The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu

Hairdresser of Harare Cover

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu, Cover

There are few rewards for blogging.  I often joke that this blog is the least read blog in the blog-o-sphere;  usually, my daily site visitor count numbers in the single digits, if I get any visitors at all.  With so few visitors, I rarely get a comment, and certainly no one has ever given me a dollar or a dime to reward my efforts.

Thus it came as a pleasant surprise when an author, Tendai Huchu, noticed my blog and offered to send me a copy of his book The Hairdresser of Harare for review.  I replied that if he is expecting a boost in sales based on my reputation as an opinion maker, he is sadly mistaken.  Nevertheless, I gladly accepted his kind offer and subsequently read his book, sent to me as a Kindle-ready electronic copy.

Huchu’s tale takes place in Harare, Zimbabwe.  The non-profit I work for has an office in Harare, I wanted to get a  sense, albeit through the lens of fiction, of what city’s zeitgeist.  The story’ protagonist, Vimbai, is a skilled stylist in an up-and-coming hair salon in Harare, run by a Mrs. Khumalo.   One day, a smartly-dressed, young man with  a “well proportioned boyish physique, pleasing to the eye,” arrives at the salon in search of a job.  In a flash of chutzpah and bravado, the stranger confidently re-styles the hair of one of Vimbai’s best clients, proving that his skills aren’t just an egotistical, over-confident bluff.  Instead, his self-assurance is genuine, built on true talent and competence.   Vimbai, conscious of her own skill, takes pride in her value to Khumalo.  This usurper’s bold actions shock and humiliate Vimbai, challenging her claim to being the best hairdresser in Harare.

The young Turk’s name is Dumisani, new in town, and looking for a cheap apartment to rent.  In order  to size up her competition Vimbai offers to let Dumisani stay with her.  He convinces her to come to a family wedding with him as his plus-one, where Vimbai learns that Dumisani is not the ambitious but poor young man she thought he was.  His wealthy family, scions of the Zimbabwean elite class, are shocked by his arrival at the wedding.  His family treats Vimbai with curiosity and polite bewilderment, as circumspect conversations whirl among Dumisani’s family members.   In the end, the Dumisani’s family welcomes Vimbai, as she starts to feel a growing affection towards Dumisani.

As a Western reader fully aware of all the typical stereotypes of gay men in the media, it was only too obvious to see where the story was going.  To recap, a young man appears out of nowhere at a hair salon, and remarkably he is a brilliant stylist.  Is there a more stereotypical gay character?   It turns out he is something of the black sheep of the family, but manages to regain their confidence by bringing along a woman to a wedding.  So, the  family knows he is gay, but Vimbai doesn’t, and his family somehow believes this young woman will straighten Dumisani out, or maybe she already has.  Could the story be any more obvious?  Could anyone actually be surprised by this novel?

Poor Vimbai seems oblivious to the clichéd storyline developing around her; I read on, hoping for a surprise.  As Vimbai and Dumisani plan to open a salon together, Vimbai discovers that, indeed, Dumisani is gay.  At first she notices his sotto voce conversations from his room, and then notices him sneaking out at midnight to meet someone in a car, disappearing for the night.  Suspicion gets the best of Vimbai, and while Dumisani is on a weekend getaway she peruses his diary. Reading his private confessions of love for Colin, the tale of his family’s fateful discovery of his sexuality, and how his family restored his inheritance after his family met Vimbai, she reflects:

“If it wasn’t written in his hand and before my eyes, I would have denied it. I could not have foreseen this. He spoke like a normal man, wore clothes like a normal man and even walked like a normal man. Everything about him was masculine. Didn’t homosexuals walk about with handbags and speak with squeaky voices?”

Vimbai is utterly shocked to discover Dumisani’s homosexuality; regrettably, few Western readers will be as surprised.  She reads on in the diary, grasping to understand her friend’s homosexuality:  “As far as I knew, Dumi had been raised in a good Christian family (if Catholics are Christians) and here he was turning my house into his own Sodom and Gomorrah.”  Vimbai characters Colin as “a pervert”, refers to gays as “depraves”, and disparages Dumisani’s love for another man, wondering if “such a thing were possible.”  Vimbai reflects on the Zimbabwean Presidents declaration that homosexuals were “worse than pigs.”  On and on, the book continues with this homophobic, not to mention anti-Catholic, rant.  Ultimately, in a reluctant act of compassion, Vimbai helps Dumisani leave the country, as if this were the only reasonable response to a culture of bigotry.

I can’t presume to know what Huchu really feels about homosexuality based on his novel, or fault his novel for the actions of a character.  Fictional characters often take on a life of their own.  They might represent a viewpoint contrary to the author, such as a Nazi character conceived on the page by a Jewish author.  So, I’ll charitably conclude that Huchu was trying to portray the mindset of some people in his country.  But even with that presumption, for Western readers well acquainted with both homosexuals and homophobes it is difficult to find this book surprising, or entertaining.  While it may only be an aspect of a fictional character’s personality,  the stench of homophobia wafts from the page.  Is this really the cultural norm in Zimbabwe?  On a continent scarred by genocidal wars and the ravages of the AIDS epidemic, I hope not.


About Chris van Hasselt

I eat, sleep, play guitar...but wait, there's more!
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