Shave and a haircut, two bits
Whenever I learn that I am headed back to Rwanda all plans for getting a haircut are put on hold. I've been coming here regularly for the last four years with my friend Anne, who in addition to her Antarctic shenanigans is making the third film of a trilogy about Rwandan village justice and the aftermath of the genocide. A few weeks ago she called from Paris to see if I was free to join her on another jaunt. I said naturally, and started letting my hair grow, and two days ago we had a joyful reunion in the Nairobi airport before making our connection to Kigali.
All photographs: Linette Frewin
Before I discovered the barber shops of Kigali, I was already a big fan of third-world barbering. Compared to the United States, barbers across Latin America, Africa and Asia are guaranteed to give more of their attention, care and time for less of your money. More importantly, barbershops are inevitably hubs of local street culture, one of the few social spaces where, sliding in for a quick trim, one is assured of immediate and unguarded access to the daily lives of the locals.
My friend J.P. our sometime driver-translator, first took me to get my haircut in Kigali, on the second floor of what appeared to be a decrepit, crumbling cement apartment building that had decayed into a low-rent vertical mall, with tiny Chinatown-esque businesses scattered across the facade of its many floors. Here were dozens of barbers cutting dozens of African heads while chatting in Kinyarwanda, Swahili and Lingala, as pounding hip-hop tracks boomed through the concrete arcade and an oscillating bedroom fan sent tufts of afro skittering across the floor. Haircut: $2. Ambiance: priceless.
By my next visit, J.P. had upgraded, and he took me to what passes in Kigali for a midtown salon. Here, facing workstations with expansive mirrors, four barbers gave thoughtful and meticulous trims to a generally more middle-class clientele. The customers here were of the sort who visit at least once a week and insist on maintaining angular razor sharp lines about the temples; the enormous, unruly bush and beard-run-wild of the visiting muzungu were a source of much mirth and merriment.
My neighbor enjoys an ear squeegy
I have since been back several times, and the haircut is just fine. What makes the downtown Kigali experience worth flying halfway across the world for, however, is the post clip relaxation one experiences at the hands of demure Rwandese beauties. While most barbers are content to whisk a bit of talc onto the back of the neck, or perhaps give the jowls a brisk swipe of alcoholic after shave, a cut here at my local barbershop involves an entire second lap, a marathon of intense, frothy shampooing and primping which lasts almost as long as the cut itself. After the cut and beard trim are complete, one pulls back a curtain to find a row of reclining armchairs and porcelain sinks attended by lovely unmarried ladies who swaddle your neck in towels before inviting you to lean your head back, close your eyes, and relax. Should you leave the curtain open even a gap, your hostess will pull it firmly to, as if the cranial intimacies about to transpire are deserving of the fullest privacy.
"Yo girls, what up? How come I always have to do the white guy?"
What follows is a blissfully relaxing scalp massage, shampoo gently applied and rinsed in triplicate, a head rub so complete that one feels that each and every follicle has received personalized attention. This goes on for a deliciously long time, but if by now you have not melted into a pool of gelatinous mush, the final finishing touches are certain to send you slithering to the floor; your hostess deftly swipes a warm and soapy finger around and about the summer dirty gritty contours of your ear lobes, and then darts her fingertips into your outer canal for a final, gentle squeegeying that verges on the erotic.
A new man, relaxed and ready to face the African day....