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The Expat Mom and Her Hair Dresser

There are some people who must never leave developing countries. Quality hairdressers are one of them. If they are fellow expats, I think their entry visas should read: not allowed to leave the country until equally talented replacement found.

I don’t consider myself a person overly concerned with hair. I live in Djibouti for crying out loud (which I do sometimes when it gets too hot), where showers are salty, sun wicked strong, and ponytails mandatory six months out of the year. But there is something comforting about having a good haircut, ponytail or not. Something that says, ‘even when I can’t figure out my kid’s French homework and the car tires have exploded from the heat and the electricity cut out again and I just want to have a three-day-non-stop heart to heart with my best friend, my hair still looks good.’

New expats come to Djibouti and want to know: where is the cheddar cheese? Um, Dubai? Where is the brown sugar? Um, Kenya. Where can I buy a decent bra? Um, order one. And while you’re at it, order me one, too. Where can I get a good haircut in Djibouti? Well…

Local men sit in open fields or shaded doorways, on top of empty up-turned tins of powdered milk while a barber snips and shaves with a naked razor blade. My husband gets his hair cut, and a neck/scalp massage, at Chez Babou, a barbershop owned by an Indian man in downtown Djibouti. He once sat beside the US ambassador in those rickety chairs. Sometimes after the trim, Babou hands out lollipops. Less than $5, lollipop and massage included.

photo by Paula Eve, Frame the Story

What about women? I love to support local businesswomen so for years, tried Djiboutian salons.

Salon #1, owned by a friend who swore up and down and Djibouti to Minneapolis that they cut blond hair all the time. I sat in the chair and the hairdresser called to all the staff to come and touch my curls. While they ran their fingers through, they whispered surprise about how soft it was, whispered questions about how it would turn out. I started to have doubts but before I could protest, there was a loud snip and the experimenting began.

I glanced in the mirror and told myself not to cry, maybe a dye job could distract from the crooked, choppy lines. The women refused. “Your hair is the perfect color,” they said. “We would kill for hair that color.”

I have the color of hair we call ‘dirty blond’ and it is more dirty than blond. I wore a ponytail for the next six months.


Yeah. Um, no.

Salon #2, owned by another friend. The hair cut here was done by a Filipino woman who spoke the entire time on her cell to family in Manilla. When the conversation grew animated she waved the scissors around. To cut layers, she snipped straight across at two-inch intervals and left long bangs on one side. Then she blow-dried it and brushed it all frizzy-straight.

At home my husband ‘fixed’ it with the kitchen scissors. He sliced the bottom three layers. This meant it was barely ponytail length but bobby pins saved the day and thus passed the next six months.

Salon #3. I gave up, gave in, didn’t follow my own advice to go local. I saved, waited for my birthday, dug deep into my pockets, and went French. I still save, still wait for my birthday, and still go French. In the chair, I don’t understand all the conversations going on around me because I can’t turn my head to look at mouths and because the Djiboutian employees speak to me in Somali so I get caught in language tangles but I do a pretty good job pretending. The hairdresser can barely understand me either but she does more than a pretty good job cutting.

The cut isn’t cheap. But the salon is air-conditioned. The coffee is terrible. But did I mention that the salon is air-conditioned? My hairdresser has strong opinions. I don’t come in often enough to please her. She wants to know who did ‘zis’ to my daughter’s hair? And who did ‘zis’ to my son’s hair?

Maggie did. She wrapped a piece of tape around a piece at the top and center. When she couldn’t get the tape off, she cut the hair. It grew out and stuck straight up. And dad did that to Henry’s hair, cutting it himself.


Yes, my daughter had a piece of hair sticking straight up and yes, my son wants his hair like that. Yes, my roots have grown out far too long to be fashionable and my ends are dry.

And even though last time she cut too short, yes, I want to make my French hair dresser promise, in blood, that she will never leave Djibouti.

Expat haircut stories? What other kinds of expats must never leave?

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