I have a wig to go with every big moment in my life. The first time I wore a wig was on my graduation day. I chose synthetic Pixie for the occasion—short with a fringe in the front and sharp edges in the back. I liked the way she made me look in the mirror, but, in the photographs taken inside a make-shift tent studio set up in the university compound, she exaggerated the smallness of my head and size of my ears. The first time Caleb saw me I was wearing Yaki. She is Brazilian, straight, shoulder length and parted in the middle. I had just stepped out of my salon and was about to hop on a boda boda when he waved at me from across the narrow murram road. There were no cars driving between us so he didn’t have to yell.
“Hey, can we share?” he said, crossing the road hastily like he was running away from the small herd of cows commanded by a scrawny dog and a small shirtless boy wielding a short thick stick. He did his best to smile in the tears-in-your-eyes hot late afternoon sunshine.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“To this gem I have just moved into. It’s at the end of the road, by the water.”
The boda boda rider grinned, spat out leafy saliva and said, “Boss, sit and we go,” not bothering to ask if it was fine by me, but Caleb said, “If it’s alright with the pretty lady.” I nodded, curious to see the home by the water.
The boda boda sped along the dirt causing a cloud of dust to float behind us—the rider in the front, Caleb in the back and I, with my Brazilian Yaki, blowing in the wind in between. As we fell into potholes, my hands reflexively found themselves around the waist of the rider’s smelly black leather jacket, Caleb’s around mine, small like the middle of an hourglass, the air from his long, pointed nose, blowing like a damaged fan on my back. A bevy of bright yellow and white uniformed children whom the sun shone on gingerly as if they were its freshly hatched chicks, whistled at us as they walked back home from school. “They must think we are together,” Caleb said, waving at the children like he was a small town celebrity.
We rode along smooth tarmac, through a group of sparsely scattered trees, which the sad wind soughed through. It seemed like the road constructors had flown their grader over the murram so that they could fix the small stretch of land which led to Caleb’s home. It felt like we were taking a really short flight from the middle of a dusty desert to a paradise island. The houses all looked the same: double storied and surrounded by small-brick fences decorated with swirls of electric razor wire on top. Within the fences, steak-fed dogs barked at the sound of the boda boda’s engine from inside their kennels. “Temututisatisa,” the boda boda man said to them, clenching his teeth like he could see the German Shepherds panting in front of us, saliva dribbling from their attack-ready mouths.
Caleb pointed to his house, jumped off the boda boda and started banging the tall gate with his fist. “Usually, I ring the bell,” he said. The rider let out a loud yawn, coming from the pit of his stomach. “It’s general load shedding. Happens to everyone.” Caleb removed his brown leather wallet from his the pocket of his green khaki shorts and started looking for shillings with his lithe fingers.
The rider stretched his neck. “You can give me dollar, Sir.”
Caleb frowned at me and said, “Is that fair?”
“It’s fair,” I said.
The boda boda held up the dollar like he would know if it were authentic, then sped away, him and I.
As we passed the rows of double storied houses and their barking dogs again, the boda boda rider took his eyes off the road for a moment to look at me.
“Another girl would not have wasted such an opportunity,” he said.
I laughed an irritated laugh and said, “Look out!”
The driver of the slow moving old rusty lorry heading to the double storied houses, already filled with garbage, some of it from poor homes, yelled, “You man, why aren’t you looking where you are going?”
The boda boda rider clenched his teeth again and said, “Not all of us are making dollars.”
“Show us the dollar,” one of the men sitting on top of the garbage said, taking a break from the piece of overripe jackfruit he was eating.
The rider removed the dollar from his trouser pocket and waved it at them, somehow managing to stop the wind from stealing it. The garbage men stared in shock like they had not expected what the rider had said to be true. “That’s forged money,” a lazy eyed man said. He had a joint in one hand and a piece of bread discolored by mold in the other. His colleagues began laughing, and the rider sped away.
When I paid him outside my self contained one room apartment, he was disappointed at my seven thousand shillings, even though it was more than twice the dollar. He did not even bother saying, “Well done, nyabo.”
Caleb laughed at that last part of the story on our date to which I wore bouncy Kinky Curly with a lace front, purchased from Amazon. He had come to the salon and gotten my number to the delight of everyone. On that day, I was wearing chocolate brown Natural Wave, six inches long. Immediately that happened, one of the clients asked to buy her from me, but I shook my head. “She’s not for sale.”
We sat under red lamps inside the Chinese restaurant, and he laughed more when I told him that the big pieces of roasted pork the men at the pork joint handed out were more delicious and filling than the stir fry at the Chinese restaurant. He closed the little bill holder and sighed dramatically. “It would have been much cheaper if we had gone there instead.” The taut faced manager who was standing nearby was not happy about that. He said, “Pork joint has no toilet, Madam.” We laughed all the way to the road and in the cab we took to his home. The driver kept looking at us nervously in the rearview mirror like we were two more drunkards going to vomit on his seats. I had told Caleb we could take a boda boda, but he said he wanted to do things the right way, this time.
He rang the bell and a breathless old man with large red eyes and protruding forehead opened the gate. He bowed his head for Caleb and said,” Welcome back, sir,” but shook his head at me.
“Aren’t you going to greet my guest, Ponsiano?” Caleb asked, his voice calm but serious.
“How are you, Madam?” Ponsiano said, looking at the paved ground.
“Fine,” I replied, flipping Kinky Curly.
Inside the living room, which screamed sophistication, we sat on opposite ends of a tan couch, rubbing our feet against each other’s as we drank red wine. I looked at the hideous painting on the wall. The fat woman’s mouth was open, and small birds flew out of it. They were surrounded by angry black, green, red and yellow brush strokes.
Caleb noticed and said, “My wife is an artist.”
I grabbed my bag and ran out of there, holding onto Kinky Curly to make sure she was fine.
I am Deep Wave, eight inches of real hair, a rarity. Most hair pieces that claim to be one hundred percent are only about sixty percent, the rest is artificial fiber. The Chinese are clever. They make sure the fiber made in their factories is really smooth and test it thoroughly so that hair straighteners and curlers won’t burn it. Then the buyer says to someone, “You see this real original Brazilian for superstars? It doesn’t produce smoke.”
I am Mama’s favorite, the only one she did not purchase from a hair shop or online. She was tidying up around the salon when a large woman carrying a small bag entered, sat down on one of the plastic chairs without being invited and said, “I have hair for you, Madam.” The woman pulled wig after wig out of the small bag. Mama’s eyes widened as though she were witnessing a Boa constrictor regurgitate its victims: tiny, disheveled animals with different colors. The hair was not new like the one Mama always bought. It was dirty and matted, and the sight of it made fear pimples appear on Mama’s spotless brown skin.
She tried to sound polite. “I only buy new hair.”
“You will just shampoo and wash,” the woman said, pulling more wigs out of the bag. “This is quality. Not like that raffia on top of your head.”
Mama started typing nervously on her smartphone, her sharp acrylic nails tapping noisily on the screen. “I don’t want the hair Ma’am. Now, if you don’t mind, I have got work to do.”
“How about the one on my head?” the woman asked. “Will you give me money for the one on my head?”
She tugged at the puff holder on the back of her head and unraveled her hair. It fell down to her shoulders, then down to her back in deep waves. Mama’s mouth split open like a dummy. Not even Mrs. Omondi, the richest client who bragged about using hair serums from America could compete with this woman. Mama walked up to the woman, praying silently for Mercy to arrive. Mercy usually came to work on time, but it had rained grasshoppers earlier and she must be walking her little children to school now.
“I am sorry, what?” she said. “How can you want to get rid of this?”
“My husband does not want me to cut it, but he keeps on cheating on me with fake haired girls,” the woman said. “Cut it off.”
Mama took a wide tooth comb from a tray and began combing through the woman’s hair, then she took a brush and started brushing it in the hope that the woman would change her mind.
“How much will you pay me for it?” the woman asked. Mama took a moment to think, then she opened a drawer and pulled out a measuring tape. The woman’s hair was over twelve inches long, but it was uneven. After the cutting, Mama would get a good eight inches. She thought of the wigs in the woman’s bag. Some of them still smelled of the perfume their owners wore. One of them even had blood stains.
“Thirty thousand shillings.”
The woman laughed, but it was not an intimidating laugh. It was the laughter of a woman who had gone mad. She turned around even though the mirror in front of her had been enough to see Mama clearly.
“How much is that one on your head?”
Mama had a date that night with a tall American man who lived in a house by the water so she was wearing Kinky Curly, which she had bought on Amazon for three hundred thousand shillings.
“One hundred thousand, but it was brand new,” she said.
“And mine isn’t?”
“Fine, I will give you sixty. It’s all I have.”
The woman nodded so Mama tied her hair in a tight ponytail and cut off twelve inches. Later, she would shampoo, condition, and trim it to a perfect eight inches. After the cutting, the woman stood at the entrance, looked left, then right like they taught little children to cross the road. But, instead, she moved downwards, toward the main road where a small group of people was waiting for taxis and stood behind a young lady wearing a tight long white dress and a shiny red bob wig. The woman looked left and right again, then she snatched the shiny red bob wig off the young lady’s head and took off. By the time the young lady started shouting, “My hair! My hair! She took my hair!” the woman was gone.
“She really gave me the creeps,” Mama said when she told Mercy about the thief. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she were a Musambwa.”
“Praise be,” Mercy said. “I can’t believe you were here alone with her. She might have stuffed you into her mouth like a little bird, then you wouldn’t be here singing the story to me.”
Mama dangled the thief’s hair in front of Mercy. “Shame. You should have seen the way it was flowing from her scalp.”
“She is a Musambwa indeed,” Mercy said, taking the hair from Mama and pinning it on her forehead with her fingers, so that she could imagine what it would feel like to have it grow out of her head.
“Maybe she is from Chad,” said Mercy’s client, a short thin lipped woman who wanted micro braids. “Those women smear their hair with some stuff called Chebe powder, and it can even fall down to their knees.”
“This cannot be the work of just powders, Mercy said. “Wouldn’t all of us Africans be walking around with deep wave jumping out of our skulls?” She used her free hand to tug at her bone straight relaxed hair, which had failed to grow past her ears.
Mama took the woman’s hair from Mercy and put it inside her bag. After her date with Caleb, she took it home and stitched it onto fine strips of cloth, then she sewed the wefts onto a lace cap placed on top of a Styrofoam wig head. It took her three days to perfect her creation. The moment she stepped out of the house with her Deep Wave, someone asked to touch it.
“Is it your real hair?” the girl asked, examining it only with the tip of her fingers. Mama took a deep breath.
“Real like today is Monday,” she replied.
Mercy, who had arrived on time, rubbed Mama’s hand gently when she walked into the salon. “How is the chemo going?” she whispered even if there was no one else around because everything in the environment had ears and a mouth for proliferating gossip.
“I am swimming against strong currents,” Mama said softly. “This cancer is sinking me.” The oncologist had said the chemo wasn’t working so they would start a more aggressive round. She stared hard into the mirror and pictured herself lying pale skinned, motionless and breathless, surrounded by deep wave.