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Feature: Crowning The Women of Dakar


Image courtesy of F'Orisa Sile Tumblr

Image courtesy of LifeJuJu Tumblr

 

My Own Hair Odyssey in Senegal 

 

By: Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé

Ottawa, Canada
‘You must never push a black woman in a pool. Or splash her. You must never even joke about that. Our hair… it’s a serious affair.”

Rwandan-born Alice levels her earnest gaze across the table from me. Years later, I couldn’t remember what prompted this discussion, but this conversation with a dear friend would prove prophetic of my upcoming trip to Senegal.

I am in Dakar, bangs swept off my face and generously lacquered to prevent frizz in the sea-side city’s sweltering weather.

I had visited Dakar five years before, and the city seemed different – more relaxed, somehow. Ironically, the Senegalese had just been swept up in the Arab Spring, demanding political change of their own, marching in the street, rocking cars, shouting slogans.

But Senegalese women had not changed much – impeccably coiffed, stylishly heeled, and as stunning as ever. I had often said that these tall, majestic fashionistas are among the most stunning women in the world.

Dior, my decadently named friend, had swung by the hotel to pick me up, intent on showing me some of the sights I had missed during my first visit to Dakar. Dior pulls up, her chin-length hair braided off her face.

‘My hair isn’t finished!’ Dior explains. Would I mind joining her in the hunt for a chignon, and a quick visit at the salon before heading out to sight-see?

Intrigued, I eagerly accept.

We venture into the tight, narrow paths that that lead into the market. We are greeted by a bleating, unimpressed goat and a few clucking chickens. The rain has beaten the soil into sandy, muddy paths. A man sits on a stool, fanning away the flies circling beef and chicken. An older woman, her face lined with age, sits by on an overturned bucket, her basket overflowing with dried hibiscus. Dior buys some of the flowers, which her housekeeper would turn into juice for lunch a few days later.

I follow Dior, intrigued as we approach a stall lined with tresses of all stripes: long ebony locks, wavy ponytails, braids. Dior is searching for an elegant chignon, but none is to be found. And this is the third market we have visited. Reluctantly, Dior chooses a wavy ponytail.

My first visit to Dakar had been in January – no rain, no floods, ancient colonial French sewers running like a trickle into the ocean. But now, it was late summer. Dakar was a sweltering, congested capital, its baobab trees leafy and lovely. But Dakar still smelled the same, its air heavy with diesel, perfumed with hibiscus, and the scent of ocean salt.

Dior and I park outside the salon, a small room – its doors open to let in Dakar’s oppressive heat – in a pink building.

I love hair salons. I love listening to women gossip, exorcising the demons of their love lives, commenting on fresh highlights and hair colour. To me, the hair salon is a haven, an experience in female solidarity.

 

Photo of salon by Jeff Attaway/Flickr

Photo of salon by Jeff Attaway/Flickr

 

But in Dior’s Dakar salon, women are all business. And there are no sinks. Puzzled, I gaze over at a kettle of boiling water on the floor whistling with steam. My only point of reference – salon mirrors in which clients observe the work of masters at work. Focused silence. Stylists’ brows are furrowed in concentration, fingers deftly braiding hair, lock over lock. No time to be wasted. This is business. One stylist threads a needle and begins to sow in a woman’s weave. The woman nods approvingly, but explains that the hair is too long. Her stylist picks up the kettle, pouring boiling water over the ends of the weave. The hair breaks apart, melting and swirling into a perfect corkscrew curl.

This world is deeply foreign to me, a fascinating anthropological experience. Alice found my own hair routine fascinating, and impossibly high-maintenance: wash, oil, blow dry, straighten, serumed.

Every. Day.

A holdover from my days as a lazy, (un)competitive swimmer.

Only a few short years previously, I had seen many men’s hair salons dot rural Uganda’s roadsides, models of available styles crudely painted on the side of the stall, clients sitting in makeshift barber chairs on dirt sidewalks, indulging in the banter that so delighted me in my hometown hair salons.

But in Dior’s company in chic, urban Dakar, I was immersed in a world of chic stylistas.

A few days later, over a spicy dish of peanutty chicken deliciousness with my Senegalese colleague, I would sit quietly and listen intently as the women praised each other’s hair, demanding to know how many hours a certain crown of elaborate braids had taken in the chair, or which market that spectacular weave had been acquired in. And in Dakar as elsewhere, male colleague’s eyes glazed over with boredom.

And as my lacquered ponytail wilted in Dakar’s humidity, I was particularly awestruck by one young, stunning colleague, with thick, raven braids wound around her head like a crown, cascading on her shoulders. She’s wearing a vivid green dress, her face seeming as though it has been carved from creamy dark marble. She is majestic.

 

Photo of salon by  Jeff Attaway/Flickr

Photo of salon by Jeff Attaway/Flickr

 

In hindsight, it would again prove prophetic to hear from Alice about one of her hair salons in Ottawa – Les belles Sénégalaises (Beautiful Senegalese Women).

A week later, Dior and I would find each other again – this time in Ottawa. I had left Dakar’s steamy late-summer weather for cool, dry late-summer Ottawa. My bangs emerged from my lacquered ponytail, long dark locks set free. Washed. Oiled. Blown dry. Straightened. Serumed.

Dior arrives, her hair a perfect crown of long, luscious braids.

“Your hair is amazing! I love it!” I squeal.

“And you! Tu as changé de tête!” she exclaims.

Tu as changé de tête. You changed your hair. Or a literal translation: you changed your head.

My kingdom for straight, shiny hair (nay to the lacquered ponytail). And for Dior, her kingdom for a crown of braids (nay to a wavy ponytail).

 

 

*Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé is an aspiring writer, budding world traveler, and explorer of the ateliers of fashion artisans around the world. She tweets @Isabelle_BT and blogs at isabellebourgeault-tasse.tumblr.com.

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One Response to Feature: Crowning The Women of Dakar

  1. Jamila says:

    LOL at “anthropological experience”… your writing is amazingly descriptive and interesting. Great piece!

    http://www.myafrofashion.com

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