Real life is filled with far-fetched characters and unbelievable experiences often all wrapped up in an ordinary looking lifestyle. I love walking into other people’s lives; I think we all do. It’s probably one reason we read books and watch movies, for the short-moments when we transcend out of our everyday reality and into that of another. We get to hear their stories, feel their pain, lament at their disappointments and rejoice in their successes. I had one of those experiences recently while braiding my hair. It felt like reality TV – someone should package it for tourists. Except maybe it wouldn’t work for tourists, because you need to get the language and the cultural innuendos to understand everything that’s happening.
It all goes down at a hair stall in Nairobi’s Westlands Market. You find these little 4 by 4 foot stalls in most markets in Nairobi. They are occupied by highly-skilled women, who working at great speed produce the neatest, nicest-looking uniform braids. I call Njeri, the braiding lady, early that Monday morning to ensure she has no other clients booked. At 10.30am, after one more phone call to clarify directions, I arrive at her stall. Njeri is at the back of the stall repairing another client’s hair and informs me that she shall be done in a few minutes.
Braid repair is where you take out and re-braid the front of the head. It’s great when one does not have enough time or money to get the whole head re-done. It costs much less, actually about a quarter of the regular cost, and has you looking as good as new. Seeing as she still has a client, I offer to purchase my braids as she finishes the re-braid. We discuss the type, color and brand of braids and I proceed to a supermarket nearby.
When I return there’s another client getting her hair washed by Mary, Njeri’s colleague. Mary must be from western Kenya because though she understands the Kikuyu discussions, her interjections are in Swahili. The sink is located right beside the door leaving just enough room for me to squeeze through and get to where Njeri is finally almost done with her braid-repair client.
The Hair Stall Owner
Njeri is a cheerful, pleasant character. Right away I can tell she’s great with people; there’s constant chattering and playful banter all around her. Several people stop by with happy new year wishes and her phone rings every 15 minutes or so. Most of her callers are friends congratulating her on her daughter’s exam success. Sharon has passed her Standard 8 (primary school exit exams) so well that she is almost certain to be admitted to a National school. Some of Njeri’s friends don’t think it wise to trust the system and therefore are calling to encourage her to visit friendly head-teachers so that if anything goes wrong, Sharon will still have a plan B high-school.
As we are sitting there, Mama Glenny arrives. She’s one of Njeri’s loyal clients stopping by to have her braids taken out and hair washed. Mama Glenny is in the midst of ‘back-to-school’ errands and has just dropped off her children’s uniforms for labelling at a nearby stall. Its interesting how putting names on a child’s uniform has been professionalized and is now an actual business. Well, I guess it’s a small investment considering the cost of buying a whole new school uniform when it gets lost. Mama Glenny is also looking for places to buy socks for Glenn. She has tried all the usual uniform shops but they have run out of his size. She doesn’t want to go into town as it’s always difficult to find parking.
Nobody’s picking up
Mary has started taking out (unbraiding) Mama Glenny’s hair but Mama Glenny is in a hurry and needs more hands in order to go faster (speed up the process). Njeri calls her other stall-helper Njoki, who along with Njeri’s daughter Sharon had gone out to Sarit Center to pay their KPLC electricity bills. It’s been about an hour and Njeri is worried that something might be the matter. She dials Njoki’s number twice but it doesn’t go through. The third time she dials, a man picks up. Njeri cuts the call (disconnects) thinking she must have dialed the wrong number. But after confirming that it is indeed Njoki’s number, she dials again, this time requesting to speak to Njoki. The man on the other side asks her to identify herself and she gives him her name. The man cuts the call leaving Njeri concerned. Njeri then realizes that Njoki may have left her phone at home, in which case it might be Njoki’s husband who picked up. And her husband might now think that Njoki lied to him and didn’t come to work with/for Njeri every day. Realizing that she might have put Njoki into unnecessary trouble, Njeri tries to call back to clarify the situation. The phone rings severally, but no one picks up. Just as we are coming up with scenarios to explain why the phone is not being picked up (answered), Njoki and Sharon walk into the stall. With a sigh of relief they take up unbraiding Mama Glenny’s hair.
A momentarily lost phone
It turns out that as they were walking back from paying the bills at Sarit Center, Njoki realized that she didn’t have her phone and must have left it on the counter where she paid the bills. Njoki and Sharon walk back to find that the KPLC guard has kept the phone but will not give it back to them until Njoki can prove that she is the phone owner. He asks Njoki for the names of the last dialed and received numbers, which she duly provides, but he is not convinced. He keeps asking her different questions to prove that she is the actual phone owner, until finally Njeri calls asking for Njoki and thus confirming that indeed the phone does belong to Njoki. They are lucky, in Nairobi, once a phone is lost, it is lost forever. Njoki and Sharon thank him profusely before heading back to Westlands Market.
Missing Some Cash
As the hair braiding-undoing-washing continues, another issue comes up. Njoki asks Njeri how much money she had given her for the electricity bill. Njeri is surprised and first chides Njoki for being unsure of the amount of money in her possession. Njeri then explains that she had given her three two-hundred shilling notes totaling to six hundred. Njoki thinks she must have lost one of the two-hundred shilling notes along the way.
You see, after queuing for awhile Njoki arrived at the electricity bill counter and the cashier asked her to give him all the money so he could count it for her. It turned out that she only had two two-hundred shilling notes along with the three-hundred shilling in fifty-bob notes that was to pay her own bill. Njoki therefore only paid four-hundred of Njeri’s bill.
Njeri is convinced that it’s the cashier that has stolen the two-hundred shillings. She stops braiding me and with enthusiastic gestures explains what cashiers at banks and other establishments do to old people or clients that seem unsure of themselves. They offer to count the client’s money, to help things go faster (speed up the process), and in the process drop some of the money on the ground below them and declare the money to be short. Since the client was not sure what amount of money they had before handing it over to the cashier, the client is not confident enough to disagree with the cashier and thus searches for other means to meet the deficit.
Njoki is unwilling to confront the cashier. Njoki’s conversation goes back and forth between being pained at losing two-hundred shillings that she will have to re-pay and not having the courage to confront the cashier. After a half hour of this, Njeri tells Njoki to be courageous and go and ask for her money back. After all, what is the worst thing that can happen? It is likely that the cashier shall try to embarrass her, but Njeri tells Njoki to ensure she embarrasses him first by causing a scene and calling him a thief. That way he will be afraid to steal from another client.
*Disclaimer – this post is written in Kenyan everyday English, highly influenced by Swahili and other local languages. It’s re-told as observed with only a few name changes to protect the privacy of the clients. Apologies for any toes that may have been stepped on, I have done my best to keep to the facts of what I saw and heard.