November 7, 2010

23 October 2010 - Jacmel, Haiti - Haircut

Getting your hair cut in a place where you are the ethnic minority is a bit of a trick, anywhere in the world. Luckily, I have easy-to-cut hair at this point.

In Liberia, while my hair was growing out from being shaved, I went back and forth between having friends hack at it on the front steps, and going to a hair salon aptly-named "Where Else?" Where Else was run by a Thai family that made its money following multi-ethnic aid workers and their multi-ethnic hair to emergencies around the world. When Timor Leste got too calm to have clientele and Darfur got too dangerous, they came to Liberia.

In Haiti, there are always the missionaries, and Haitian hair comes in a diverse spectrum, so I get the hunch it's easier here than it would be,
for example, for an African American to find a place to get their hair cut in most of rural Iowa.

But then there's the Jacmel phenomenon. It's too close to Port au Prince--2 hours--and people seem loath to start businesses selling things people could get done just 2 hours away.

-Want masking tape? Go to Port au Prince.

-A dentist? Port au Prince.
-Dairy products that require refrigeration (shouldn't the ones that don't scare us all)? Port au Prince.

I could go on.

According to the first three people I ask, white lady haircuts are on the Port au Prince list. But, this afternoon as I head back from the market with Dieunie (lugging our bag full of dry beans, Haitian rice, balls of chocolate to be boiled with cinnamon and sugar for hot cocoa, fresh greens and some fresh made peanut butter) I decide my buy-local kick should include haircuts. There is a hair salon right next door to my new apartment. Can't get much more local than that, right?

The place is tiny, and three punked-out, spikey-haired fashionista sisters in their late teens/ early 20's, along with the oldest woman's 3-year-old, sit and chat and watch bad French TV until I come in. They're happy to have the business. They swear they can cut my hair. I'm dubious, but willing to give it a shot to bond with my neighbors.

I play with the 3 year old while her mom lugs in a big bucket of cold water with which to wash my hair. They grill me about my relationship status and we start to banter about jealousy, fidelity and love. When I lean back to get my hair scrubbed, I start noticing the pictures of Catholic saints strategically placed: one behind a hat near the ceiling by the door, one low on the wall behind a chair next to a cup of water, and one out in the open for all to see.

For centuries of slavery and missionary zeal, Voudou--the original, unifying religion for most African-descended people on the island--has been repressed and misunderstood. Most Americans still equate it with sticking pins in a doll to cause pain to someone.

Not that Voudou has never been misused to cause pain--it definitely has--but considering centuries of forced conversion and slavery by people claiming to be Catholic, one wonders what religion hasn't been misused by some of its followers.

The result of a long history of suppression is double meaning of Catholic imagery, to fold in African spirits. The spirits in Voudou are not God--Voudou practitioners believe in one God--but, like saints, the spirits are sometimes seen as easier for people to relate our daily experiences to. (We're not so different--when American Catholics lose something, I understand sometimes they pray to St. Anthony.)

So, in my little neighborhood salon, we see St. Peter, the Virgin Mary, and St. Jacques. Or, we see Papa Legba, the master of the crossroads and the entry point to the spririt world, Ezilie, the spirit of love, and Ogou, the spirit of strength, healing, and battle. I don't know my new neighbors well enough to know which set of beliefs they hold, and it's not something you ask about openly or expect an open answer to.

After the haircut, we sit for awhile and chat while the 3-year-old dances around and half-watches the Chipmunks, dubbed over in French. I mention my need for Haitian cooking lessons, and it turns out the hairstylist also has a diploma in culinary arts. Cooking lessons start soon.

I don't yet look punked out or fashionista enough to be part of the club--but the haircut is a definite improvement. And I have four new great people to sit with, who can teach me about my new street and all its stories.

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