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The Hairdresser of Harare – It isn’t only about hairdressing

April 22, 2012

Art helps us to gauge the mood of a country; the mood of a nation.  In fact I believe that it is quite possible, never to step foot into a country but be able to understand a little of what makes that country tick through the majority of its art.  By art, I include the music, the paintings, but also the books being published there, preferably by the citizens of that country, otherwise what we have is the perception of someone else.  So for instance while my knowledge about Zimbabwe only comes from the BBC and here I mean the British Broadcasting Corporation, reading The Hairdresser of Harare shows, to some extent, life, as lived by some Zimbabweans.

The premise of the story is this:

Vimbai is the queen bee of Mrs Khumalo’s hairdressing salon in Harare.  Then one of the staff is sacked and a good-looking man walks in, asking to be given a chance to showcase his hairdressing skills; skills he demonstrates to a rapturous applause.  The job becomes his, a new (and some might say better) clientele starts flocking to the salon; their only criteria being that the good-looking hairdresser, Dumisani, does their hair.  Vimbai is jealous.  After all, with her crown slipping away from her, does she have any future at the salon?  Yet, she cannot help falling under the charm of Dumisani.  Before long, she’s become his landlady.  Before long, they are going together to his brother’s wedding where he’s introducing her as his girlfriend.

But is all as it seems?  When the Ncubes, Dumisani’s parents, find out that Vimbai has a child, they don’t even bat an eyelid.  Nor did they bat an eyelid at the age gap between Vimbai and Dumisani – Vimbai is 26 and Dumisani, 22 years old.  And what did Mrs Ncube mean when she said “only the best for the girl who cured my son”?

It took me such a long time to finally sit down and read it (too many other books), but I am glad I did.  Yes, Vimbai is jealous and yes, Dumisani is gay, but for me, this story, narrated with great humour, shows us how this inflation we sometimes hear about in our Western newspapers, affects Zimbabweans.  So for instance, they might exchange one type of good for another.  Or where payment has to be taken, it is taken on the day, lest the money becomes worthless if taken any earlier.  The news of the delivery of a sugar consignment is just that: news.  Yet the skill of the writer lays in the detachment with which he tells the story.  We engage with the characters, but we don’t feel sorry for them.

This novel goes beyond what journalists tell us about the situation in Zimbabwe: they just narrate the facts but unfortunately, fail to show us the vibrancy and the courage of the people trying to survive in the situation they are in.

I know I wrote that the novel goes beyond homosexuality but it is one of the many strands that make up this novel.  I have to stay that I was quite taken aback at the strength of Vimbai’s passion when she finds out that Dumisani is gay, and the action she decides to take as a result.  There has been a lot in the press about the need to offer the protection of the law to the LGBT community in Southern Africa in general and in Zimbabwe in particular.  This book, for me anyway, poses the question of how far legislation will go towards addressing prejudices.

And so here to another good read, because that’s what good novels are supposed to do, aren’t they?  Entertain you – grip you – transport you – make you laugh – make you look at the world through someone else’s eyes.

So to those who’ve read it, what did you think?  To those who are yet to, what can I say?  Get yourself a copy and you will understand why I had to spell out what the BBC meant.

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3 Comments
  1. I am so glad you enjoyed this book as well, and I loved your review of it. Like you, I was really let down by Vimbai’s reaction towards Dumbasi’s homosexuality. I absolutely loved the humour, I loved the way Tendai Huchu portrayed modern Zimbabwean society, and most of all, the fact that it went beyond the stereotypically negative portrayal of homosexuals in Africa. As for the BBC, I’ve started reading another Zimbabwean novel that also refers to it as well.

    • Which BBC? lol! Thank you for your comment. I certainly enjoyed the book and would like to discover more writing from there – And the wishlist bulges at the seams

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