IDEAS TO DESCRIBE Barack Obama are some of the bestselling things in the world. In Nigeria, the association of barbers convened a one-agenda congress commemorating Obama and a hairstyle, so eponymously named, had been invented: A certain fraction of hair would be left at the front of the head, and the sides and back of the head would be cut low, almost baring the scalp.
The university campus, where you are in your first year, is full of boys wearing Obama in its variations, and you are in the habit of comparing, in your mind, your Obama with the Obama of other boys. When you see boys who have left the hair at the top full, and how the edges where the hair skirts down into very low cuts are trimmed seamlessly, you stop in quiet admiration of their elegance. Courage, too. Courage, when you see freshmen like you wearing Obama with very thick hair at the top of their head and their hair dyed jet black, giving them an imposing appearance. Obamas with thick tops seem to you to be overtly daring. When you meet boys like these you imagine—or rather you can’t imagine—yourself going home to your parents in that hairstyle. Why would you install yourself in the path of a storm?
Of course you have a certain measure of freedom to perform certain acts of will when you are nineteen and a freshman at the University. You once dyed your hair, and alone in your room, looking at yourself in the mirror, what you saw was outrageous for your mind to be accustomed to. You thought yourself too visible, too highlighted. Boys with dyed hair possess a certain courage, the courage to carry on in the visibility that their dyed hair gives. You do not have the courage to put yourself in the face of people. That evening, you washed off the dye.
Academic staff are on strike and students are returning home. You want to go home too, but you are going through a small, private trouble: how to go home with your Obama. Your mother has phoned you this morning and she has ordered you to return home tomorrow. You are gathering courage.
YOU ARE FOURTEEN going on fifteen, and you have just returned from the barbershop, and there is trouble. Your father has discovered the side parting in your hair. At the barbershop, when you had asked for a parting, you told the barber not to cut too deep, to cut a short blunt line through the left side. Your mother, who has taken sides with your father on this matter, is feeling around your hair, rubbing around the parting, and she is hissing. When you said the barber scraped you with his clipper, that you had complained about it, your father declared that he won’t watch you become a rascal in Sango-Otta.
You are thinking: can one not be born and be left alone? Can one not draw up a list of specs then find parents who fit these specs? Can parents, too, not draw up a list of specs then find children who fit these specs? This world is not fair. Parents whose nerves tip over the edge because of a thin side parting in their child’s hair should not be your parents.
YOUR FATHER HAS just returned home since he left last year after the birth of your youngest sibling. You still retain the memory of that time when your mother and the new baby were in the hospital and the keeping of the home fell to your father, you, and your younger brother. You remember the late afternoons when the three of you, after your father had completed his daily back and forth between hospital and home, would sit on the low fence of the veranda of your house at Plaza Road, and he would tell you stories. You remember his singing of the tale of the River Niger in Yoruba—in his Ondo dialect—and the story of the lost finger.
When he sings about the lost finger, he holds you and your brother’s hands in turn and he has a way of counting it as he sings that your fingers don’t add up to five but four. And he would ask, who stole your small finger, where has your small finger gone? He would look into your bewildered eyes, smiling, his long curly moustache trembling with mischief. There, on the low fence of the veranda, away from the noise and goings and comings of other tenants in the house, you wished your mother and the new baby were there with you, singing and telling tales. When your mother and the baby return from the hospital, and the baby is christened, your father would leave.
But you return from school one day and he is back. You are not happy and you are not sad. He is sitting on a small low stool, his long legs stretched out awkwardly. He has the baby in his arms and is rocking him gently and singing his oriki. In the happy mood of his return, he says he wants to treat you and your younger brother to a haircut. Your mother counters lightly that your hair isn’t due for cutting and that your younger brother who is five years old cannot go with you to the barber shop until he has completed the home remedy for scalp ringworm.
From the waiting bench, he directs the barber to a certain style: a low cut with a thick portion of hair at the flat top of the head, something close to a punk. When the barber is done, he inspects your cut, grazing over your head with his slender bony fingers. You feel ticklish, but you try to stay still. He asks the barber why there is no parting in your haircut and you are back in the barber’s chair getting a side parting. At home, when your mother makes a fuss about the fraction of hair at the top of your head, that within a week your hair would have grown full again, your father smiles and says it’s a style.
The next day, your brother will sit on a low stool between your mother’s lap and his hair will be shaved with a razor blade. The skin of his head white from ringworm infection and there will be spots of blood where the blade has scraped scaly ringwormed skin. Lime will be cut into two halves and his scalp scrubbed with it. He will cry, I am dying o, I am dying o and you will watch as he tries to free himself from between your mother’s lap. A memory will return to you of sometime last year, when you sat between your mother’s laps for the remedy and the futility of trying to escape from between those soft pinning laps. You imagine lime burning the fungus and you feel goosebumps imagining fire set on his head and your mother there, all serious in her task, asking him to hold his head still. Enjoy the pain and stay still. You try to catch his eyes to give him your after-experience insight. Later, you will watch him as he sobs in between gulps of solo-coke, his brown eyes glossy with tears.
THINGS ARE DIFFICULT during this time. You no longer take the school bus to school, and every morning when it passes by your house on Plaza Road, you can hear the noise of everybody inside it. You make visions in your head of everyone’s role in the disorder going on in the bus. You are beginning to get a sense of the state of things with the way your mother has been inventing new processes of keeping things in order. Since the teacher’s strike, she has been selling onions and matches and second-hand clothes.
Last Saturday when she gave you ten naira to go to the barbershop and you told her barbers charge twenty naira for your haircut, she told you to go to Baba Fali’s shop. Baba Fali, tobacco snuff trader, specialist in herbal medicines for pile and fever, and an inventor of a certain mentholated balm formulation, has a barbing corner in his shop. The air in his shop gives credit to his industrial genius. When you sit on his old barber chair, it does not turn. Baba Fali does not ask you how you wish your hair to be cut, does not ask for style; the old man dips straight into your hair with the hand clippers. His hands smell of menthol. The click click sound of the clippers and how it cuts your hair gives you the feeling of an insect crawling on your head. There are no front and rear wall mirrors in Baba Fali’s corner. Since Nigeria’s magical feat at the Atlanta Olympics, where they played against and beat Brazil and Argentina, you have been imagining a heap of hair around the top of your head like Kanu’s. But Baba Fali doesn’t care for the feelings of a boy, doesn’t care for Kanu or the Olympics. You walk home, feeling your scalp with your hand, careful not to touch your face with it.
YOU’VE HEARD THAT it said before that the horse at the rear follows the steps of the leading horse. You are the leading horse. Idris, your neighbour, and your two younger siblings are the horses following behind.
You are thirteen and you are big enough now to lead the small horses to the barber shop. They have come to you with a plan: that Idris will sneak a ball out, and you will find boys at the field along the way with whom to play four against four. The football demon is a mischievous gulper of time that makes hours seem like mere minutes. But you are delivered from the pleasurable clutches of football ecstasy in the small moment when a goal is scored or missed and you see the sweating colts in various positions on the field. Things begin to run around in your head. Home. Your mother. The spittle spot she made on the ground which must not have dried when you return. Your father. Idris’s mother. Trouble. The football demon plays a trick on your mind; a little more, a little more. And then one of the colts, too, comes under the whorls of realisation.
There is a crisis going on in your mind and you begin to test excuses and lies in your head as you and the colts are going about the field looking for missing pairs of sandals and slippers. One of the colts has a suggestion: you should go to Ori barber, the barbershop across the field. There is this talk in town that if you don’t smoke hemp and you go to Ori’s barbershop to cut your hair, the smoke from hemp will go into your head and you will begin to crave hemp.
The four of you stand on the field across from Ori barber, deliberating, exchanging looks to confirm each other’s willing participation. Reluctantly, you walk towards Ori’s barbershop. You search around, and there are no smokers. Inside, the wooden wall of the shop is covered with posters of Mariah Carey and Tupac and Biggy and beautiful women at the beach. There is no smell of hemp, but you are careful about your breath and you quietly hope the three colts too take care to measure their breath. The Ori barber cuts your hair in haste like he has been taken into confidence about your situation. You are thinking: Ori barber is the greatest barber in the world. Throughout your way home, the four of you run the sign of the cross around your forehead and chest, and you sniff your clothes for the smell of hemp. You hope no one detects a fault in anyone’s hair and asks where it was cut. Sometimes, children have a duty to protect their parents from the truth.
YOU RETURNED HOME yesterday evening. This morning, while you stand by the glass window outside checking your haircut, your mother comes up to you. She notices the freckles that are beginning to show up around your eyes, the gaunt neck from which she figures means you have not been eating well, the new cuts on your body that have healed into scars and the old scars that have grown bigger. She looks at your reflection in the mirror, at your Obama, and she tells you your style is fine, that this was how you really were born, shorn of the hair behind your head.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Wale Fadoju lives in Ibadan, and he is a graduate student at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. You can find him on Twitter @fadojuAA where he likes and retweets stuff on Anthropology, Colonial history, Folklore, Literature, Linguistics, Sociolology, and Yoruba language.