Inside the Frizzy Jungle of a Nairobi Salon

We had never been lucky to have a local salon at Hekima Estate.  This was until two months ago when Shiny Strands Beauty Salon opened its doors just outside the main gate of Hekima Estate.  Prior to that, we had to go to the shopping centre which was quite far and a great inconvenience if you needed a quick salon fix before going to the office or before a night out.

Salon About a month after Shiny Strands Beauty Salon opened its doors, I made my maiden visit.  It was a sunny Saturday morning and I had a wedding reception to attend that evening.  My hair was in faux locs which I had had in for about a month.  This wouldn’t do for a wedding.

For you dear reader, who is not acquainted with the African woman’s hairdos, faux locs are basically fake dreadlocks.  They are installed by parting your hair into small sections and then wrapping each section with synthetic braiding hair.

So I walked through the doors of Shiny Strands Beauty Salon optimistic and excited to get a fresh new hairstyle.  The doorway of the salon opened into the reception area which was furnished with a curved wooden reception desk.  Behind the reception desk was a display cabinet filled with various hair and skin products.  To the left of this cabinet was a chart that said, “Price List.”  This listed the services offered such as manicure, pedicure, facials, braiding, blow-dry, dreadlocks, treatment, retouch and many more but no prices were indicated against each service.  Nobody was manning the reception desk.

There was also a low round coffee table within the reception area.  The coffee table was surrounded by an extra-large curved plush pleather sofa that, in my estimation, could seat about twelve people at a squeeze.  There were four women sprawled on this sofa.  Each was on her phone, oblivious of what was happening around them.  From their dress, it was obvious that they were employees of the establishment.  They all wore yellow t-shirts and black pants.  Yellow was also the predominant colour used for the interior décor of the salon.

At the far end of the reception area, opposite the reception desk, was an archway leading to the styling, shampooing and barbering area.

None of the women stirred upon my entry.  It was as if I did not exist.

“Hello,” I ventured.  “Is it possible to get my hair done?”

One of the women looked my way but only for few seconds and then shouted, “Nancy there is a customer.”

I stood at the entrance awkwardly not knowing what to do until a woman, who I assumed was Nancy, appeared. She was dressed in a yellow t-shirt and black pants like the other women.

“Hi,” she said.  “How can I help you?”

“I would like to have my hair done,” I said.  “I would also like a pedicure.”

“Okay,” said Nancy.  “Please follow me.”

I followed her through the archway, and into the styling area.  There were two more employees seated there (a man and a woman).  The woman was seated in a styling chair with her feet up on the salon worktop.  The man was seated on a high stool behind her, styling her hair.  Nancy led me to one of the workstations.  I sat down and she put a towel around my shoulders.

“How would you like your hair done?” she asked.

“I would like it undone and washed and then braided into twists,” I replied.

“Okay,” she said to me and then turned to the woman who was sitting with her feet on the salon worktop.  “Mary, this client needs to have her hair undone.”

“You can’t see that I am getting my hair styled?” responded Mary.  “Can’t she wait until I am done?”

Nancy disappeared into the reception area and returned with one of the lounging women, whom I later came to learn was called Daisy.

Daisy took out my hairband and surveyed my faux locs.

“How much will I get paid for undoing these?” she asked Nancy.

“You know that undoing faux locs in 200 Shillings,” responded Nancy.

“But these ones are long,” complained Daisy.  “And the braiding hair used is quite rough.  They must have used Afro Kinky hair instead of Fluffy Kinky hair.  It will crack my nails and I have just been manicured.”

Seeing that nobody was interested in undoing my hair I said, “Let me undo it myself.  It will take me less than fifteen minutes and it will save me 200 Shillings.”

“Sawa,” said Daisy, rolling her eyes and strolling away.

“Are you sure that you are okay undoing your own hair?” asked Nancy unsure about letting a client undo her own hair.

“I am okay,” I said.  “Just give me a pair of scissors and an afro comb to comb it out after undoing.”

Dear reader, if you have had faux locs before, you know how easy it is to undo them.  It is just a matter of trimming off the end of each loc, holding the root end of your hair with one hand and then pulling off the synthetic hair with the other hand.  It took me under fifteen minutes to undo the faux locs.  In hindsight, I should just have done this at home.

Client in SalonAfter I had undone and combed out my hair, I remained seated for about ten minutes with nobody taking notice of me.  Mary and the man who was making her completely ignored me.  I stood up and went to the reception area to look for Nancy or any of the lounging ladies.

“I am done undoing my hair,” I said.  “Can I get someone to wash it?”

Daisy stood up and said, “Okay, let’s go to the sink.”

She led the way to the shampooing area, where I sat down and rested my head into the shampoo bowl.  Daisy turned on the faucet and instead of pointing the spray hose at my hair, pointed it at my forehead and splashed copious amounts of water all over my face.

“Be careful,” I said as I took the ends of the towel and towelled off my face.

“It’s just water,” she responded rudely.  “You won’t melt or dissolve.”

I kept my peace.

Dear reader, I am one of those individuals who have been blessed with bucket loads of patience.  I am also very slow to anger.  Don’t be surprised therefore that I kept my peace after such rude remarks from a supposed service provider.

Daisy then began shampooing my hair.  She did not do a thorough job of it for she kept worrying about her recent manicure.  I cannot count the number of times she paused to inspect her nails and ensure that the red shiny enamel was not chipping away.  Done with shampooing, she conditioned my hair with the same lethargic motions before subjecting me to another flood in the face in the name of a final rinse.

She then directed me back to the work station and called at the top of her voice, “Is Nancy back? I have finished shampooing this client and I cannot blow-dry her because her hair is natural.”

Nancy appeared through the archway, a can of Smirnoff Ice Electric Ginseng in hand.  I was confused.  Why was she drinking Smirnoff Ice Electric Ginseng in the morning and at her workplace?  She touched my wet hair with the tips of her fingers and then turned to the man who was doing Mary’s hair.

“Brayo are you almost done?”  she asked.  “You are the only one who can blow-dry coarse natural hair.  The rest of us get pains in our arms trying to do it.”

“Give me five minutes and I will be done,” responded Brayo.

“Remember I also need to get a pedicure,” I told Nancy.

“Oh, I forgot,” she said.  “Sophie there is a pedicure needed here.”

“I have chest pains,” responded Sophie from the reception area.  “Pedicures will only make it worse.  I cannot do pedicures today.  Only manicures.”

“Naima can you do the pedicure?” Nancy called.

“Not really,” Naima called back.  “Sophie got the chest pains from pedicuring a momo woman yesterday.  I don’t want to get chest pains.”

This statement was probably meant in earnest or it was meant to embarrass me.  It did not affect me anyhow.

“Let me call a lady from the other salon at the shopping centre to come and pedicure you,” said Nancy whipping out her phone.

“Forget the pedicure,” I said.

That was a loss to them.  Salons multiplied their income by selling extra products and services to clients who came for one single service.  This salon had failed to sell me any additional service and had actually withdrawn from providing services I had expressly asked for.

Presently, Brayo was done styling Mary’s hair.  He approached me with the blow-dryer, ready to attack my kinky hair.  He put the blow-dry comb into my hair anticipating resistance from my forest of coils but, much to his surprise, the comb slid through with zero resistance.

“You have mucous hair!” he remarked.

Hair SalonDear reader, let me pause here and explain.  Natural African hair is not the same.  Steel wool hair is the coarsest African hair and remains course whether wet or dry.  Green gram (ndengu) hair shrinks into very tight coils that look like green grams.  Sisal hair grows quite long, does not shrink much but is quite coarse.  Cotton wool hair is soft and fluffy when dry and soft and springy when wet.  Mucous hair is soft with a slightly slippery texture when wet.

Anyway, Brayo blow-dried my hair.  It seemed to be quite a walk in the park for him for midway through this task, he whipped out his phone and started texting with one hand while he blow-dried my hair with the other.  Because his attention was divided, he did not notice when a knot in my hair held up the blow dry comb.  The concentrated heat on that one spot burnt my scalp and I winced.

“Sorry,” he said.

He detangled the knot and then went right back to his phone.  At the end of the blow dry session, I had unevenly straightened hair with the hair at the back of my head quite straight and the front still curly.

“Who is braiding this hair?” he asked his colleagues.  “Should I put oil in it.  It is mucous hair and will be quite slippery when plaiting.”

Nancy appeared to inspect the work.  This time she had a can of “Smirnoff Ice Double Black” in hand.  She was clearly loyal to the Smirnoff Ice brand but not particularly loyal to any flavour thereof.

“Let me call a braider from the market to come and braid you,” she said after taking a few sips of her Smirnoff Ice Double Black.

“Hello,” she spoke into her phone.  “I have one head here for twisting.”

Pause, “Okay.  See you in ten minutes.”

“The braider will be here in ten minutes,” she said and disappeared into the reception area.

After about fifteen minutes, she returned followed by two women.

“This is the head for twisting,” Nancy said to the women.  “I did not expect two of you.  Will you share the commission?”

“I cannot braid alone,” said one of the ladies.  “I am a back fixer and so I need a front fixer to work with me.  We have also called someone to do the finishing as neither of us are finishers.”

Dear reader, perhaps I should enlighten you further on the terminologies used by this braider.  A fixer is an expert braider who attaches the synthetic hair onto your hair in a braid or a twist.  A back fixer is a braider who specialises in fixing the synthetic hair neatly at the back of the head but cannot do a neat job at the front.  A front fixer is a braider of the opposite skill, meaning to say that she can only fix the synthetic hair neatly at the front of the head.  A finisher is a braider who has no skill in fixing the synthetic hair onto your natural hair but has great skill and expertise in braiding or twisting the hair from where the fixer leaves it to the tips.

The back fixer whipped out a wooden afro comb that was broken and had only three teeth left.  She combed through my hair and said to the front fixer, “This hair has been poorly blow-dried.  She will feel pain when we part the sections.”

“Yes,” agreed the front fixer.  “I cannot braid the front as it is not blow-dried at all.  Let me get a blow-drier.”

She walked towards the archway.

“Could you please help us with a blow-dry?” the front fixer called to Nancy.  “The hair is still curly and will not have a neat finish.”

“I will have to deduct you fifty shillings for using electricity,” said Nancy.

“It’s okay,” said the front fixer.  “With the hair semi-blow-dried like this, the customer will feel pain when we part her hair for braiding and the end result will not be neat and smooth.”

Nancy handed them the blow-dryer and disappeared once again.  The front fixer proceeded to blow-dry my hair.  In the meantime, the back fixer was parting the bundle of synthetic braiding hair into smaller portions, ready for fixing into my hair.

They started fixing the hair, one at the front and one at the back.  They worked in silence for some time and then the front fixer said, “This Nancy with her drunkenness will run this place down in no time!”

“Can you imagine that she is already drinking at this time of the morning!” said the back fixer.

“She says that she is drinking to remove the lock in her head from last night’s drinking and partying,” said the front fixer.

“Hmm,” said the back fixer.  “And these girls she has brought here are not even professionals.  They don’t do any work.”

“I applied for a job here when she opened,” said the front fixer.  “She told me that I looked like a villager and would chase away her high-end clients.  She employed these girls who are fashionable but cannot do any work.  They just beautify themselves and lie around all day.”

“Now she has to rely on us to come here and do the work,” said the back fixer.  “And yet, I hear that these girls demand a retainer so that they don’t leave.  She pays them to lie around and then pays us a commission to do the work.”

“I am telling you she will close this place down,” said the front fixer.  “You wait and see.”

Presently, another woman came.  She greeted us and proceeded to inspect my half-braided head.

“You have fixed the braids in very fast,” she remarked.  “I was estimating that it would take you one and a half hours to reach halfway.”

From her speech, I deduced that she was the finisher.

“Her hair is smooth,” said the front fixer.  “It is very easy to fix the twists.”

The finisher bent over slightly and taking the back hem of her skirt, tucked it into the front waist band.  She then tucked the sides of her skirt into her panty so that it looked like her skirt had miraculously converted into a short or a loin cloth. After this dress conversion, she lifted her foot and placed it on the armrest of my chair, crudely nudging my arm away with her toes.  She rubbed some petroleum jelly onto her upper thigh and proceeded to roll each twist thereon.  It was like a miracle, I tell you!  The twist was finished to its tips in a matter of seconds!

Hair SalonThe trio continued gossiping as they worked and in two hours, my hair was done.  They dipped the twists into boiling hot water so that the ends would not run. They then arranged my twisted hair into a neat ponytail at the top of my head.

I was satisfied with the results but deeply dissatisfied with the culture at Shiny Strands Beauty Salon.  I paid my dues and walked out of the Salon vowing never to step back there.

It turns out that the front fixer had been right in her predictions. Barely a month after my visit, Shiny Strands Beauty Salon closed its doors.  The premises are now operated by a butcher.

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Author: Didi Wamukoya

20 thoughts on “Inside the Frizzy Jungle of a Nairobi Salon

  1. So this lady pays the girls who just lie around and beautify themselves all day long,and don’t show the customers some courtesy a retainer fees and pays people who do the work commission!!!!!???the level of stupidy!!!

  2. In one Salon I visited the owner walked around with alcohol in a brown bag. She was clearly very drunk and kept laughing and giggling.

  3. Some salonists insult you as they make your hair saying how your hair is coarse or the colour is ugly or your forehead is big etc. No customer care skills whatsoever.

  4. I used to go to a salon where the owner used to drink with her friends at the reception. They were so loud and rowdy and would even comment loudly how a customer is badly dressed or has bad hair. I stopped going there!

  5. I hate it when you find hairdressers who are just lying around! It’s like you don’t matter as a client. I always just leave that salon.

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