Thursday, 2 January 2014

Culture versus Common sense


It is the norm for most of us Ugandans to adhere to some sort of cultural norm, the only aspect that is debatable is the degree to which this is done. I am not one to take much notice or even get involved in any discussion of such a nature but a day ago I was very intrigued at how varied individuals opinions can be on one same topic and it is these opinions that I intend to share with you.

About 5 weeks ago I adopted a new hair cut which left me with less than an inch of natural hair on my head. We all know that hair grows so after a while needed to go in to get it shaved back to its original glory. So I geared up to go to the barber shop but little did I know what I would expect, first my usual barber was not yet back from his festive season holiday so I had to hunt for a new one in the area. After a brief stroll I managed to find a new one within the same area, I walked in and I was met with long stares but I braved them all and asked to have a haircut.  As a barber approached me he asked me,

Barber:  “Oyagala okusala nvirizo nyabo?”

Me: Ye sebo! (I responded in luganda)

Barber: “Eh naye abakazi tebagala okusala nviri, naye gwe……!” (He paused as if he expected me to respond or cut in to divulge my life’s secrets and justify my reasons as to why I cut it – I did not.)
“Kale muwala bera wano nkusale.” (Girl, really does this man know how old I am.)

I looked at him briefly and in an instant decided it was not worth it correcting him on my status as a young lady and not a girl or teenager.  After all since my original hair cut and this relieved me of 8 years worth of my cascading mane and had an unexpected freeing effect on me. But that is a discussion for another day. I sat down in his chair for my cut and about 8 minutes into it, the conversation began.

We all know how women’s braiding saloons and barber shops are - someone asks a question or starts a discussion based on a movie or a personal issue, regardless as to how it started this is my account of what lived up to be a very intriguing discussion.

Please note that this entire conversation was in Luganda a local dialect of our largest tribe in Uganda.

Barber 2: “Welcome Customer, where did you leave the little girl? You should have brought her to get her hair done with you.”

Customer: “Child, she is a young adult now. I left her home today.”

Nail Lady: “But these days’ children talk like adults even when they are young.”

News cast on the Anti homosexuality bill distracts entire saloon when it run on a local Ugandan television station that started the whole discussion that followed.

Barber 2: “Eh, but you people these things of men being with other men, I do not understand it. It is like parents allowing their male and female teens to share a room!”

“That is where these problems must have begun.”

Barber: What is wrong with that? What is wrong with sharing a room?”(He genuinely seems baffled by his colleague’s statement, so much so that he stopped cutting my hair for a few seconds and held his hips at akimbo.)

Barber 2: “What do you mean, I was brought up in a traditional Kiganda home and I could not even enter my sister’s room and neither did she enter mine.” “It is unacceptable and culturally unheard of.”

Barber: “You are sister and brother; I do not see what is wrong unless you are the one who has a problem mentally…” (The trend of this conversation was what I expected but nothing could prepare me for this.)

 “…I mean, I have ever shared a bed with my sister for about 2 months and nothing happened between me and her. It is all about what is in your head.”

Barber 2: “Eh, what did you say…same bed! Are you okay?” “It must be these people in ‘Bulaya’ who have spoilt /corrupted us by introducing nice concepts that have hidden negatives such as homosexuality that we have to deal with tody.”

Nail Lady: “You must be mad that is very odd, I would never share a room with my brother. For men all they need to do is use his eyes, why do you think that men abuse or defile 5 year old girls?”

Customer: “Hhhmm...ehhhh” (as she jeered and held her head in disgust.)

Barber 2: “Never, so would you chase your sister out of the room every time you need to change and get dressed.” “My father threw us out of the house to the boys’ quarters the minute we got to s.1 and only the girls remained in the main house. So if we did not shower or wash our clothes that was up to us.”

Nail Lady: “I would never allow a boy to mix with a girl, that is unacceptable there is no way to justify it. It is always important to avoid these problems and not create them by making stupid decisions.”(Toyina amagezi – common sense she said: so is this a classic case of common sense or discipline.)

Customer 2 (female): “You will never end this topic.” (She said this as she walked out of the shop and waved goodbye to her stylist.)

I thought to myself that statement from the exiting customer would end the discussion; well I was very mistaken as I realized my barber still had stamina to keep going from an even more scandalous front.

Barber: “So what would you do if your girlfriend came over to your house and she was not well, in the middle of the night - would you touch her?” (He asked this as he looked in the direction of the other barber who stood alongside him and continued to attend to his customer but emphatically threw his hands from side to side emotively as if in disagreement.)

Barber 2: “Sir, you would not sleep in my bed whether you are my sister or not, it does not matter to me what state you were in dressed, naked, fine, sick,… (he was cut short in the middle of his response.)

Nail Lady: “You see a man is a man, so what happens in the middle of the night when you start to dream and forget that it is your sister lying next to you.”

Barber: “It all depends on what is in your head, it is a matter of mental strength and discipline - I would never touch her.”

Nail Lady: “If you say so! But we all know what we know about men.” (This she said as she shook her head and barber 2 next to her continued to refute his claims)

I was shocked, entertained and schooled on what the general public on the Ugandan streets think about this very controversial bill but also on how humorous Ugandans are as individuals. But something that is more intriguing is the way people’s cultural perceptions of these issues have changed and are changing amongst the youth segment of the population. You ask why I say youth – because all the individuals who I was privileged to ease drop on I am sure are less than 40 years old.


After a while I returned with a friend of mine who wanted to cut his hair as well but I was greeted with some interesting humor from my barber. As I walked back into the same barber shop I was greeted with these remarks from him.

Barber: “Eh as you are back young girl, did your parents or man chase you back to get the hairstyle taken out?”

Me: “………..” (No response.)

What amazed me was how audible he was and the manner in which he managed to blatantly ask the question while finding a way in which not to be confrontational at all. For he continued to cut his current customers hair and avoided eye contact with me the entire time, while he honestly waited for my response.

Only in Uganda!


Post a Comment