So, in this hair salon in Kinshasa...
Bibish Marie-Louise Mumbu’s “Me and My Hair” is the sort of story that makes me happy to be a translator. A man in his time plays many parts, says Jaques in As You Like It, and a translator plays even more. In translating this story, I got to step into the skin of a vibrant Congolese woman, got to inhabit her voice, feel her anger at being scorned and her pride in her identity. It’s a story that women everywhere can appreciate, yet it is a voice that is unique. In translating, I attempted to maintain the oral feel of her narrative, the sense that she might as well, in fact, be recounting it to her hairdresser at the salon. I chose “dreds” instead of the more “correct” “dreadlocks” and used “Uncle Sam Land” to emphasize the slight cynicism inherent in her mention of the United States (Disneyland! Wonderland!). In the spirit of finding the universal in the specific, and with absolute faith in my readers, I also chose to leave as many of the Congolese cultural references as intact as possible; while the reader may not have heard of an “office wife,” the idea of a businessman having extra women about the “office” is as Western as it is African. Mumbu’s narrator, with all her sass, was a joy to translate and, I hope, will be a joy to read, as well.
Thank God I got out of there. I couldn’t believe how packed it was. Now, sitting on a mat in front of the house in a loose robe that lets me fill my lungs, I rest my head, which really needed it. The important thing for Saturday, my hair appointment, is taken care of. Where? The place? Oh, it’s not far, it’s exactly two minutes off the main road. You can’t miss it. It’s enough to just follow the smell of kebabs grilling in the street, seasoned with booming music and dust, what a delicacy. Ta-da, you’re there. This is the “salon”...
Africa Rasta. That’s what it’s called. A simple place. At first, it was a sort of storefront where they’d sell extensions and everything else hair. One day, one girl, then another one, on their way out, started offering the buyers their services: they do everything. Braids, weaves, manicures, pedicures, facials, and more and more and more braids... Today, they’re as much hairdressers as they are clients. Braids, clip-ins, weaves, extensions, we all know the lingo, right, girls? A world that takes up our time, energy, thought. Personally, my head felt dirty. I was coming out of a period of long, skinny dreds that reached my hips. But the weather’s no good for that anymore. It’s too hot these days, the rainy season‘s coming down, and on top of it all, I want to feel new and beautiful on Saturday. I especially want to make him pay! He dared to dump me; now he’ll have to repent till the end of his life. Fuelo and me, we were together three years. He influenced my style, I remade his. All that for him to end up with someone else.
Thursday afternoon is almost over. A mutual friend of me and Fuelo’s is celebrating her thirtieth at Mama Colonel, a restaurant-club where they make this amazing braised chicken. Getting my hair done now, I’ve managed to avoid the weekend salon traffic jams. My hair’s not natural, it’s relaxed. So there you go! Once upon a time they thought straight hair was great. Like in the movies on TV. But today, how good a well- set afro would do me! For that, I’d have to cut all my hair off to let it grow naturally. Except I’ve gotten older; I’m thirty, and I’ve lost all patience. But fine. I’m coming out of my dreds. I was at Begonias to have some work done last Sunday, I spent five hours at the salon! Lucky for me it was a Sunday. Fewer people. And today, I’m here. Africa Rasta is more fake hair salon than hair salon. Its clients come from everywhere and find everything here. So hello, conversation! My personal favorites, in terms of stories, are the conversations you watch.
The 5’10” girl sitting there, with her movie star glasses and her low-waisted pants, is the client who called fifteen minutes ago. She’s from the States. She’s here on vacation, someone told her about the place. Not the nightclub downtown called The Place, no, I’m still talking about the hair salon. She’s hot, she wants a bottle of Canadian Pure, not the fresh water from a baggie. She insists. She’s talking to the kid that she sends out in an approximated Lingala, a little Frenchified in an Americanized tone. “Mineral water, huh, pure kozua water puhleeeze!” She obviously doesn’t want to take Congolese sicknesses back to Uncle Sam Land. I smile discreetly in my corner, perched on my stool in the hands of my expert hairdresser. She’s giving me a weave.
The little skinny girl in her boubou, she, you might say, is the girl next door. She’s the one who drove up a little while ago in heels and a miniskirt, with this guy who helped her down from his big olive green Jeep. An army guy, who knows? Now she’s gotten changed. She looks the Statesian up and down and whistles for the fresh water vendor. “Mibale, little one, moyi eleki! Two baggies, kiddo, the sun’s blazing!” And quickly, without a stadium or referees, two teams are outlined against the horizon and begin a pointless duel at the hair salon. What a sweet match-up! The Bana mboka, the kids from here, versus the Diaspora, those who banished themselves. Fresh-Bagged versus The Bottled Stuff. Rainy Season versus Winter. Stayed versus Left. On Foot versus Driving. Boubou against Low-Waisted Pants. Can’t make this stuff up!
So, set up on my stool, letting my hairdresser do her thing, I’m ready to follow the game. It looks like it’ll be close. And the match makes me smile, but only on the outside. Because inside I’m raging, I’m thinking about how I’ll dress Saturday in order to knock Fuelo dead. They’ve told me he’s already with someone else. That was fast! Is it because she’s from the same place as him, from the West? Still, the rumor is nuts. What if I wear my yellow wrap dress, with the gold high-heeled sandals? Or my black and red wrap with the long skirt and dizzying slit, and the top cut low on one side. Dump me, me!, just like that, without warning or explanations, because his mama told him to. Oh, I’m not from the same tribe as them. And it took them three whole years to realize it? Me, always there for their family parties, baptisms, communion, Christmas, weddings. Me, who took care of his sisters’ kids when they were busy. Me, who already went to family reunions. They’re going to pay for this. Especially him. He knows well what my weapons are. I’m not from the West, I’m not from the West... Hey, I’ve got it! Saturday, I’ll wear the high-waisted Bermuda shorts I had made. They’re what shows off my “weapons” best. With the red heels. My hair? Weaves with those Brazilian hair extensions. It’s what the hairdresser is working on right now. I confess that I hesitated between cornrows and dreds. But with these shorts, Brazilian extensions will be perfect. We’ll see, won’t we, what the old lady will say after I’ve reconquered her Fuelo boy. Just to toss him aside again. How could she butt into our life like that? What does my tribe have to do with our love? Overnight I find myself alone and all my plans fizzle out. Because of that, that... argh, I’m furious. Who does she think she is? “His mother!” Yeah, and? That still doesn’t give her the right.
A funny silence has descended at Africa Rasta. What’s going on? Oops, I’ve just missed an episode of the match being played out here, right under my nose. Rainy Season has made the olive green 4x4 Jeep come back. He really is military, high up, too, wow. The match’s getting close again. What’s Miss Winter going to do? Let’s pay attention. Worth forgetting my ex-future mother-in-law for two minutes. Whoa, Made in America just dialed someone on her cellphone. It’s not a throwaway, that phone. It’s the best they make in Uncle Sam Land.
“Yeah! No, they still aren’t done. Can you come please, with something to eat?” she says in English. Shh. Silence. I can’t tell what’s being plotted, but I think we just have to wait a bit. Something’s going to happen. There. Everybody holds her breath. Those having their hair relaxed, those getting weaves, and those having their old braids taken out, even the girlfriends just hanging out. Everybody waits. Insilence. Abruptly: Ring, ring, ringgggg! A phone goes off. The look on every face seems to be asking whose phone is that, can’t they turn it off, can’t they tell this is serious stuff? The concerned party answers, quickly mumbles a few muffled sentences, and hangs up. Like the ad in the intermission of a fascinating movie. Breathless, we wait. Rainy Season gathers her crew around her high-ranked soldier. She has had beer brought in, and kebabs, and from the open door of the olive green 4x4, we hear Werrason’s latest opus. Passersby stop to try and understand, surprised. Others hurry by quickly, irritated. Kids, who got the whole thing right away, twirl, beg, dance hard, and luck out, leaving either with a long kebab or a 1000 franc note. All this time, Winter’s crew laughs at everything, to irritate Rainy Season’s crew, making phone calls left and right. Finally... something’s happening at the far end of the avenue. Here we go, something’s really going to happen. Two huge Hummers pull up there. A blue one and a white one. Since they’re American cars, they can only be for Miss Winter, I bet... Bingo! Her cars project American music and bring her hamburgers and shawarma, Lebanese sandwiches. It’s too funny, this part, and not too interesting for the moment. Whistle, half-time. So let me dive back into my love story...
Fuelo’s from the West and I’m from the North. But that never stopped us from dancing to the same rhythms, laughing at the same jokes, having great conversations and being perfectly in synch. Three whole years. The idea of tribe, region, origin had never stuck to us. And even when the old lady, his mother, showed up, I visited her regularly. I speak their language fluently, learned it at boarding school there. And when we got together, Fuelo and me, I perfected it. And so where I come from had never been a problem. So what was it that really happened? It’s really pretty incredible that young people, born right at the end of the twentieth century, can be so behind. And what does it matter if you don’t speak the same language? To me, coming from different places lends richness. You eat more things, you speak more than one language, you know lots of cultures, you avoid local diseases, you’re rich, it’s obvious. Globalization in all its sprawl. Maybe the poor old woman really has nothing to do with it, in the end. Maybe it’s just this gentleman who wants to stay busy sowing his wild oats till the end of time, yeah? Taste every sauce, right? I learned that the new girl is the little cousin of one of his colleagues. Younger, fresher, skinnier. And here I was thinking that all bastards had been stricken from the earth, how naïve! When I think how I remade him... Oh, life. Now that the word “colleagues” has entered his vocabulary, he’s forgotten he owes it to me, his job at Customs. It’s a family link of mine. My Uncle Duse’s friend. He came to eat at the house one day and talked about how the people in his office are lazy bums, lazy like the world had stopped turning. People waiting, for what? You wonder. They come to work for everything but work, and on top of that they’d rather shoot the breeze about their lives: the littlest one’s fever, the auntie of the fourth “office wife,” the night staff, the weekend drinking binges, the shirt crumpled because the power’s still out, the Skol special in the bar at Ya Tété—buy one, get one free. That’s what the agents talk about all day, their noses buried in piles of paperwork or their heads in front of the computer like they’re working. Uncle Duse’s friend is sick of work moving at a snail’s pace, plus knowing he’s considered the bad guy. They’d even nicknamed him Zorro. He and my uncle burst out laughing.
“Can you imagine, the last hire, this old guy who came over from marketing, drives me crazy by always calling me ‘son’? How can I work like that?”
“Hey now, listen, son...”
“Stop it, Duse... I seriously need someone dynamic! We can’t stick to budget when people consider the office a big family and want a brotherly atmosphere! This isn’t a boy’s club!”
“It’s true, you’re right. Same thing in my office. People demand you act all formal, call them sir, and when you tell them off for some stupidity they committed, they won’t talk to you again for ten years, and you get nowhere.”
“Yeah. It’s energy-consuming, my friend. You spend forever dealing with personnel problems at work. I’m looking for the rare pearl.”
This is the moment. Since I’m bringing them beer anyway, I seize the opportunity to talk to them about my darling Fuelo. He’s fresh out of business school, and it’s been hard for him not finding work. He’s the youngest in his family and his sisters want him to prove himself. And since I get along super-well with Uncle Duse, it’s in the bag. They both say he has to bring in his resume the next Monday, that he has to pass a test like everybody else, but they’ll keep in mind the fact that he’s the future son-in-law, all a matter of course, no problem...
Pff! That’s something the old woman doesn’t know. A job can be from the North or the West, right? Hm. I haven’t had my last word in this business. What was it he dared to tell me? Actually, where the hell did I put his letter? I’m having a hard time finding it with all the noise around me: a mix of Werrason, American music, and ringtones, drenched in conversational racket. The two teams are still scrapping. Man, my bag, a real mess, I’m telling you. But where did I throw that letter? Oh! No, no, that’s not it. Makeup bag. Hairbrush. Nail kit. Mineral water? What’s that doing here? Quick, hide it. I don’t want to show solidarity with anybody in this salon match-up unfolding under my nose, my life is complicated enough as it is. Bracelets. Necklaces. Hey, that’s where that was? I was looking for this necklace, I thought I’d spent that money for nothing. Envelopes? Maybe... Fliers, invitations, but... Ah, got it. What was he saying to me again, that bastard Fuelo? Yeah, of course, that’s how it works, he went from darling to bastard: demoted. So, this letter:
“My darling, it’s not what you think and it has nothing to do with ‘her,’ the girl. She is as different from you as anybody could be. She is twenty-five centimeters taller, and weighs ten kilos less, she’s younger, too, she’s from near me—the West—she makes little noises of awe in front of beautiful sights and flowers, she needs someone to help her get out of a car and climb the stairs. She has no idea how much a loaf of bread costs, her hair is natural, an afro, she knows how to play music, the piano, etc. But I repeat: it’s got nothing to do with her. It’s just that Mama has always been very attached to traditions, that’s a fact, and you being from the North doesn't help matters. It’s not me, you see, it’s my mother! If it was up to me, we’d stay together, but since my father’s death, Mama is the head of the family, and I can’t do anything about it. She also thinks you don’t always dress with decency, and your hairstyles—well, let’s not even go there. You might say you were a siren. Personally, I have nothing to do with this, you’ve got to believe me...”
No desire to keep reading. And he calls himself a man. I think I’m the one who got the break in this business. I would have married a little boy always ready to run off and hide in mommy’s skirts. How sad! I had to wait three years and go through a breakup for the man of my dreams to tell me I dressed like a slut and styled my hair the same way. Shithead. Family of nazis! Bunch of freeloaders. Filthy hypocrites. Without batting an eyelash, they took the orange that I was, cut it up, pressed out the juice, all of it, and instead of stopping there, turned back the peel to eat the flesh left over. I am an emptied and completely worn-out skin. But I insist, I haven’t had my last word. And furthermore, I am not indecent. I am a beautiful woman. There is a difference. Plus it really isn’t my fault if I have the impious figure of black African women. If I have curves. If they’re weapons of mass destruction. If I’m an “anatomic bomb,” like the song says. In the North, we’re like that, we can’t help it, it’s not our fault. And personally, I like feeling good in my skin, and my clothes and hairstyle have a lot to do with that. Me and my body, we know each other. Me and my hair, we understand each other. To people who have trouble recognizing me because of my hair, I say: get used to my nose, note down the details of my wicked black figure—oh yes, the curves—and just give up trying to recognize me by my hairstyle!!! I have twelve in a year, one for each month. So to speak. It’s true, grab hold of some detail about my figure or a character trait or a color I wear a lot, or a style that makes me stand out, but stop with the hairstyle, because me and my hair—just drop it! If that’s what indecency is...
Oh man, the teams are kind of getting closer in the match from just now. Mineral Water versus Fresh Bagged. The driver of the white Hummer approaches the high-up military guy with the olive green Jeep. He tells him he likes his Jeep. He wants to know all about the motor, the mileage, the year, everything. Because he’s sick of his Hummer. Then it’s the high-up military man’s turn to confess his weakness for American cars. Shit, the girls are pissed. They seem to say: “Men! They can be such numbskulls! They never get what the stakes are!” Suddenly, chairs get pulled together and the guys start talking soccer. In the huddle they introduce their girlfriends, clink glasses, agree to take turns with the music, and... game over, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a tie. The war is ended. The atmosphere has lightened up. Bummer! Miss Boubou says to Low-Waisted Pants that her iPhone is really pretty. “Can I see it?” The next minute, they’re suddenly talking shop, specifically bags and shoes. A little about their exes, too, after a couple of glances at the men. Women! There’s always a crowd at the hair salon. It never empties. Still, everyone is taken care of. Where can you get extensions? Do you have this Number 4 color? Could you do a hot oil treatment? How much is a relaxing? The poor sales guy doesn’t know which saint to pray to or who to answer first.
Soon Saturday and the party. Us girls, we’re either getting hit on or dumped. The guys won’t have any idea how much trouble we’ve put ourselves to. Unlike at Begonias, at Africa Rasta there are as many hairdressers as there are clients, but that’s because it’s all about braids! Because at Begonias, something that makes me laugh is that no matter if you’ve made an appointment, if you’ve said to yourself ok, I’ll be there six hours and so I’ll be done at eight, it’s never like that. Sometimes, even if you have an appointment, there’s another girl who came in five minutes before you and they start work on her first. Or maybe you’re alone, you’ve got two pairs of hands for one head, and you say to yourself this is good, it’ll go fast, and boom, another girl arrives for a straightening, and one of the two hairdressers, the general manager, goes off to take care of the new head of hair. I’ve got it figured out, though, I go Sundays!!! The great thing is that the salon ambiance is always the same, no matter where or when. The talk is loud, the laughter is loud, the strutting never stops. Like just now, especially with the rivalry thing. Sometimes men venture in because they’re with their girlfriends. They quietly order a beer, most salons sell them, and become the object of good-natured teasing, the clients’ scapegoats. It’s a place of shamelessness, because even the husbands and lovers never really see the unstyled hair of a girl who gets her hair done, it’s a place for feminine eroticism in all its violence. I think it’s like that because it’s also where we suffer. Braids pull, relaxers burn. Unfortunately, it’s also where we see best how black women have internalized a complex. Oh yes, pretty hair isn’t frizzy but relaxed, soft, easy to style. Like in the movies. And he liked that, Fuelo did. He’s got a lot of nerve now to say he didn’t.
Fuelo, Fuelo, Fuelo! When I think about his letter... what did I write back?
“I’d rather just jump into this conversation that’s taking forever to get going because I need to hurry up and move on, you understand? You know the thing with the girl, I think it’s really ugly and dirty: to trick people like that who haven’t done anything to you, just for a little pleasure, and a momentary one, too, it’s silly and disgusting and stupid. Now I’ve been dumped, I’ve gotten used to the word, you know, it’s like I told you sometimes; we think we’re safe from some things, we trust time, words spoken, tender little words in writing, until the very same mouth that says I love you says something else, and you hurt so much that you want to hurt somebody else, but if it’s not your style, then what do you do? You clam up, and the silence eats you up on the inside like gangrene! I think I’ve had enough.
After reading this, move on to the manila folder where you’ll find everything you’ve ever written me that was beautiful and that convinced me you loved me. You don’t say things like that just to make someone happy.
Me, I’ve moved on. At first you dumped me, sure, but look here, I’m over it. From now on, I’m a free woman. Rid of you, your words, your worries, your women, your theatrics, your put-downs, your mother, your family. Actually, the other person’s cheating hurts like hell not because we’re a hundred percent masochist but because we love ourselves, that simple. And in love, we always want to be selfish and not share the person we love. I don’t mix well with other women, and I won’t share you, either. So? Ciao, babe! You weren’t the guy for me...”
I should have felt better after. Well, I didn’t. Even after writing that. I repeat, let me make it clear: I still haven’t had my last word. That last word will be him seeing me standing, full of life, sexy with my “ten kilos more than the girl,” still from the North, and him wanting me and me saying no. That is the kind of last word this should be, and how I’d like it. Afterwards, passing his mother or family members or friends in the street, or his sisters at the supermarket, politely saying hello, with a certain joie de vivre, being flat-out happy, that would be a sort of added bonus to my last word.
Finally it’s Saturday. Ten months after the savage and familiar break, ten months after the letters. Saturday. The eagerly awaited day has arrived. This is where I should be, where I’ll find people. At no. 17. The party. Going in. Night is falling, the weather’s good, there’s a certain cheerfulness in the air. “Hey, it’s been awhile, how’re you, what’s happening with you?” The music, the first conversations. I am smoking hot in my Bermuda shorts and my red heels. No one tells me this, but I can see it in their faces. And what if he doesn’t come? No, he has to show off his new young trophy. Plus it’s normal for him to be late. What am I saying? He likes to make them wait. The paintings on the walls of Mama Colonel are beautiful. You can tell the decorator has taste. From a ways off, I can hear the rhythm of zouk. I’m deep into one particular painting when I hear a “And who do we have here?” without paying much attention. The voice, rough and handsome, smelling of sex, comes closer with its “And who’s this?” I’m forced to turn around. No way. Léon? Our neighbor and my big brother’s childhood friend.
“What are you doing here? I thought you were dead and buried?”
“And you, I thought you were married to some old Northern polygamist in the village?”
We throw ourselves into each other’s arms. And... This is the moment Fuelo chooses to show up. What a scene! Too good. He’s let his beard grow, he got skinny but, hey, he kept the style and the clothes I gave him. The black and white striped shirt with the linen pants. That will do. Her? Cute, I admit, pretty even, but that’s about it. Nothing special. Low heels, with the excuse that she’s tall, I bet. Wearing a jumper, shit, what’s that doing at a party? And to top it all off, her afro, which is all over the place, you’d think she was a Jamaican who smoked too many spliffs after a day spent in a convertible. The smalltalk has gone silent; everyone’s waiting. I seriously want to laugh. What are they waiting for, these people? That’s when Léon asks me to dance. To the zouk. He smells good, this Léon, and he has the decency to keep quiet while he dances. I love it. So what’s the catch? The evening was beautiful. Here I was thinking I’d say this, do that so that Fuelo and his girl would see I was there, and I didn’t have even a minute for them. The reason? Léon. We talked about the good old times, we danced, we joked, and he brought me home in a taxi. In the end, it was Fuelo and his honey who couldn’t take their eyes off me, watched all my comings and goings, and obviously not for the same reasons! I think I finally managed to have my last word...
And this morning, as I hang out in a loose robe on my lucky mat in front of the house, it’s not my hair that’s giving me this headache. It’s how much I’m laughing! Thinking about all the matches that have been played out in my life over the last ten months, since the hair salon, since those last three years, since last night. And as if that wasn’t enough, Léon, with whom I just got off the phone after an almost half-hour conversation, just completely did me in with a hysterical joke: it’s basically about Little Red Riding Hood in Lingala. In Lingala! Oh, my God, I’m dying laughing.
Addie Leak is a freelance translator specializing in French and Spanish. She holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa; her translations have been most recently featured in the Buenos Aires Review and The Postcolonialist.