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I wanted to have a hair cut badly. The only salon that was recommended to me turned out to be a ladies’ salon, Hair World, on Airport Road, Benin. I felt like insisting on a proper barbing salon, the type that I am used to, where you sit down in the midst of other men, and the discussion is all about football and politics, and the barber does his job promptly. And you gather your barbing kit and move on to other engagements. But then the clouds were gathering, and it had been a while since I left Benin (lived there between 1985 and 1986), and so could not claim to know my way around the city that well anymore. I stood there in the ladies’ salon, wondering how any of the ladies would attend to me. I was surrounded by ladies, all at one stage or the other of their beauty routines. And the hostesses appeared busy: weaving, braiding, manicuring and pedicuring, washing, setting, relaxing and tonging hair…one lady was filing another’s nails; around the salon, there were all kinds of beauty tools: cream, hair spray, shampoo, conditioner, hair dye, synthetic hair (weave on, attachments, extensions) - the cost of which ranges from between N1, 500 to about N350, 000 if it is lace wig, boxes of relaxers inside a special case, artificial nails, nail polish, posters of all kinds of nail designs and hair styles… The place smelled of rich perfume, wafting to and fro in the air. For about ten minutes, I sat down just taking in the scenery. There is something which weakens you, traps you, demobilizes you in the presence of beautiful women. This was not the case of beauty being in the eyes of the beholder; this was pure, unmistakable pulchritude in different shapes and sizes! In one corner was a lady who looked like the proprietress of the place: she kept calling out to the girls: “Efe, Efe!, come oh”; her girls were the beauticians, walking advertisements for their trade. They all had well-decorated talons as fingers; their hairstyles were as enrapturing as the posters on the wall. There were television sets, but no one watched. I stood there, carried away. One lady looked like an exact nymph, with that kind of glassy, fair-toned skin that even a eunuch would like to touch. She was wearing something that clung to her body like a dress which stopped just a few inches shy of the navel, with so much flesh on display. I wondered how any parent could have allowed her to go out onto the streets so seductively clad, and as she was in a salon, she kept throwing her legs around, exposing dangerous flesh! Many parents have failed in their duties to today’s young women! There was this other one, a younger girl, probably in her early twenties, looking so innocent, so virginal, when her old hair was removed and only a plaited underneath matted her head, she looked so sinless. I asked under my breath: when did these beautiful women arrive in Benin? My eyes took a quick sweep of the other side of the room; three ladies were having their hair braided, another stretched out as if she was on a bed, with her neck reclined at an angle, she looked like a gazelle, someone was working on her nails, someone else was washing her hair. There was no dark spot on her skin; dressed in a sports suit, her cleavage, adorned with a tattoo, was exposed without care. I looked and took my eyes away very quickly. I was standing around and gawking and no one was yet to attend to me, apart from the lady who had asked me to hold on when I arrived. But I was determined to be patient. The environment looked welcoming enough and this was clearly different from the regular barbing salon that I knew. Still, I took the precaution to announce that I expected some attention. “Excuse me, please who is going to attend to me?,” I was surprised at the tone of my own voice, the way I phrased the question in a friendly, non-aggressive manner. Under other circumstances, I would have sounded impatient. I would probably have given a long lecture on the importance of service, and the customer being king, something that is often stupidly taken for granted in Nigeria by both the privileged and the underprivileged. “Oga, no vex, I beg. I have sent for the boy who will cut your hair for you. Please come and sit down,” a lady told me. (Who dey vex? Me?, I no vex at all, at all.) I sat down and waited. But did I just hear word about a boy barber? Not one of the ladies? What kill-joy! Anyhow, I took a seat which faced a wall-length mirror, a discreet position from where I could see what was going on in the salon by just staring at the mirror. I had never been inside a ladies’ beauty salon. This was my first time, a witness to beauty rituals. I often see women who are well turned out, with hair nicely coiffured, nails well manicured, eyelashes flashing like lamps, I didn’t know it takes so much effort to achieve that well-groomed look, which we acknowledge nicely when we tell a woman: “you look sweet.” Two boys walked in briskly through a back-door which looked as if it opened into a hidden courtyard, wearing braided hair, packed in a manner that made them look like Nazarenes. One was squat, and thickly set, the other a bit taller and less muscular. The former took over the treatment corner directly in front of me, and so I stood up, thinking it was my turn, but I was told to wait. One of the ladies who had been waiting, chatting almost endlessly on the phone, came to him. I watched as she stretched out her manicured fingers in front of the guy - slender, tender, stress-free fingers, it was as if they had never lifted any load weightier than a feather! The boy removed the paint on the attached nails with some lotion. Then he took the fingers one by one and cleaned them, the girl leaning across the table; looking like a siren, with her hour-glass figure, great hips, incandescent smile, clad in a V-neck exposing significant cleavage. I wondered why most young ladies these days think their dressing is incomplete except they show some erotogenous flesh. They say it is freedom of expression, but there is a lot out there that is grossly indecent. One finger had no attached nail, so the beautician brought a new artificial nail and fixed it. It suddenly looked like a witch’s nail, so he brought a pair of scissors and trimmed it. Then he began to file the nail, one after the other, so carefully. The whole thing looked like a construction job to me, very much like bricklaying. So much time was passing and I was wondering how it was taking so much time to complete a beauty routine. The nymph, the one wearing the deadly knickers, had had her hair weaved. It was now being braided. The manicure job before me was done or so I thought. But this was only the first stage of it all. The guy and the lady moved to another side of the salon, and as I stood up thinking it was now my turn, I was asked to come along. The lady was handed over to the owner of the salon, who now began to work on the nails afresh. Something that looked like powder was applied; the nails were filed afresh and then washed in water and cleaned with towel. And then left to dry. The lady seemed to be enjoying it all. I had been asked to wait again. It was a Friday. I wasn’t in a hurry. “I’ll be done in five minutes”, the boy said. My seating position had changed. Now, I could see the gazelle, the siren, and the nymph, the proprietress and the others, not through a mirror darkly, but directly. I saw the second guy braiding the hair of one of the ladies. He would take a string of attachment, hold the lady’s head and then braid a strand. I thought he looked unserious. What kind of man would do this kind of job? I also thought of the mysterious life of women. If I had offered to touch that same head, the woman would have started quoting the Bible, principles, conditions and prerequisites (!). But here was this funny-looking stylist with his torn T-shirt, second hand knickers and dirty shoes, holding the same head and braiding her hair. What an unfair world! There was a news bulletin on television: Something about the minimum wage and a national strike that had been called off: None of the ladies in the salon looked like minimum wage would be an issue in her kind of world. The Madam of the salon had been receiving and counting money all through the time I was there. The clients pay and the money is taken to her. I found her enterprise admirable. There are many Nigerians like her who are helping to keep the country alive by creating jobs and opportunities for others, but they are handicapped by the inefficiency of the system: the salon had been on generator all day! One lady soon finished her hair and was set to leave. As she paid the proprietress, the lady paid compliments to her: “you look like a take-away!” Well, she did. But no woman should feel like a “take-away”: a piece of food to be consumed by hungry men. Most women put themselves and the entire womenfolk down by behaving precisely like take-aways!, and it is this attitude problem that poses the greatest threat to women empowerment in Nigeria. I never knew that the process of fixing artificial eyelashes could be so suicidal. I watched as my assigned barber applied some chemical to a lady’s brow. Her eyeballs popped out. I was worried about the chemical dropping onto those eyeballs. One step out of place and there could be a tragedy. Must any woman risk blindness because of beauty? The guy also brought out a short stick with which he turned the eyelashes; if there was any mistake, the stick could go straight into the eyes. I was obviously more concerned than the lady herself. Nor did I think anyone noticed my concerns. All the ladies were in a world of their own. Most Nigerian women often claim that they don’t have female friends. I could see why at the salon. Too many women are compulsive navel-gazers. A male barbing salon in comparison is always a great place to chat and network, and pump hands.

I suddenly noticed that the male beauticians had their knickers hanging so loose they were almost dropping off. I had heard of something called “sagging” among Nigerian youths, but this was worse than sagging, this was a case of male beauticians waiting to drop the pants at the slightest opportunity. The boy who was fixing the default eyelashes looked like the worst culprit. I couldn’t figure out what was still holding his knickers as he leaned over the lady to adjust the eyelashes. “Look at this your boy, his knickers are almost falling off, can’t you tell him to belt down his pants properly,” I found myself telling the proprietress! If the lady thought I was acting the busy body, she didn’t say so. She called the boy and tongue-lashed him. “You people should wear your trousers properly, I have always told you!” There had been another fellow in the salon all along. I figured out he was keeping an eye on one of the ladies; he was sublimely quiet. But what kind of man is that, so idle, he would follow his wife or girlfriend to the salon? I have since learnt that some men also do pedicure and manicure like women: those must be very idle men, I believe… I eventually had my hair cut. It had stopped raining. I walked out into the setting sun, thinking about women and their rather complex beauty routine and the obvious pleasure they derive from it. I found the ladies’ salon more exciting though: a hair cut in the company of women is quite an experience!

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