Salon politics

2008-11-20 00:00

With my half-done braids in a bun on top of my head I tried, as quickly as I could, to follow the instructions I was given. “Down the end of the passage, go up one flight of steps, first door on your right.” As I approached the designated door I looked at the key in my hand. No chains or holders, nothing to jingle with. I was desperate for the toilet. I inserted the key and twisted. Due to some imbalance in the building structure, the door creaked open by itself. Much to its disadvantage the cubicle was well lit. Around the toilet was a collection of the deposits of human consumer culture, wrappings, foils, packets and plastic pockets merged by fungus to the floor and walls. The floor itself looked like the scalp of an old woman who never washed her hair. I lifted my chin to see the inside of the toilet bowl. Plugged by so much toilet tissue it looked like something cancerous was growing underneath and bleeding out sickly body fluids.

With a single step through the door my mind simultaneously entered and left the rat hole, which made no attempt to hide its intended passage to the sewer system.

I pulled out and closed the door. I desperately needed the toilet but could I use this one? Did I want to prove myself that much to those women? I could always go to Edgars across the street and pretend I was shopping. However, this meant I would have to pass by the catty ladies downstairs and they’d know that I had cheated. In their minds they had already found a label for me. I can’t name it but whatever it was it didn’t mix, like oil and water, with the labels they believed themselves to be. I noted the sly smile on Nomfundo’s* face as she handed me the key with no jingles. From the looks of them I suspected nothing jingled in these women’s lives. In that moment, which I now replayed in my mind as I stood on the threshold of hell, I appreciated the simplicity of their thinking.

It was a challenge. The tension between Nomfundo and I had developed when I demanded the perfection for my hair which I did not know how to produce myself. I came to the salon at 11 am, it was now 3 am and the battle had still not ended. In fact, I think Nomfundo and friends were quite enjoying their little social experiment.

11 am: “‘What size braid would you like?”

“Medium.”

Nomfundo nodded her head and handed me the bunch of braiding hair to cut, much like you would a deck of cards, and deal her pieces as she moved along. To be honest, although this is the usual procedure anywhere, I hate this job. As a result I’ve become very bad at it. She did the first cut herself, but it was behind my head so I didn’t see. As a result of that I guessed. As Nomfundo started with the cut I gave her, Zanele* came in to help with the work. I don’t speak zulu but they used words and gestures, reflected in the mirror in front of me, that were easy to understand. To some degree I believed it was their intention to do so. Nomfundo was complaining to Zanele that my cuts were too small. I sensed some underlying resentment in her tone. How dare I demand something that I myself do not understand? But why didn’t she just say something to me? Zanele put her hand out for a cut, I changed the size of my cut and gave her the strands of loose fake hair. She looked at her compatriot and grunted in acknowledgement of my apparent incompetence.

They continued to whine to themselves about me in Zulu as I tried different sizes. They made it clear they didn’t want to help me. When I asked anything they’d shout down a reply in Zulu. A third one, let’s call her Thando*, came and settled into the self-righteous snobbery unquestioningly and the game continued.

In the wake of the xenophobic attacks one might anxiously call this situation an example of prejudice. But we must learn to separate people’s natural character from a xenophobic reaction. Last year I lived in a digs with a white boy and a zulu girl. I, admittedly, was the messier out of the three and when I received my notice without warning I was suspicious because the letter gave no reasons. Not even my messiness, which was actually nothing serious. That day all three of us got letters. The zulu girl’s letter was identical to mine but the white boy’s letter was a letter of placation. The owners said that they were sorry his conditions were unliveable and that the two black girls will be replaced (in brackets) by whites. When I recounted this story to my friend, Nandisa, she told me I should have photocopied the letter and gone to court as part of my social responsibility. When you don’t do anything you support the status quo. By then it was too late for me to do anything. Nothing wastes knowledge more than the lack of will to put it into practice.

Am I at a point where that will needs to be awakened and a whistle needs to be blown? No, this isn’t racism or xenophobia or any sort of prejudice. This is plain bullying and the bully’s strength just happens to be the language barrier.

The ladies had taken to referring to me as “Ntombi”. A fourth girl entered the picture. She was different, clearly new. She had that odd misfit countenance and was desperate to get rid of it. Seeing that I was being bullied she took a gamble and used me as a launching point for her acceptance. Let’s call this girl Imbali*. She should never enter politics. Assuming that because I am out of power in our initial acquaintance, that I will stay out of power is foolish. Imbali is the only one who made me pissed rather than nervous. Her work was as careless as her speech and it wasn’t long before I was glaring at her fingers. At some point I complained to her about a braid. She snapped away at the braid in question with the scissors. The quick flash of light on metal right next to my eye as the scissors snapped was a defiant show to the other women of how she too can be rotten to a customer. To my surprise yet a fifth girl entered. But she was quiet as she went about her work. She observed and absorbed.

I ran out of extensions at some point and had to buy more. I took my time, passing through Edgars to use the loo and getting some fresh air. When I returned I was met with a cold: “We thought you went home.”

“Why would I?”

Struck that I actually had a tongue, the work began again. Pretty soon I needed the toilet again too. Imbali looked almost excited to see me receive the key.

3 pm: So here I am presented with all this filth wondering which one I should brave. The filth upstairs or the filth downstairs. When I re-entered the salon and took my seat, the mood was different. To my surprise the fifth girl started to speak to me. She asked me where I’m from and all the other usual questions in any initiation of acquaintance. Imbali was clearly subdued and the others just quiet. I could see that they were all thinking maybe, just maybe, they judged too soon. The fifth girl, the one who assumed nothing and did not bully, was the only one in a position of power. The only one who could speak to me and make the peace without looking like a traitor. For that she got admission. Imbali was put to work on another person’s head.

* Not their real names.

Symphrose Temu

Symphrose Temu is a Tanzanian BA student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

“I wrote this story because in the wake of the xenophobic attacks sensitivity towards any feeling of isolation, as a foreigner, increased. You end up attributing experiences that have nothing to do with xenophobia to xenophobia. I believe the same pattern persists in many forms of prejudice. A while back I was short of money at a till and I asked the woman in front of me (who was white) for R1. She looked at me like I was an opportunistic thief before screeching out a ‘No.’ At the time I thought ‘Racist b****.’ But now I feel sorry for her. It can’t be fun walking on egg shells.”

• The Witness has been unable to contact Symphrose Temu for a photograph.

Don’t miss Saturday’s Weekend Witness in which we will announce the winners in our True Stories of KwaZulu-Natal competition.

The finalists are:

Open category

(R10 000, runner-up R3 000)

John Mkhize: ‘We came from nowhere, we’re now here’

Bertus Appel: ‘The man on the pavement’

Su Hennessy: ‘Khele’s grandchild’

Tim Houghton: ‘Guns and posers at Table Mountain’

Jenny Roberts: ‘TB ward’

Derek Alberts: ‘Wotalot we got’

Thokoza Radebe: ‘Smiles and tears of Gxa Town’

Jeff Guy: ‘Little John’s escape’

Darryl Earl David: ‘The slow gardener’

Symphrose Temu: ‘Salon politics’

Snapshot category

(R2 000)

Heidi Steyn: ‘Banking in the bundu’

Mary F: ‘Anna’s gift’ (not her real name, no picture)

Leanne Talbot Nowell: ‘Nelson Mandela saved me from the kitchen’

Val Ward: ‘Lost in time, found in PMB’.

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