Hair-raising six hours every six weeks

Auntie Teresa’s Unisex Beauty Salon doubles as a hair salon, internet café and, according to the sign outside, a gold exchange facility.

It’s on a busy street in central Pretoria, and is one of too many hair salons. It’s front windows exhibit the same aesthetic: a price list on one window and a collage with a sea of heads with beautiful hair on the other.

To get here, you must make your way through a dozen hair salon marketers holding weaved-up mannequin heads and posters with collages of heads adorned with a range of styles.

An eerie doomsday soundtrack from a Nollywood movie is heard through the small doorframe when customers walk in. The sounds come from the small Panasonic flat screen mounted in the internet café corner at the back of the large room. There, makeshift cubicles separate five computer monitors that blink in anticipation of a click. Below the TV screen a “R5.00 per hour” message is printed on an A4 page in bold Times New Roman Font in the size 72.

In the opposite corner, two women sit across from one another at what looks like a large glass display cabinet. The women sit with their elbows resting on a towel as if they are delicately arm wrestling. One woman holds the other woman’s wrist and is filing her nails. Their elbows are between nail files, clippers and an open bottle of clear nail varnish.

Closer to the entrance, the bulk of the space caters for all matters related to hair. Here, visitors have the option to dye, curl, braid, relax, straighten, extend or cut their hair.

Auntie Teresa has made use of every square metre of her section of the room, given that she shares it with an internet café and nail technician.

On one wall, five mirrors are secured above a sturdy countertop covered in marble wallpaper. There’s very little space on the countertop for customers to place their belongings because it functions as a display for products. There are the large tubs of orange T444Z hair food, Perfect Choice Sheen Spray, outdated True Love and Destiny magazines, balls of shea butter in transparent plastic containers and Easy Waves curl activator containers.

Then there’s a curtain of hair piece, extensions and weaves in all textures and colours. Below that, there are little forts of Inecto Plus hair-dye boxes in their respective colours that have been placed on top of one another.

Any unused space is filled with a calendar or a poster to sell to clients the promise of looking like the women in the pictures.

A customer walks in and says: “Hi, my sister, I want to do a straight-up like this,” and shows the host a photograph on her phone.

If you don’t bring your own visual reference, you are more than welcome to choose from the photo album filled with a variety of styles.

“Can you do it?” asks the potential client, who is wearing a silk bandana.

“We can do it, my friend. Sit,” says the receptionist, pointing at a chair before asking one of the two stylists tag-teaming a head of faux-locks to attend to the woman with the bandana. After a chorus of sighs one of them drags her feet to the client, removes her bandana and picks at her hair with a rat’s tail comb before greeting her and finding out what she wants.

At the next station, a stylist braiding thick singles snaps her fingers in her client’s ear. This is a signal to the daydreaming client to hand her a piece of hair.

Customer service is not always at the top to their list of daily goals and clients usually have to work to get what they want.

The wall behind the styling stations functions as the drying and wash area. It has one black washing basin and two hood dryers. Behind these are large buckets of Ladine, Dark ’n Lovely, Restore, Mizani and Sofn’Free relaxer.

In one of the hood dryers a pre-teen in school uniform adjusts her earmuffs.

When her father dropped her off, she told the stylist she was here for a quick wash. “My mom said I will come back for a fresh straight-back next week,” she said while removing the thick headband that matches her uniform.

She had removed her cornrows the previous night and insisted she had washed and combed her hair, but the brown oil build-up at the root of her coiling kinks proves otherwise. Because her parents aren’t present, the stylist convinces her to “blow” her Afro with relaxer, an act that will semi-straighten her hair and make it more manageable and easier to comb.

Now she pouts and protests at the high temperature inside the hood dryer that her head will have to sit in for the next 45 minutes to an hour. Isn’t the level of heat in a hood dryer a no-no for natural hair?

The stylists nudge one another and shrug. “She wants beautiful hair; she must sit in there until I say so,” says the stylist, knowing that the dryer is too loud for the girl to hear.

During the six-hour visit, very few words are exchanged between the clients and the stylists. Some try for small talk, but they get distracted when the channel is changed to Emmanuel TV where TB Joshua works miraculous Christian crusade magic.

Clients know their time in a chair is nearing its end when their stylist stands behind them with a mirror.

And so it goes, once every four to six weeks.

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Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

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