Three hours passed to the background music of the market place. Mamis jabbered, proving the mulling over of ‘he said, she said’ gossip to be a universal phenomenon, knowing no cultural boundaries. Hair was prepared, combed and divided, for a client. The fwipfwipfwipfwip of fingers overlapping strands of synthetic mesh was a blur, hands moved so quickly that you hardly ever saw the pieces themselves, only the braids they turned into.
My hair slowly and arduously transformed from shoulder length, wavy White Girl hair to exactly 100 purple and brown braids, tips resting six inches below my collar bone. A fellow ex-patriot and I had knocked around the idea for a few days before deciding to take the plunge Saturday morning.
Together we turned the corner and were hit head-on with an
overwhelming alley of hair dressing women. The row stretched farther than I could see, an ocean of women and weave. All the acclimation I’d forged over the past sixteen months was forgotten as mamis snatched at us, hoping we’d choose them to patronize. In the end, I chose the one who grabbed my hand and led me out of the hubbub and into the synthetic hair shop hidden in the depths of the Bamenda main market.
She was a student, she explained, and only did hair on the side when her studies weren’t too demanding. She worked alongside her mother, a life-long braider, who was now aging and didn’t have the speed or dexterity she once did. We discussed price and I managed to secure our work for a third of the originally proposed number, with the promise to also send for a Coke for both daughter and mother in an effort to give them ‘power’ and motivation to keep at our hair until the job was done.
We headed back to stall 40, a cement slab covered by a piece of tin roofing. Holes in the metal made me thankful we weren’t there for the headache it surely caused during rainy season, the daily downpours making their way through the slits and onto patrons. Not five feet from stall 40 was number 41. Edge a few more feet and you were met with 42. The trend continued down the entire line of women, each boutique sitting atop the last. Each stall held at least three women and their clients, and office lines blurred together so that they women themselves weren’t always sure exactly which number they were freelancers for, only that this was the general area they were slated to work in. Each hosted her own bamboo chair, sometimes precariously balanced on the edge of the concrete. As new clients arrived and old departed, you shifted back into the shack, eventually becoming a part of the ocean of people.
My original placement on the edge of number 40 afforded me a panoramic view of the alley. And, of course, the alley a panoramic view of me. Vendors, mothers, children, and passersby rubbernecked the duo of white women with multiple pairs of hands roaming their heads, asking questions about the peculiarities of western hair, and at what price point we’d be willing to part with it, should they desire to make a wig of our locks.
The tugging started at my temples, causing my eyes to water
involuntarily. A flurry of ladies inquired about my pain tolerance, and I assured them that I was a ‘trong, trong woman’ and could withstand much more of the same kind of yanking. The rhythm of the braiding, combined with the dry season heat and Sahelian winds, began to lull me into a catatonic state after a few hours. Eyes half closed, lids heavy, mind blank. I sat and became one with the overstimulation and watched as tumble-weaves, the massive piles of hair that form in a place like this and are then blown about by the breeze, passed by the salon.
As the scale tipped in favor of weave vs. hair, the hints that I should give more money than the original price became stronger and stronger. Whites are often seen in a market as weak or ignorant, and stubbornly clinging to a previously agreed-upon price becomes more and more difficult when you find yourself surrounded by Cameroonian women, each agreeing with the last that, yes, a small amount more would be the right thing to do. Just a tiny amount, they suggest. Another 1000 cfa note, or three, and we’d all be much happier.
As the sun made its way towards the horizon we at least were freed, head pounding and wallet firmly closed and unmoving. We escaped the craze of the hair braiding market, leaving to shouts of racist remarks or compliments, we couldn’t tell which over the din. Led partially by our now substantially heavier heads, we hailed a taxi and made our way to the car park, popping ibuprofen along the way in anticipation of the waves of headaches we’d be riding that night. As though by a stroke of luck, a car pulled alongside us not a minute later, ready to take us to Bali, our new hairdos in tow.