MY HAIRDRESSER IS DEAD – Michigan Quarterly Review


Published in Issue 63.2: Spring 2024

Spring 2024 | Emelda Nyaradzai Gwitimah Reads “My Hairdresser is Dead” MQR Sound

A note about the short story “My Hairdresser is Dead” from Emelda Nyaradzai Gwitimah for the Michigan Quarterly Review’s Spring 2024 issue “African Writing: A Partial Cartography of Provocations”: It took me a full 12 months to be able to complete 'My Hairdresser is Dead'. I don't consider myself any type of non-fic writer but my grief needed an outlet and storytelling is cheaper than therapy, right? My hair is woven into my Black womanhood so intrinsically, that the piece was a way to grapple with all those meanings, deal with my new reality and changing hair condition in a cold climate, while paying homage to the woman who'd basically acted as my healer and therapist at some of the most important points in my life.


My hairdresser is dead. My dermatologist too. I’m too scared to get in touch with my nail tech, and she hasn’t posted on her Instagram page in three months. Since I moved fifteen thousand kilometres away from Zimbabwe, my glam squad has been falling apart spectacularly, and like an image of Dorian Gray, I’m going right along with it.


The nerve to call it a glam squad. I’m not famous. (Ahem—yet.) But I assembled my team of reasonably priced compassionate Beauty Avengers in Harare because (a) the beauty piece is important and (b) I can’t afford therapy. Hairdos, skincare, and pedicures are some kind of remedy to the general pains of ageing. Spa days are—unless you’re one of those DIY folk—a necessary expense. And if, like me, you have a minor disability that limits your access to your own head, so are hair maintenance activities. Unless, bless, you’re lucky to enjoy those in-house. We the Motherless don’t have a choice; we have to pay for these services.


My mother died in 1997, just after we discussed growing out my hair. The part of the deal was she would braid my hair every weekend if I promised to keep the styles neat and not undo the mabhanzi (African threading) if I got bored at school. Yes, I had done this while bored before. She would in turn occasionally let me use her hot comb with the red handle to straighten it. The special one. Ma’am, say less! Then in October that year, her life was cut short and so was my hair.


In my hometown, I had Sis Viola doing my hair, first at Fingers Hair Salon, then at various spots around the city. I don’t know how my dad found this compassionate woman to do his bereaved and broken daughter’s hair, but she was the most fabulous lady. Unfortunately, I stopped going to her after my first relaxer scalp burn in the fourth grade. In Grade Seven, I had to beg my dad and stepmom to allow me to regrow my hair. When I say beg, I mean bargain in tears while sitting on their bedroom floor and reassuring them that I would not ask for money for it and that it wasn’t to attract boys. They said yes, and I enlisted a school-aged family friend who lived up the street to do my hair, starting with mabhanzi, each week. We share the same birthday, ironically. This friend saved my life in many ways by giving me the dignity of beauty for free. Then, for a while, my mum’s church friend offered to get my hair done at her salon, until in response to personal family difficulty (read: stepmom said I was feeling myself too much), I asked it to be lopped off.

Sidenote: I shudder every time I say “salon” because where I come from we pronounce it “saloon.” It makes more sense. Saloons in old Westerns were hot gathering spots. Salons are places of acceptance, ferocious gossip, and, often, fights between wives and girlfriends. Or wives and boyfriends. In my opinion, salons might as well be old-timey bars selling moonshine. People are free in those sacred spaces, where the whirr of hairdryers and buzz of clippers combine with the floral fumes of creams, potions and lotions, the scent of singe and methylated spirit to create a heady addiction, much like alcohol. Products and techniques mix, like the people of all backgrounds, orientations, ages, expressions, and energies who seek these shrines for the transformative powers of the looks they churn out. All and sundry come from all over to seek the counsel of stylists, much like imbibers search for the sage wisdom of bartenders as they indulge in their poison. Stylists and bartenders are in the same WhatsApp group when it comes to counselling. If you’re going to work in the beauty industry, you better understand the inherent beauty in everyone, find it and present it. Your craft demands it, because you never know in your salon (or saloon) whom you might save.


In my culture, musoro wevakuru haubatwi. The hair and head of an adult are sacred. You don’t play there. Talk about privilege? Anyone who is allowed to play in your hair is actually privileged. That right is earned. The ideal path is you learn how to braid hair as a young girl and practise these skills on your friends, cousins, and siblings. The hope is that you don’t feel comfortable with the idea of someone else touching your eventual daughter’s hair. In a way, the act of grooming is a ritual for family. What is passed down to Karanga women like me when they do their children’s hair? Thank you for asking: homemaking incantations, further wifely trainings to the ones you’ve internalized since you were two, and some questionable advice weaved into the core fabric of your Black personhood.

As you grow, add to this the conditioning you receive in life about what constitutes good appearance, including the influences of your country’s colonial history and sexy content like what Mrs. Alfred taught in the topic Good Grooming during Fashion and Fabrics in Form One. I mention this hodgepodge of opinions because besides the other challenges of the reality of growing up in an environment threaded by the desire for escape, one is also constantly navigating the bizarre feelings about how Black girls’ hair grows out of their heads. Wait, that’s reductive; it’s thoughts on all Black people’s hair: for example, how people think locs are not presentable, the salacious codes of hair dyes and tints, how beards have deeper meanings, and the amazing job-finding virtues of an English cut. One must comb through this knowledge and information to define how they plan their own look and, indeed, the looks of one’s children. They don’t call them “hair roots” for nothing. One must investigate how they hold you down.

I had a blog once many moons ago dedicated to this type of exploration. It was also an ode to the love of my natural hair. I asked questions as I reviewed products. Questions like, What is hair to a Black woman? I’m no expert, but this I know for sure: it’s community, it’s confidence, it’s care. It’s some kind of autonomy in a world that feels many types of ways about women expressing themselves and being creative with their image. It’s adornment. It’s power. It’s a weird kind of superpower. I don’t care—being able to do your own hair is the ultimate triumph. Plus, you get a tricep workout. A win is a win.

What’s the crown? What’s the temple? Why do we use all these majestic words to describe parts of the head? What are the best ingredients to—as the philosopher Aubrey Drake Graham put it—make one’s hair “smell like the tropics”? How do you deal with losing your hair involuntarily? Should it even mean so much if, beyond the living follicles, it’s just visible dead cells? So many questions. So much money was used. I shut down that blog eventually, sick of the comments, but the questions have never left. (Me, yesterday googling at one in the morning if “Barbara” and “barber” and “barbarian” have the same word root. They do not.)

After all that, the only question I have now is why. How could Mukai just die?

To read the rest of this piece and much more, purchase our Spring 2024 issue (available in print and digital forms here.)

Emelda Nyaradzai Gwitimah is from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and currently resides in Canada. She holds an MFA in Writing and Publishing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. A finalist for the African Writers Awards for Poetry, her work has been published in Aké Review, Bambazonke, The Willowherb Review, The Post Online Journal, Ipikai Poetry Journal, the Our Stories Redefined African poetry anthology, and twice in the Intwasa Festival short story anthology.

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