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Rapunzel, Rapunzel...

"I like a girl with weave in her hair..." -Will Smith

The braid of a woman from Bulawayo.
What do YOU think is beautiful? In Guatemala, we learned that the ancient Mayans would press their babies' foreheads flat so the head would be conical-shaped, a mark of great sophistication. In Peru, you'll remember that the Incas favored gold, and Atahuallpa's ransom included gold jewelry of unsurpassed workmanship.

In America, women in magazine ads are only now changing: from stick-thin, fair-skinned and blond-haired girls to different-featured, different-sized women of all colors. However, in Zimbabwe, there isn't that kind of competition between black or white beauty, and most of the ads and television commercials feature models that reflect the population.

Here in Africa, one of the most fascinating adornments, to me, is the way women do their hair, especially the braids that I've spotted in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city. So cool! Trekker Jamila, who you'll remember from the Guatemala stay, told me she loved having braids. What she didn't like, though, was when people came up to her and played with her hair or touched it without asking.

Jamila said this, too: in the stores in your city, try to find hair or beauty products that suit your particular cosmetic needs. Is it easy for you, or do you have to go to a special store or neighborhood? Here, in any pharmaceutical store, you'll see hair cream, conditioner, relaxer, and dye for all types of hair (predominantly black African hair). And here, I suspect, no one would dare go up to a stranger and touch her braids.

In celebration of the 6 month anniversary of our departure (the trekkers left San Francisco 15 January 1999), I decided to get "plaits," as they call them here, woven into my chin-length hair. Whoo-hooo, I had no idea what that would entail.

Fake hair for sale!
Natalie, who works at the internet cafe, told me it took her two whole days to get the really thin braids done, and she needed 5 packs of extensions, but had to take them all out after two weeks because of the headaches. But Gaby, a Scottish traveler we met in Matopos National Park, told me that it's the best way to travel: you don't have to worry about fixing your hair in the morning, plaits last a long time (about 1-2 months), and you only need to wash them once a week.

One factor that worried me was cost. A woman at the hair salon told me it would cost 900 Zimbabwean dollars (about 24 US dollars), and her helper said that in Victoria Falls they charge 600 (about 16 US dollars). I ended up asking Aggie, who works at the hostel where I'm staying, for advice. She said her neighbor, Mary, could come over and do it for 30, about $8 US. Right on!

I went to Esats, the corner superstore in town, and matched my hair color (flat black, number 1) against the different packages of extensions they have. I only bought two, but then Natalie sent me back and said I'd need at least four packs of the synthetic, plastic hair to weave in.

That afternoon, at around four o'clock, Mary came over with Belinda, her three-year-old daughter, and while Belinda played outside, Mary set to work. She opened the first pack of wig-like hair extensions and tied them to the roots of small sections of my hair, then braided them all the way down, tying the ends off. While she plaited, she told me stories of growing up in Matabeleland during the years after 1980. She spoke of how they had to hide their nice clothes from raiding soldiers, and how they couldn't go to school for weeks at a time because of the bullets and bombings.

Mary gets to work on my new braid.
The tone of the conversation turned serious as Mary explained why she and many other Zimbabweans are considering leaving Zimbabwe, due to the worsening economic situation. "I only have two children, Belinda and [7-year-old] Ben, but what about those people who are behind me, who have four or six children? They have to buy bread, but bread in the stores costs 12 or 14 dollars (30 to 40 cents in US dollars). I don't know what's going to happen... "

Mary runs a small, informal business out of her home, with women coming over for creme rinses and plaiting in the early afternoons. The income she generates from this supplements her husband's salary, and their situation is similar to that of many urban-dwelling Zimbabweans who sell goods and services out of their homes or businesses on the side. Earlier I had visited Mary's house, and another of her neighbors was getting her hair relaxed ($120 Zim or $3 US).

Because the braiding was taking a long time, I started helping Mary finish off the extensions. While we worked, we talked about everything: her kids, the state of relations between black and white Zimbabweans, the past, the present, and the future. It was very cozy! Belinda would periodically run up and laugh at me, or try to address me in Ndebele, until Mary told her I didn't speak Ndebele, only English.

While we talked, we met Paul and Lydia, who were also staying at the hostel and who had met our friends in San Francisco, California, who are helping us coordinate the Trek. They were now in Zimbabwe, traveling and visiting Bulawayo, and Lydia, a teacher, told me that she had used some of the trekker dispatches while we were in Peru, for her classes studying the Incas. What a coincidence! Lydia also had a talent for braiding hair, and demonstrated her techniques to Aggie, braiding 3, 5, 7, and 9 strands of hair together in a Renaissance-type fashion. It was beauty parlor night!

The smell of burning plastic filled the air...
Lydia helped Mary finish off the plaiting process, which took 8 hours and nine-and-a-half packets of extensions between the three of us. "It's taking so long," Mary would say, and Belinda would ask, "When are we going home?" Luckily, we were able to watch a few films at the same time: the hostel has an extensive collection of all the films I haven't had the chance to see yet- being away, we've not gone to the cinema often. Then it took Mary and me another hour to cut off the ends, unevenly because we were both getting pretty tired. Then, using a candle, we burned the very ends, which fused together as the plastic melted. With the air full of the smell of burning plastic and pieces of black extension scattered all over the table and floor, we giggled together. Finally, we finished at 1 in the morning, and celebrated with a quick meal of sadza, greens, corn and carrots with soy sauce, while Belinda slept on the sofa.

Click image for larger view
Which weave would you like?
I encouraged Mary to continue her small-scale beauty-parloring, maybe with a shop in town, but she said that space was very expensive to rent. "Sometimes you see four or five people all sharing one space, the rent is $5000 Zim (about 131 US dollars) per month," she lamented. I suggested she advertise with the travelers who come through the hostel, because it's so close and, as Gaby had said, having plaits is a good way to travel because they're so easy to take care of. That, and they're just fantastic to look at. One of the neatest things about traveling to different places is that you learn about different standards of beauty. Here in Africa, I would have to say that plaits are just perfect, they look great on whoever's wearing them, and they're a true celebration of the beauty of the African 'do.


Kavitha - Survival Skills
Kevin - Our Meating Was Not A Coincidence!
Monica - Rapunzel, Rapunzel...
Abeja - Anger at an Unfair World
Kavitha - Children Coping with the Aftermath of AIDS in Africa
Abeja - A Friend in Need...

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