My mother used to shave me as a young boy, and I hated it. She would also shave my elder brother Issa. At the time, this was the late 1990s, there were no barbershops in our village, Bula Adaan, and the only barbershops were in the downtown Garissa market where my father operated a clothing store. My mother’s barbershop was the patch of land between our mud-and-thatch kitchen that stood in the middle of our compound and our pit latrine that was tucked under the neem trees in its northern corner. My mother shaved us every two weeks, just when hair was finally appearing on our scalps, and the sun was no longer burning our heads as though it were focused with a magnifying glass. We would come home from duksi, the Quranic school, just before sunset, and see a bar of soap and a razor blade atop a can of water, and we would know it was time.
My mother always remembered to never shave us before giving us a good thrashing. She was a thoughtful woman, my mother. Often it was for not coming straight home after duksi and going off to play football. Or it was for coming home after the game bleeding from a toe or elbow. Other times it was for reasons we did not know. After a good flogging, with whips from the branches of our neem trees which hung low like ripe fruits waiting harvest, we would sit one by one on a little chair while she squatted, my bawling little brother Abdifatah straddling her back. Issa was always the first to go, then I would follow. Sometimes, when she was in a hurry or in a foul mood she would shave us while we were standing. Around this time my father, who had come home from his shop, would walk in through the gate. He would clear his throat and great us with “Asalam aleykum.” My grandmother, stooped on a mat outside her hut, turning rosary beads in her hands, would shout from the other side of the compound, “Someone needs to add water to these beans.” “I’m coming, mother!” my mother would shout back. She would intermittently run to check on the dinner cooking on the charcoal stove outside the kitchen.
Mother was a gentle and diplomatic barber. She would grip my tiny head firmly in place with one hand, the way players clasp a basketball, so that I could not move, and face me away from her. She would turn my head this way and that way, and rotate it around my torso like some mechanical object. With her other hand she would run the blade up and down my head.
“Stop crying,” she would say.
“Sit still. The blade will cut you.”
The blade my mother used was called Topaz. It came in a white wrapping with its name sprawled inside an ominous red rhombus. It was the sharpest thing I ever saw, and I was mortified of it. When it grated against my skin, I would clench my teeth. When it cut my scalp I would cry, and my head would shrink into my body, almost like the retracted head of a tortoise.
When it was over I would stand up and scratch my itchy head. “But Hooyo there’s hair here, and here, and here…”
“This fire needs stoking,” Grandmother would shout.
“Could someone get me water for ablution?” my father would say. “It’s prayer time.”
“Hooyo please,” I would plead with her. “The other children are going to laugh at me.”
“Stand straight I bathe you.”
The water and soap on the open wounds on my scalp would make me squirm. In the evening Garissa wind the water was ice-cold. I would shiver, shiver, shiver so much. Mother would then smother me in cooking oil – we would run out of body lotion – until I glistened in the twilight.
“Hooyo I smell like I’ve swam in a river of pancakes.”
“Good. Now take ablution and go pray. Maghrib prayer is dead. And go to duksi after that.”
My best friend was a boy called Omar. We envied him because he was the only boy in our village who was shaved at a barbershop, and because his family was the only one that lived in a brick house with electricity (his father had owned a hardware store). But mostly we were envious of his hair. Omar had downy hair, black as the ink with which we used to write the Quran on our wooden planks. It would grow until it could reach down to the nape of his neck.
My mother had soft jet hair too. It had a golden tinge. It flowed and glistened, like the river in which we swam glistened in the sun. Though I had skin lighter than most children in our village I had coarse hair. Our duksi teacher had nicknamed me ‘Wild Arab.’ He preferred soft hair. He would often pat on the head only Omar and those kids who had soft smooth hair and readily forgave them when they missed a verse during Quran exams. Everyone preferred soft hair. For example, people liked to play with babies with downy hair; women preferred to plait girls with soft hair. I felt ashamed of my coarse hair, and wished I had soft hair. I felt inferior, like the Somali Bantus who were our house helps and had kinky hair. My mother would say, “You get your hair from your father’s people.”
My father was a fashionable man. He wore the most fashionable kanzus, sarongs and leather sandals (which we called “open shoes”). He always had a round prayer cap too. Once a week, he would take his clothes to a downtown dhobi. When he wore them they shone, and they had sharp creases that were to him the very indication of a job well done. Once a week, my father would come home with a clean-shaven head showing from beneath his cap. He would shave his moustache too, but his filmy goatee would be left untouched. When he was clean shaven a small bump showed in the back of his head. He looked as though someone had hit him in the back of the head with a rock.
He was also a practical and rational man. For him everything served a purpose. He was a religious man too. For him there were categorical imperatives – set out by Allah – which mankind has to follow to have a meaningful life. According to him, one should only do things that Allah has decreed or that have practical benefits. These rules applied to all kinds of scenarios, including grooming and attire. Twice a year on the eve of Eid he would bring each of us a kanzu, a pair of ‘open shoes’ and a cap. It did not matter that we hated these clothes because these were the attire of a proper Muslim. He obeyed Allah without question and he wanted us to do the same. One of my father’s biggest ambitions in life was to see his children become Islamic clerics.
“The matter is you must remember you are a part of a community,” he always said to us. He would clear his throat. Whenever he said something important my father always cleared his throat and begun his speech by saying, “The matter is…” For my father, and my mother as well, there was no such thing as ‘individual.’ The self only existed in the collective: one was a member of the society first, and one’s identity was derived from and interlinked with the identity of the society. He would go on, “Always be responsible and God-fearing. Don’t be like those boys who wear torn jeans and keep shaggy hair, you hear?” My father was speaking of some delinquent boys from our neighbourhood who were the only members of the community whom I had looked up to as role models.
“Yes Aabo,” I would say. “I would never.”
Issa was one of a few bright kids in our school who were obsessed with going to a national school in “Down Kenya” such as Starehe or Mangu or Alliance. He was among those peculiar boys who, out of their own volition, tortured themselves by trying to read with the sooty lamp at the mosque after dawn prayers because they could not wait for the sun to come up. It seemed to me his only purpose in life was to make me look bad, and he succeeded in this. I did not perform very well in school. I did not share his ambition to go to a national school either; I thought it was too much pressure for a child. I put the least amount of effort in my studies because I was sceptical of that entire concept called ‘school’; its philosophical precepts – summarised as ‘Beat the shit out of them all the freaking time!’ – were not sound to me. My only ambition was to get out of Garissa, to a place where one was not beaten all the time, where one could wear torn jeans and keep shaggy hair, a place where I could be away from my parents. (I hated my parents’ guts.)
Though he did not get into a national school Issa won a scholarship to an international school in Nairobi. When I finished primary school the following year I passed fairly well, a fact that shocked me so much that I insisted to my headmaster that a mistake must have been made. Still, I was to end up in Balambala Secondary School, a school in a small rural settlement three hundred kilometres north-east of Garissa town but my family could not afford the fees. While brooding over my fate I got a scholarship to my brother’s school. This time I was knocked out cold with surprise. It turned out the school liked Issa so much that they took me – they thought because we shared similar genes I must be equally “brilliant, gifted and self-driven.” I felt I should say something but, because I wanted to get out of Garissa, I kept quiet.
The boys at school took grooming seriously. Like weirdoes and police officers they shaved every week. I did not: I was particularly averse to having a sharp object close to my scalp because it reminded of my mother’s razor, and I would shiver every time I thought about it. The boys used inordinate amount of oils, like witches and women and car engines, until their brown faces gleamed in the morning sun like freshly made pancakes. They combed regularly too. I was suspicious of all this. I decided this was a lot of work. But all this is not to say that I did not take care of my hair. In fact, I did: once or twice every day I would douse it with water and slick it backwards.
Later I went to university courtesy of student loans and contributions from well-wishers. During my third and fourth years, I started to spend more time alone. I had been sad because I had always felt inadequate. I was always quiet and socially awkward, and I was ashamed of it. (Somalis regard the introverted as flawed, and the sociable as able and heroic.) I was suspicious or afraid of Reason. I did not know how to be rational. I sucked at being practical. I could not, for instance, do my laundry on a regular basis. I could not come to class on time. I would forget to sign the class attendance sheet. I did not know when an assignment was due or when and how important administrative requirements were to be fulfilled. I relied on friends for all these. I did not know what was going on around me. Everyone but me knew to be at the right place at the right time.
I was filled with uncertainty about everything. I would take ages trying to decide where to sit at a restaurant, or which bus to take to town. I was crippled by indecision and was terrified of absolutes, perhaps due to an existential indecision within myself, or some psychic uncertainty peculiar to me. I felt I was radically different from what my people and culture expected of me. I felt I was incapable of being normal.
I thought I was deeply flawed.
I started to read occasionally, and a profound change occurred in me. I took long walks. Something about the green landscape of Eldoret, its clear streams, especially when the sun came out after a rainy night, affected me in a powerful way. It fed me somewhere deep inside, maybe that place referred to as the ‘soul.’ I walked among the tall grass rustling in the wind. I watched James Dean, and the rebellious characters he played appealed to me. I listened to Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Lennon, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, K’naan and others, and read Thoreau and Kerouac and Ginsberg – artists who articulated for me my concern with the world of spirit and intuition, who allowed me to be comfortable with being unconventional.
I got farther and farther away from what a Somali was supposed to be. I did not own a kikoi or kanzu. Instead I wore leather jackets and skinny jeans and trench coats and boots. I smoked cigarettes and weed. I grew out my hair into a curly Coca-Cola brown afro about eight inches long. I twisted it around my fingers when I was bored or day dreaming. It played my wingman and attracted the attention of girls. It tempered my baby face. (I had a perennial baby face, an insecurity that tormented me.) My hair personified my casual, rebellious side. It became a vital part of me, like a limb, and I could not function without it.
I knew that the normal thing was to be well groomed like everyone else (my peers were starting to embrace the suit, and they looked sharp as Topaz, the blade with which my mother used to shave me as a child). But I could not be sharp and well-groomed. I suspect it was because I had a real necessity within me of not having only one way of being. Though I did not understand this until later, I had many dimensions to my personhood. I did things because they felt right to me somewhere I did not know where. For me my hair and attire were not merely functional. They were as essential to my body as my arms or feet. They also served an aesthetic purpose. I had a need to look beautiful – Aristotle’s idea that good looks are an ingredient of human happiness made sense to me. I sought beauty in myself, and in all things. I thought style was not inferior to substance; it was a substance. I was drawn to shapes and forms and colours and textures that combined in ways that transcended “prettiness” or “ugliness,” in an almost metaphysical sense, the way they do in works of art.
When I imagined my future, I was not the big shot lawyer in the sleek Aston Martin. Instead I wrote poetry and lived in a smoke-filled loft full of pretty girls and books and vinyl records. I would be ecstatic with the big little joys of being alive. Like the taste of water. (Oh I wish I could describe how magnificent water tastes to me! Oh the inadequacy of language, the inconvenient limits of the intellect!) Like thinking. Like seeing. Like breathing. Like reading or listening to music that made me kick off my shoes and experience some new ‘knowing,’ as though I was a dark room whose light switch was just turned on. Like David Foster Wallace, to “do things like get in a taxi and say, The library, and step on it.” Or like Virginia Woolf, “to dream over books and loiter at street corners.” Like seeing Life render itself before you: impossible, improbable, real, unreal. Like seeing God in every thing, in every nothing. Like being.
Life for me was a mystical experience, not a rational one, and my hair and attire were connected to all of it.
Whenever I went back home to Garissa my mother would notice the changes in my appearance. She was always full of enthusiasm.
“Aren’t those trousers too tight for you? Don’t you see the are torn?”
“That’s their design Hooyo.”
“You mean you paid money for tattered clothes?”
“I like it this way Hooyo.”
“And for the millionth time why do you still have that bird’s nest on your head? Are you a madman? Or do you want to braid your hair like a woman?”
When her appeals failed, my mother tried a subtler approach. She begun attributing any issues I had to my afro. Whenever I had a headache, she would say, “Shave it warya.” If I was moody: “Definitely that wool on your head.” If I was unwell: “It’s the damn hair.” I could not complain about anything to my mother because she always advised that if I shaved my hair all my problems would be resolved. It reached a point where whenever my mother saw me approach she would make the stop sign and say, “Uh uh, you know the culprit.”
My father would clear his throat at this point. “The matter is and what your mother is trying to say is you are embarrassing this family.”
“It’s my style Aabo” I said.
“Coarse hair looks bad when long,” my father said. “Or you want to become a Rastafarian?”
“What’s that?” Grandmother said.
“People who leave hair unkempt until it entangles itself into ropes,” my father said.
“Show them to me, I could use rope for my camels.” Grandmother laughed.
“The matter is you have left the religion. Instead you have adopted the lifestyle of the infidels. You have become Michael Jackshen.” My father was not a big fan of Michael Jackson.
“But Aabo the prophet, peace be upon him, had hair up to his shoulders. He was a cool dude.”
“The prophet, peace be upon him, did not have steel wool for hair.”
“What’s wrong with kinky hair?”
My father looked at me as if I had blasphemed. “The prophet, peace be upon him, tells us: Whoever imitates a people becomes one of them.”
I said, “But the Quran also says ‘Allah does not look at your bodies but your hearts and deeds.’”
My parents were pleased that I could at least quote the Quran.
“I say give the young boy a break,” Grandma said.
“Aabo,” I said, “even you and my uncles and grandfathers used to maintain big afro hair as recent as the 1980s,” I said with an obvious trace of pontification and righteous indignation.
Grandmother, looking at my mother and father who seemed tongue-tied, said, “A riddle is only defeated by a riddle.”
It took me a long time to love my own hair. Long before I read Malcolm X, I would relax my hair so it would look straighter and softer. I loathed my hair because Somalis regard those with dark skin and kinky hair to be of an inferior race – to be stupid and ugly – and ones with light skin and straight hair to be beautiful. In this spectrum the South Sudanese is considered hideous, and the Arab and European, beautiful. Thus, the Somali does not consider himself African. Instead he regards himself as something akin to the Arab. I grew up with this prejudice.
But leaving Garissa at an early age and studying with people from different ethnicities helped temper this ingrained prejudice. Later it was reading that made embrace my peculiarities not as flaws but as part of my sensibilities, and accept that I could be many things at once – Somali, hippie, lawyer, spiritual, nonconformist, modern, ancient, urbane, nomadic, African. That I was large and contained multitudes, as Whitman said. Reading about race, colonialism, slavery, civil rights and Pan Africanism made me love my Africanness and my afro hair. I came to understand myself as not only Somali but a member of a bigger community of African and black peoples. I was pleased to find out that Somali men of the nineteenth century used to grow out their hair to the same lengths as women and would style their hair with camel butter and comb it into elaborate shapes, that as recent as the late 1980s men like my father and uncles kept big afros and walked around with large combs fashionably lodged in, that leading African-American civil rights activists like Angela Davis kept afro hairstyles, that African colonial fighters such as the Mau Mau freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi kept dreadlocks. I felt I was part of this heritage. Yet, I faced opposition to my afro hair. In history I felt at home; in real life I was an alien. In this I understood, I think, the root, the very scalp, if you will, of modern hair politics – the idea that straight hair is the standard of beauty, and the subsequent rejection of this by the black or African person, as part of a political consciousness predicated on racial pride.
Every time I went home from school for the holidays my parents hoped that I would come home a changed person. Oh how it would have made them happy! My mother, though I had starved her of this need, loved to see me look smart and comport myself well and be a respected member of the community; she was happiest when I was adored by everyone because she would feel proud as a mother. My father would have given a kidney to see me about the mosques, attending lectures, cheek by jowl with imams and young religious men in religious attire and become an imam myself and deliver sermons at the mosques. But every time I came, it was clearer that I was not going to be the next Islamic scholar. Every time their hearts broke a bit more. Other people were disappointed too: aunts, uncles, cousins, children, strangers on the streets.
My father would look dejected. “The matter is you are a disobedient child. I pray Allah will guide you.”
“Why don’t you just be a good boy?” my father would ask.
I would say, “I don’t know Aabo.”
I wondered why I was not like everyone else, why I was not normal. Would I have turned out the way I did if I had not left Garissa when I got that scholarship to Nairobi? Would I be a good boy who obeyed his parents and wore kanzus and “open shoes” and mingled with the imams at the mosques and did what he was expected to do? Or was I always going to be the way I was regardless of where I went to school: different, irrational, misunderstood? Sometimes I wished I stayed and studied in Garissa. Sometimes I wished I turned out like everyone else. Oh how it would have been easier!
I was deeply pained by my parents’ disappointment in me. And though I was not very religious I was spiritual, and I knew that I was breaking religious rules about appearance; while there was no edict against keeping long hair, shaving hair disproportionally, something I was guilty of, is not allowed in Islam. Moreover, disobeying your parent’s wishes is a sin. I suffered a spiritual disquiet. If I was tormented by my displeasing my parents the anguish I felt in displeasing Allah was indescribable, unendurable.
I decided to shave. I went to a barbershop in downtown Garissa. I looked at my hair through the mirror, taking one last glance, as if to permanently brand the image to my memory, perhaps so I could remember who I once used to be. I looked helpless as I stared at the buzzing machine, like a sacrificial lamb stares at a knife, frightened, uncomprehending. It all came tumbling down. My beloved hair gathered in useless heaps on my lap, reduced to nothing by the hurried strokes of an indifferent barber. I felt as though I had lost a limb as I walked back home, navigating the dusty pathways of my neighbourhood Bula Adaan, my head light, my heart heavy, my scalp exposed to the elements, burnt by the scorching heat of the Garissa sun, the whistling winds almost knocking me off. My mast was gone.
Back home my mother was beside herself with joy. She started referring to me as “my good boy.” She made me a special dinner of spiced tea and anjeera pancakes served with liver, my favourite meal. When my father saw me he could not hide his smile. He called me “Sheikh.” The mood in the house became festive like it did when a new baby was born.
Perhaps I was born anew because I could not recognise myself as I stood before the mirror later that day. I cringed. The reflection staring back at me from behind the mirror seemed to me like a funny looking stranger. My head looked funny without my hair. It was now all bare for the world to see, its elliptical shape and all its curves demanding attention. My ears stuck out with nothing to hide behind. I thought the image before me resembled Gollum, the hideous creature from The Lord of the Rings.
I avoided mirrors. I stayed indoors for weeks. I felt ugly. I felt self-conscious. I wanted to feel more manly but I looked more like a boy than ever. I fell into depression. I wished that hair did not grow so painfully slow. I wished I could cast a spell and it would grow back in an instant.
As my hair grew back I felt a profound clarity, like a blind man who could finally see.
I decided to not shave my hair again. And for a long time I did not. But when I finished school and started working as a lawyer (a profession with strict adherence to conservative standards of appearance), I have had to reduce about a quarter of its size, and trim it to make it neater. It was a painful process, and it took a long time. These days I comb it and apply oil to it. I wear even suits now. I have come to love them. In fact, people have used the word “sharp” to describe me. In sum I have become a weirdo. It is all shocking to me.
I still have a primal attachment to my hair. I still feel nervous when I enter a barbershop. Every time a sharp object comes close to my head I remember my mother’s razor. I still feel the cold water running down my body. I still shiver. Because I still have my afro I still live with the guilt of my parents’ disappointment in me. I still worry that I have displeased God.
Aress Mohamed is a writer, photographer and lawyer from Garissa, Northeastern Kenya. He currently works as a defender of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.