Jumbo Boys, the roadside hairdressers of Tongogara.

By Nifa Loysha

Four worn hairstyle posters were pinned onto the wall, displaying various hairstyles a distance from each other. A mirror hammered on the wall; the mirror is as big as any image that stood before it. At the corner along the wall stood a wooden bench that hosted customers awaiting their turn to be properly styled by the magical jumbo boy hairdressers. This is June, the winter month, and like all the cold mornings, work resumes after the sun creeps high in the sky and rips the billow of frosted clouds apart. Unless the sun does its part, the reliable old dryer fails to work because the solar panel on the roof needs heat to spark electric current.

The red brick saloon is at the top of Tongogara’s talk. Situated at the dusty main roadside, the front white-paint label “The Jumbo saloon, your best service” is partly invisible because of the street dust that has settled and continues to nest on it. The supposed-to-be shiny iron roof has turned into a cloud of brown dust. On any given day of this season, windows are closed in an attempt to control the storms of dust entering the saloon from the speedy cars, motorcycles, bicycles, cart-carrying donkeys, and school children lackadaisical going to school in the morning and running and crying to their home during the afternoon.

On Sundays afternoon, Jean and Eric, the Jumbo boys were going home from the church service.  They talked about the problems that they are facing. Insurmountable obstacles that have let their dreams shattered. Jean told Eric his story and Eric did the same. They were walking while embracing each other about what seems to be a common problem. Their conversation stumbled to unsual remedy. Jean has a sister who was resettled to Canada and left a saloon business to no one.

“My sister was a brilliant hairdresser. She was the breadwinner for our family. Now she went to Canada and it will take years for her to send money. I feel like getting some skills so that I can carry on with the business but I’m afraid that people will laugh at me. As you know brother in this community, people laugh at you when you are begging and they also laugh at you when you are doing a work that most think is not for you,”  Jean revealed the business idea which was good to generate money but awkward to carry on. Nonetheless, Eric was so interested.

“You know what Jean, I think it is a great idea for self-reliance if only we forget about what people would think of us and brave the heat to start the business.I know how to plait hair, a skill I learned from childhood as the only boy in the family of girls. Though I have never thought of making a business out of this, when push comes to shove, it is always the survival of fittest, the fittest are those who have multi-skills in this ever-changing world.” Eric convinced Jean and they both agreed to give it a try. In the evening, they shared their proposal with their aunty who found it absurd.

“Why are you braiding hair? Can’t you find something other men are doing?” Eliza, Eric’s aunt, asked the boys after she was approached by the duo asking if she could allow them to start hair braiding practice with the children at home.

“Aunt, what work do you see men  doing if I may ask you? “ Eric asked with his mouth wide open showing and expression that was teasing and funny.

 “Aunt, are you referring to those men who are making bricks, those burning charcoal or those who are either carrying some stray ball gum on the street of Harare or what?” Jean added on Eric’s first question.

“Eric and Jean, I am referring to anything fit for a man. It is not good for young men like you to earn a living through a ridiculous work”

“Aunt, we need to make money with the available resources in our hand. Yes, those jobs may be good for us and we may have the ability to do them but do we have the capital? We sure don’t. But with the salon, there are assets already and what we need is the skills so that we can deploy them for a business. If we raise enough money we can shift to another business,” Jean convinced Eliza.

Eliza was intrigued by the boys’ insight and she was convinced enough until she accepted that the boys could start their practice by braiding the girls at home. Eric and Jean go on about plaiting the kids whenever they come back from school. It was a funny business for the kids as they also learned to plait alongside the boys.  They took their time to do more practices by plaiting children, they moved to the adults for free. This built up their friendship. In three months, Jean and Eric set the job for payment and it was clear that the boys meant business.

The community counteracts Jean and Eric’s business with a glaring deal of hesitancy but their bewildering ambition is relentless. If skin could produce a screeching sound or could be  pierced by insults, the boys could rattles like a broken tin. The controversy surrounding their business went down so unbearably a week when they were soliciting some clients they could work on for payment. Women and girls couldn’t embrace what they term as feminine work, performed by a male against all odds of the entrenched community beliefs, however, their talent talked on the street. It was unbelievable that they people they braided for free have the best hair-braided styles and the community poured on their salon like water jerking from a narrow straw.

 “Odi hapa,” shouts a customer who is holding two brown attachments of braids.

“Karibu,” Jean replied, the verbal word for “knock” from the customer in Swahili with a welcome.

“Jambo, Jean.”

“Jambo sana Jane” They both exchanged greetings as Jane lowered down on the customer bench.

“When are you starting working,” Jane asked as Jean cleaned the last chair while Eric took the welcoming poster outside. The black board written in chalk and leaned against the wall is an indication that work has started.

“We are starting now, but we have to start with the people whose braids weren’t finished yesterday,” Jean replied. Eric took a dismissive look and laughed at Jean’s response.

“My brother, the rule of business is “first come, first served,” said Eric while he was beckoning Jane to the mirror seat. Jane who was fortunate to get a spot in the overcrowding saloon knew that she was the luckiest.

 “What style goes for you,” Jean touched Jane’s scalp with a sense of reluctance.

 “I think  cornrows,” Jane replied.

 “Okay Sister, the style will cost you seven dollars.”

 “Why that expensive? It is the simplest style in the camp,” Jane asked in shocked.

“Yes, you are right, it is the simplest style but it is not simplicity that drives our work. We ensure we set you unique above the others. Apart from that, your hair is deeply a mess, entangled, thick with dust and steely. We need to shampoo it and give you the quality braided beyond your expectation and seven dollars is a fair deal.”

Jane was faced with a hard choice, to get the best hairstyle and to go for the other salons who take people’s money but only for one to return to them for a new braiding barely a week later having to  pay the money again. She had an experience there: one day, she went to one of the salons for the same cornrow, but came back carrying all the rope of her braid totally different, some were loose, some were thicker than others. She decided not to go back to that salon.

“Can I pay you seven dollars,” she said.

“Sister, I need you to get the best of my work, it is a take it or leave deal.” Jean said with a broad  smile on his face. The smile that combines the rudeness and generosity at the same time. That smiles that shows that he has nothing to loose even if Jane decided to leave because customers are just squeesing each other over the wooden bench.

“Please go on, all I need is a lovely braids that will last long,” said Jane.

Jean’s fingers danced so magically for an hour and Jane endeared to the mirror in a look that she didn’t think she owns. All the ropes of the braids moved gracefully in a spiky line from the forehead outline and fell freely in a long tips at the back. When Jean told her that the work was completed, she smiled broadly many times to the mirror and she couldn’t help evacuating a seat that could be for another customer.

 “Wow! Wow! I look like Regina King. Thank you so much,” This is the best I have received from the Tongogara salon.” Jane elated with a beautiful smile as she walked out to a of line of customers who filled the roomed almost immediately after she arrived.

Jean and Eric have learned to make a living out of the cosmopolitan Tongogara by picking what most call a female’s job. The two boys are leading the Camp with a charming talent. While other hairdressing saloons earn barely twenty dollars a day, they can earn up to fifty dollars in a good business day.

“The world has stretched its limbs beyond its height; anything so uncommon is common. Who would ever think that boys who could follow the footstep of their fathers would become unbecoming?” one of the men seated in a group at any bar parlor would giggle to make jokes out of their work. 

“Those two boys carry some magic,” another would be mumbling with a mouthful of beer to pick up the conversation where the other had left it, and the dialogue beat around from this person to the next. 

“When they touch your wife’s head, certainly, your wife’s behavior changes; you don’t just know how a lot of women dream about them night and day. To make the matter worst, the women they have attended to don’t dream quietly, but in a nightmare, I heard a certain man whose wife flew off the bed in the middle of the night wailing and calling one of the hairdressers’ names,” They would all laugh in their drunkenness and interrupted the conversation with the order for more glasses of beer. 

These are the same men whose wives complain that their husbands spent more time drinking than doing anything significant at their homes, men who prefer to be babysitting beers and discussing all manners of gossip at the nightclubs than babysitting their babies and fondling their wives’ hearts.

“When we got married, love scented our room, but when the beer-woman arrived, its smell held the air thick and musty. Everything that I read and understand clearly from my husband’s face has been covered by the bruise of alcohol,” one mother said vehemently, almost crying. 

Before Jean and Eric met in their unusual work, both chased different dreams from the camp’s only secondary school. Jean’s uncle wants him to be a doctor. His uncle said he was a brilliant boy, and that is what makes a doctor.

“Your mother died because of malaria. There were no medical facilities long ago before we fled home,” His uncle, Mugisha, said, recalling their ancestral home, Rutana, in southern Burundi, a town that lies west of Mountain Kikizi, one of the highest mountains in Burundi. When Jean dropped out of school because refugee children were given selective subjects based on their capability, their dream was shattered. Jean was denied mathematics because he did well in the other four subjects, and he couldn’t take more than that. He was depressed by this imposition; his uncle persuaded him to continue with the four subjects but in vain. If his uncle had money, he could have sent Jean to boarding school where there is no subject limitation.

Tongogara doesn’t present the same face to all those who live in it. Despite one’s potential and commitment to building a stable life, circumstances are the biggest obstacles. Eric did the best he could for a child  to make his parents proud. He excelled well in secondary and high school. Unfortunately, his application for tertiary learning wasn’t accepted  because his parents have no legal refugee status, a misfortune that befell him from his birth.

“No one chooses a family from birth, but looking at what I found myself in, it is as if I was born with no rights to education, no rights to earn a wage so that I can live a dignified life,” Eric would say to his parents while nursing his bitterness. His parents say very little, for there is nothing more sad than acknowledging that the looming failure of Eric lies in the parents’ hands though their destiny was not homemade.

“Keep focus, my son; no one knows what tomorrow will bring, Joseph was sold to Egypt, and Daniel was thrown into a pit, but because God has a purpose for everyone on earth, they found their way out,” consoled his mother. 

What became a long lasting friendship between Jean and Eric started a year ago at the United Methodist Church, the church of their denomination. This Tongogara roadside church, with no more than twenty Sunday congregants, makes louder noises during every stand-and-dance hymn singing session than a thousand congregants at the Catholic Church. Because the teens are choir members, they participate in rehearsal twice a week, Wednesday and Saturday; their adeptness in religious activities happened after they both dropped out of school. The boys became devoted church-goers simply because of a lack of other things to do in the community.

In the Camp, church services, marriage, and sports forge relief, unity, and a sense of belonging not only to young people but to everyone. One single mother said that if you need a place to cry your heart out fiercely because of unending Tongogara problems, the church is the best fit. No one would suspect anything amiss, but all would believe that the Holy Spirit has shaken you, forgetting that you are seized by ceaseless difficulties at your own house. The habitual church-crying lots are faced with the dilemma of no solutions at home or  away. But the church pastors would blame their condition on the bondage of evil spirits, which can eventually be broken by perpetual and fervent praying at the house of the Lord.

“No matter the years of suffering, you will cross the red sea with its water parted to both sides on foot,” the pastors at Jean and Eric’s church would shout, and the congregation would shout back with Amen in unison. When a church member has been resettled overseas, or Bulaya, as the community calls it, the pastors’ words become true, and the struggle will continue.

The Jumbo boys are nowhere close to resettlement but they hold the key for their future. A future that has been betrayed by obstacles. Amazingly their painstaking propositions work. They reduce the perpetual church activities and excel in real business, they believe that they are too young for demons to own them. They know that the monster they face is lack of money and with money, they can have a better life and navigate with ease a tough world which has dejected so many poor. Till today, their salon offers the best services ever and it has been expanded with tens of employees and hundreds of customers in Tongogara of thousands.

30 July, 2023