Title: The Hairdresser of Harare
Author: Tendai Huchu
Publishers: Weaver Press
Year of Publication: 2010
I picked Tendai Huchu's debut novel, The Hairdresser of Harare, knowing not what to expect. In my interview with the author I had asked him what the book is about and his response did not help me when I finally discovered what the book is about.
The Hairdresser of Harare is more than a novel about love and acceptance. It is about the prejudices a society has against certain segment of its people. It is about self discovery and recognising that between the black and white continuum are shades of grey. This novel pushes the boundaries of African fiction, and in doing so not only broaches but discusses a subject matter that even I don't feel comfortable talking about - sexual orientation.
The Hairdresser of Harare is set in the period when the Zimbabwean economic crisis was at its peak and hyperinflation has resulted in shortages of basic necessities such as sugar and petrol. Vimbai is a hairdresser at Mrs. Khumalo's salon. She is the queen that rakes in the money and customers specifically request her services, at least she was and they did until the arrival of Dumisani or Dumi. Dumi is a smooth talking gentleman with genteel mannerisms and his recruitment posed a threat to Vimbai's reign as the queen of Mrs. Khumalo's salon. Dumi's personality together with his deep knowledge of what to do for each customer made him the best hairdresser and customers - including Vimbai's customers - now begged him to work on them. And this seems to set the two on 'I-hate-you' path until Dumi came in with a request.
So when Dumi wanted a place to stay and Vimbai offered him an apartment in her house, the two became close. They became even closer when Dumi, attending his elder brother's wedding, introduced Vimbai as his girlfriend. That was when Vimbai realised that Dumi's parents are among the richest in the country, so why would the son of a wealthy man with all the connections become a hairdresser? This Dumi wouldn't say much about but with his parents accepting her, as their muroora, even when they later got to know that he has a child, Chiwoniso, born out of wedlock, and showering her with gifts, the questions increased. Which wealthy parents would allow their son to marry a lady from nowhere and who, in addition, ha a child?
When Dumi met Mr. M__ and he started coming home late, Vimbai realised that there is something wrong with Dumi. Searching for the truth and finding it, Vimbai was devastated and couldn't believe that the man she loves could be so evil.
The passages that were by far the sickest were the ones in which he declared his love or Mr M__, as if such a thing were ever possible. He used passionate terms like 'the love of my life', which only men and women use. (Page 167)
Written in the first person by Vimbai, we learn of what it is to be a homosexual in a country with laws against homosexuality. Dumi went through a lot of pain - physical and emotional ones - because of whom he is; because he wanted to be accepted; because he wanted to be who he is. I found my self sympathising with Vimbai agreeing with her perspectives on the issue, approving some of her actions, hating her for others and still getting convinced by Fungai's philosophical explanation of homosexuality, which earned him the isolation of his friends.
There was a lot more going on in the novel too. The reality of the conditions in Zimbabwe was strongly stated without the narrator (or writer) being sentimental. For instance, we find that Dumi's objectivity makes him question a lot of things that happen in the country like corruption, while still not leaving the country because he believes in the country; while still questioning a BBC reporter who had come to report on the dwindling tourism. It was a pity that what made him finally leave was not his hatred for the country but his non-acceptance within it.
In Vimbai we have an observant character. However, I was hurt when she questioned which was better, life under colonial rule or life under dictatorship, after seeing a long queue of people waiting to get their passport issued to them?
It was ironic that during the war of independence people had not left in the way doing now under the same revolutionary government that had freed them. Could it really be that independence had become a greater burden than the yoke of colonial oppression? (Page 122)
I always believe that it is better to rule one's own country no matter how bad one rules it. When we do, we can hold ourselves to account and can deal with our issues internally. I would be hurt to hear a South African say Apartheid is a better government. But that's Vimbai's observations and she was justified given the desperation of the time.
The novel was replete with fresh metaphors and allusions. This is how Vimbai, the narrator, described herself after betraying Dumi:
I walked through the packed streets of the city feeling like I was being weighed down by thirty pieces of silver.
The problem with this novel lies in the non-translation of some of the foreign phrases used, though this wasn't much but judging from the way I enjoyed the prose I wished I could understand every word written in the novel. I also believed that certain generalisations that the narrator made took something away from it and certain facts should have been left out such as humans thinking they were superior to animals. We have always thought so.
Being the first full-length novel I have read that explicitly deals with homosexuality as a subject, this tour de force has tempered my perspectives on the subject. This is a novel that worked absolutely for me on all levels: theme, plot, prose, and many others. It is a wonderful book and a very bold attempt at raising this moribund topic up for discussion. I recommend this novel unreservedly to all readers. This book, on its own, has widened the horizon of African writing. It has, singularly, taken it from the confines of what is perceived to be accepted to a pedestal where nothing is restricted except one's imaginative ability. Tendai Huchu deserves all the praise and for such a debut novel as this, he really needs to be recommended. This being my first reading of a Zimbabwean author I was not disappointed, I only sit in wait of his second novel.
ImageNations Rating: 5.5 out of 6.0