemicals from the hair, combing till it is tamed, till it flops down heavy, deflated as defeated tribes. Sunday morning, the plane is to leave and hunched at my desk, I make a list of things I have learnt this week:
1) Pres. Mugabe has at least eight degrees in various fields.
2) Pres. Mugabe has been awarded a dozen or more honorary degrees.
3) Pres. Mugabe is probably the most educated politician on the planet.
4) Ndebele tribesmen are in Zimbabwe and South Africa.
5) The South African king Shakka was by all accounts, a badass mother.
6) Hell hath not fury like a Zulu scorned. #Shakka
7) We are all racists.
8) Harare means ‘City that never sleeps.’
9) Harare North is what Zimbabweans call London.
10) I deeply miss Harare North.
Next stop, Kenya, Nairobi.
Barber Shop Chronicles / 5th December / South Africa.
On the 7th of December, I left London to travel through SubSaharan Africa for six week researching a play about barber shops. The project is supported by The Binks Trust, The British Council and Fuel Theatre Limited. This is the first of six journey-logs.
Barber Shop Chronicles / 5th December / South Africa.
Two days before I leave on the six-week research trip across Sub-Saharan Africa, I’m sat in the living-room watching the news. Years ago, when I realised t.v. stations had political agendas and each episode of the news is as curated as reality t.v. shows, I began to boycott them, but for some reason, this night, I am drawn to the box, to the dispassionate voice of newsreader. As he speaks, he is interrupted by a news bulletin live from South Africa. Jacob Zuma is speaking behind the podium and I know what he is about to say. I have feared this for years. I call out, my older sister comes running from the kitchen and my arms are wrapped around her waist. Zuma says that Madiba has died, the first democratically elected president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, had passed away and I lose my breath.
I am to travel in two days to begin researching Barber Shop Chronicles, an anthology of conversations, a play about what men talk about in barber shops. The first stop is Johannesburg, South Africa and I predict accurately what the conversation will be about. When I land, I’m collected by a taxi driver who works for the British Council and he gives me the first of many lessons I will learn about the country, its many languages and tribes, that JoBurg was a mining town, that Soweto is home to one million people, that Nigerian Christian evangelism is BIG here. I check into the Easy Hotel on De Korte Street in Braamfontain, email the few contacts I have in the city and have a dinner with Milisuthando, aka, MissMilliB - blogger, fashion writer, voice of her generation, really a renaissance woman through and through and through. As we drive, she speaks passionately of the history of Apartheid, the living legacy of that institution, the unbalance of economic power, the hopes and dreams of black South Africans and what she imagines must be done to secure a peaceful future. I ask politely if I can record our conversation and I do so as we speed through the empty Sunday night city streets. Later on we visit Kitchener’s, a popular after-hours watering hole. Mili and I discuss the project and the differences between JoBurg and Cape Town. When she excuses herself to use the bathroom, the bar breaks into Mandela praise and struggle songs, swaying passionately in his honour, the television reeling documentary, after condolence, after solidarity messages. The barman lines up shots of something dark, sweet and fiery for the entire bar and we toast Mandela’s legacy.
I meet Shoni the following day, my official ‘fixer’ for the trip. He is a quick witted, dirty-laughtered, laid back, good natured dude of diamond smiles who admonishes me after purchasing a SIM card, to put away my phone on the streets. ‘This is Joburg’ he says, ‘You must be careful’. But it feels too much like a lazy Brixton afternoon and that brand of danger I can handle. We drive around visiting barber shops, Shoni doing his best to introduce me and the project to the guarded barbers. I take down names, addresses, dates and times to swing by and the day finishes at Yoeville which Shoni says is the most multiethnic neighbourhood in Sub-Saharan Africa. As we walk, everyone is here: Cameroon, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Nigeria, Malawi, Jamaica, Trinidad, Zambia and more, all spilling into the streets, all mixing their languages with Zulu, Afrikaans, English, Xhosa and more. Shoni suggests we go visit a friend of his and we drive to Greenside, across town, to Mandla’s house. Mandla isn’t nicknamed ‘Street Boss’ for nothing, he knows JoBurg like the back of both palms and is plugged into street fashion, street culture and contemporary music. He runs Street Cred, a festival of all that I have listed and as we speak, it rapidly apparent that we have common ground, that there is work we can and must do together.
Mandela’s passing is everywhere. The t.v. and radio stations have jingles and snippets of songs laced into every ad break, posters line the roads and bus stations, on the radio, people call in to talk of nothing less. Points and counter points are made about the adequacy of the ANC (the ruling political party) to run the country, the nature of deal Mandela made on his release from prison, the attempt to rebrand Mandela as a peace-loving-turn-the-other-cheek kind of brother, rather than the fiery freedom fighter who not only used violence, but supportted Malcolm X’s use of force, such that he featured in Spike Lee’s biopic of the man. Soweto is home to a large stadium where Mandela’s ceremony is to be held. Dignitaries from the entire world fly in, from Banki Moon to David Cameron, President Mugabe to Desmond Tutu, three US Presidents including Bill Clinton. The politicians make long speeches. The sign interpreter gets it wrong. The soldiers and police attempt to maintain order, but in the stands, the people sing. It has rained everyday in JoBurg. It pours throughout the duration of Mandela’s funeral, a lashing rain, relentless in its density and duration. Some say this is an omen, Madiba warning from death. Shoni had told me previously of ‘The Night of Long Knives’ a prophecy believed by Afrikaners when black South Africans reclaim their country and wealth by force. He says this jokingly, adding that he is not a fighter, doubts it will ever happen but there is a something in the JoBurg air.
In the Barber Shop though, conversations are also about the everyday, for life goes on. Shoni and I get our hair cut at a little joint down the road from the hotel. Abel, our barber from Cameroon is a small man of precise hand gestures. His francophone/african tongue makes rough work of English, speaking in rapid bursts, he explain he is the good brother - referring to the Bible Story - Cain is the bad one. He started cutting when he came to JoBurg, never learnt back home because he believed it was a job for dropouts, he drooped out of uni, left Cameroon to make money, and here he was. But he thanks God he says, it is nothing short of God’s glory that he makes a living here, feeds himself. There are colleagues who don’t have up to R1000 rands saved but he does, and will pay for his University fees. In the ceremony, Presidents Mugabe and Obama received the most enthusiastic and generous receptions. SA’s president, Jacob Zuma’s was more voluminous but negative: he was booed by his own people, on an international stage, the world’s media watching. Able says this is bad, we should not have booed our leaders, they will go away if we do so. I ask if he thinks they are doing a good job and he is quiet, as if he believes this is besides the point; they are leaders, we must respect them. Period. Shoni on the other hand says this is what democracy means, we must boo them! Boo!
On Friday, I visit J’s Barbershop. It is near Melrose Arch, a predominantly white-world away from the black-African of Braamfontein and Yeoville. J’s reminds me of barber shops in London. HipHop is the soundtrack, barbers wear their jeans low, there are sofa’s for waiting clients and clothes for sale. I speak with Tumi, a private banker who’d been coming to J’s for years. After talking about language differences and his varied receptions when travelling to different parts of this country, his tone softens on the topic of romance. A new relationship, a new girl, what he thinks of their future prospects, what his friends think of her, how he has watched her interact with family, that he thinks he has found ‘The One’. I ask if he has intimated how deeply he feels, ‘Does she know?’ And he replies ‘No, You have to act tough, can’t let her know just yet, maybe after a year’.
As part of grant from the British Council, I am to run a creative writing workshop with a group of poets led by Thabiso Mohare, of British Council JoBurg, of Word & Sound - a poetry organisation. Thabiso is a soft spoken, dreadlocked charismatic man of many talents - most of the folks I meet seem to be multifaceted here. When I first met Thabiso, he’d just been commissioned to write a poem for an American radio station on the mood in South Africa following Nelson’s passing. As we drive to his apartment to hold the workshop, I learn a little more of his glowing plans for poetry in Southern Africa. At the apartment, the writers arrive and there are many of them, each with a different voice, aesthetic and approach to writing. After brief introductions, I lead a two hour, thirty minute workshop on imagery and language. We discuss and critique ‘Litany’ by Billy Collins, ‘The Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carol, and ‘The Forgotten Dialect of The Heart’ by Jack Gilbert. We discuss what is gained and lost in using words to communicate and greater what is gained and lost in using the English language instead any of the 12 languages of the 12 tribes in SA. After that, we write poems. We read these poems to each other. We eat, drink, nourish one another.
Soon it is Sunday. I’d been denied a Visa to Zimbabwe - the next stop on the six week research trip. I must now stay in South Africa for a few more days, attempt to get a visa, and in the meantime, seek out Zimbabweans resident in the country, to hang with and talk. When heavy sanctions were placed on President Mugabe for his violent land reform programmes, three million Zimbabweans fled to South Africa, so finding them should not be a problem. At night, I make a list: Things I have learnt:
1: The Night of Long Knives.
2: Samuel Eto’o is the most successful African footballer of all time.
3: Mandela was of the Xhosa people, the runt of South Africa’s indigenous tribes.
4: Xhosa folk sided with the Dutch and English when they colonised.
5: Joop! fragrance sales rose by 80% in the first three months of its PR campaign.
6: The campaign was masterminded by MissMilliB and her team.
7: ‘Our poverty is the 8th wonder of the world’.
8: Mugabe is a hero to most South Africans, his use of violence wast just in their eyes.
9: The still waters that run deep in South Africa, are not still at all.
10: Hunter’s Dry is the king of ciders.
Next stop, Harare, Zimbabwe?