This isn’t about hair

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I grew a beard late in life. We are talking 27 years of age. Hairlessness way after your adolescence, when all your peers already look like colobus monkeys tend to make one develop serious hang-ups. You imagine that folk talk about your lack of hair behind your back. It gets to a point where you start thinking you can’t satisfy a woman because your chin is hairless. You start thinking there is something wrong with you. That you aren’t manly. That your ass isn’t grown enough. You get paranoid. The curse of the hairless.

Eventually I grew a beard.

Let me explain. It is similar to a couple eventually getting a baby after several failed attempts. The result? You jealously hold onto that baby. Obsess about it. Keep your eyes on it. You don’t want people touching it.

Sam, my barber, knows that he can chop off my ear, but he must never chop off my beard. It is sacred. He pussyfoots around it. He trims it only a little, because I like it scraggly, like I survived a long hibernation. Tamms thinks it’s shit. But the hell with her, she’s just jealous. The missus complained about it until she got tired and gave up. In life I have met many naysayers who speak ill of my beard, but we (my beard and I) refuse to give false prophets the time of day. In my twisted head, my power, my invisible power lies in the bushes of my beard. It’s my talisman. Like Solomon. Without my beard I’m nothing but a smooth-chinned Quasimodo with a pen. And when was the last time you took a smooth-chinned Quasimodo with a pen seriously? So the beard stays.

Three weeks ago I was in Kisumu.

So my pal Benjaps took me to this barber in Kisumu’s CBD, right near where the Akamba offices used to be. The barber is Ugandan. Perhaps that’s when I should have walked away but I have faith in humanity, so I stayed. Please note that I – like every man, really, isn’t in the habit of changing barbers. Anyway, when it was time to shave my beard, I specifically told him to trim it, not cut it. Just trim it. He said sure, sure, yes, yes, I get it, trim it. So I reclined and closed my eyes. When I opened them moments later half my beard was gone. Fuckin’ half my beard! Boy was I livid.

“What have you done?!” I cried. “Look what you have done!!”

He shrugged defensively, “It looks cleaner this way…”

“It looks cleaner this way?? Do you want to serve food off it?”

“Ati?”

Long uncomfortable silence.

I moved closer to the mirror and took a closer look at the damage. “You have ruined me, my friend.” I muttered. “You have surely and completely ruined my life.”

“Hiyo itamea tu haraka haraka, tena asana,” he said.

“Yes, after another 27 bloody years!”

That was a few weeks ago and my beard hasn’t grown back since. I feel naked. I feel like the wind blows through face. When I look in the mirror I don’t know the person who looks back. I feel like a Quasimodo with a pen.

Anyway. This is going somewhere. A month ago Gillette sent me a whole pack of fancy shaving things. “Use them and tell us what you think” they urged. I tried out the Mach 3, has a sexy rubber handle and something called the Front Pivot Technology that makes it bend and yield according to your contours. Didn’t like it much because it didn’t have enough “traction”. It was too bendy. Wasn’t aggressive enough. It didn’t sink its teeth into my hair, as it should. It thought my hair was its friend. But I liked the Fusion Shaver. A powered gizmo, 5-blade monster that didn’t baby around “contours” like the Mach 3 did.

But listen, after using these products I sat back and thought; what am I going to say about Gillette blades? What am I going to tell another man about shaving? I mean your hair is your business; you want to plait your pubic hair in cornrows? Hey, whatever tickles your pubis.

Then it occurred to me that this is not even about shaving. It’s even less about blades. Or contours. Or follicles. Or sweat glands or shaving bumps, or those things that folk in white coats sporting funny-shaped spectacles mull over in those spotlessly sanitised Gillette labs. Shaving is a testimony of manhood. Women shave yes, but women shave because they are embarrassed of their hair. We aren’t. Shaving for us isn’t about discarding hair; it’s about aligning hair.

But the art of shaving has died. I remember my dad shaving back in the 80s. You haven’t seen a bigger spectacle. I don’t know about your dad, but this is how men shaved when they wore their manhood on their sleeves. They walked out of their bedrooms with a towel tied around their waist and swaggered to the sink. You knew whose house it was by the way they walked around the house in a towel. It was a presence that seemed to declare, “I run shit here. This is my pond.”

We don’t walk around our houses like that anymore. Now we walk around our houses like soldiers coming back from war, with our dignities in our hands, hounded by ghosts.

Our fathers swaggered to the sink like heroes. Then they stood there, with a reflective frown on their brows, an old blade in hand, slightly bent at the torso, staring at their chins. Like they were about to engage in open-heart surgery. Men back then did not admire themselves in the mirror like we do now. We spend too much time before mirrors. We crease our faces as we suck in our bellies, standing to one side, bloody getting our knickers in a twist if we have added weight on our midsection. For crying out loud, we keep weighing scales in our bathrooms. Our fathers barely noticed their girths. And if they did, they didn’t show that they were bothered. Vanity had not been conceived. This was pre-GQ as we Kenyans knew it. This was pre-Esquire. No man in the 80’s would listen to another man tell him how to tie his tie, or match his shoes with his belt. Men chose their paths, no matter how lonely, and they stuck to them.

But back to the 80’s man in the mirror.

A small growl would escape their lips. Then they would run water in the sink, lather up their chins, dip the blade in the water, swish it around, turn their faces delicately to one side and start shaving, creating ridges through the white snow of lather. They would take their time, repeating, lathering, squeegeeing through. Over and over until their faces resembled a penguin’s buttocks. Then they would wash off their chins carefully, gently, like a mother washes her new-born’s bum. After, they would splash on some stinging aftershave, and only then would they be ready to face the world, even if the world wasn’t ready for them.

But the smell of aftershave would linger in the house for hours. That’s how you knew there was a male in the house, a leader in that house; even if we discovered much later that it was our mothers who led. Hehe. But that musky smell of aftershave would linger in your head even up to adulthood. My dad used Gillette aftershave. I swear he did, I’m not just saying this. And that smell has stayed with me ever since. That smell reminds me of how much less of a man I am now compared to him.

Why do I say less of a man? Well because now, every week we sit in trendy unisex salons, reading girlie magazines as our beards are shaved for us. Now, we have another man rub balm on our chins, touching and kneading our faces. It’s a disgrace. You should see me fuss about my beard. You haven’t seen anal yet until you have seen me stare at my beard after Sam is finished with it. It’s enough to make you unfriend me on Facebook.

Gillette should not just make sexy blades. Gillette should make shaving sexy again. Shaving should be about sex. You shave for the same reason you chose to keep hair; to remain desirable, primal. The decision to shave is borne from a primal instinct. And shaving is more than a task, it’s a ritual, a right of passage.

Shaving should be something that when a man does, everybody in the house wants to gather around to watch. Your son should sit on the floor at your feet, staring up at you work that blade. Your woman should sit at the dining table, chin cupped in hand, swallowing hard as you skim that sharp blade ever so close to your throat. Or jugular. And that shit should turn her on.

You should shave like Don Draper. Have you watched Don Draper shave in the TV series Mad Men? No? Then you haven’t shaved, my friend. You haven’t shaved until you have shaved like a man from the yester years.

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35 Comments
  1. I was grinning sheepishly, hidden behind computer monitor, as I read this post. Then……..

    …….Over and over until their faces resembled a penguin’s buttocks!

    I blurted out a loud shameless laugh. Man, you have a way with words.

  2. At the end of reading this I was sitting chin cupped in hand 🙂 Brilliant Biko! Oh and hope your beard grows back…

    1. More like they never had it to begin with men of today, you should see my attempt to shave with an electric one …….. Dismal!!

  3. Eish…I do not have a beard. I have never wanted facial hair. Now I don’t know anymore. I feel jealous.

  4. Ah dads shaving … to this day I hear him humming some rhumba song or ‘Guantanamera’ in the bathroom and I rue the morning I entertained the Snooze button’s shenanigans.
    Plus he still has his old shaving razor – to be seen, not touched. Kuangalia ni bure. Maybe he’s preserving it for his first grandson… It’s going to be a long wait.

  5. You cheated on Sam with a ugandan barber? I don’t think Sam will understand why you chose to give the ugandan your beard’s innocence and he doesn’t know you like that.

  6. And all this time I thought the beard was about being a “Mndrume”; that thing with horns

    Oh and by the way, when you say: “It’s my talisman. Like Solomon.” I think you meant Samson.

    Good Read though. Very good read.

  7. Old spice i remember, even though it has been 22 yrs since he swaggered in our house, great memories right there

  8. i totally agree ..shaving is sexy. my boyfriend shaves and i loveee to watch him coz it reminds me of my dad(not in a creepy way..heh heh)but its so manly ..now if only i could get him to wear Brut.. does it still even exist.?(dad wore that too)..to me the smell of Brut n shaving is tres sexy.

    1. Hahaha Yes Brut still exists ! in the green container with a thumb print on the side… Damn it smells so nice. Reminds me of my dad too!

  9. Smiles. Women shave because they are embarrassed of their hair? :-/ And here I was thinking women shave because it’s the clean thing to do. You live, you learn, huh? Nice piece all the same. And please shave off those things. Thank you very much. 😛

  10. Howzit Biko,
    This was a brilliant read. As a late bloomer myself, I still remember stealing my late dad’s Nacet ( I think it was called) and scraping my chin sore in the hope that a beard would germinate. I like how you write. Simple but elegant. Almost all the stories are relatable. It’s things guys talk about “kwa mawe” or wherever it is that guys chill nowadays.
    May the force be with you.

  11. Here words have smell, they(words) give life to the lifeless, smoke out the unknown and more so reminds us that with words we can change the shaving into art thanks to the word engineer himself the great son of our soil Biko Zulu.

  12. “That’s how you knew there was a male in the house, a leader in that house; even if we discovered much later that it was our mothers who led. Hehe. But that musky smell of aftershave would linger in your head even up to adulthood. My dad used Gillette aftershave. I swear he did, ” this got me on the floor. Biko is crazy!

  13. Hahahaha Biko ! Your pieces are always on point ! I forgive you for making my ribs ache out of Laughter… I totally loved this one.. especially that part how our fathers swaggred to the sinks……

  14. I love it and i think any man who can grow a beard and nurture it is a different breed of man …that I am yet to meet.oh and watching a man shave his beard is definitely a turn on:)great read:)

  15. Every man,lowly or noble,should have some piece of hair on his visage-be it a healthy mane on his head, a scanty beard like Bikos(or UK’s) or a well manicured moustache like mine here.Nice read.

  16. For 27 years I knew my dad, he never put a blade on his beard. It was until he died and the morgue attendants in all their wisdom decided to shave his goatee! I am still angry at them because the man valued his goatee! If he had known, he would have insured it! And to be honest, I never recognised him in his coffin without the goatee…I was wondering whose dad that was!

  17. This was a good read. Very relatable, my uncle did the same thing. Towel at his waist, and the shaving equipment in a small bag. When he entered the bathroom in the morning like that, everyone in the house knew he was going to shave. No one could enter to tell him that they wanted to use the bathroom, you had to wait until he finished. Memories

  18. I totally relate.My Dad shaved like angels sing….gracefully, like it was the most artful,most natural thing.I tried it once and almost decapitated myself….and got razor bumps the size of beans….Daddy always wore Cussons aftershave, and yes Biko, 16 years later, I can still smell it.Nice piece, bruh.

  19. I remember my dad shaving…it was a real ritual..Mum and I just watched him do his thing..it took him almost an hour!!
    he’d go to the barber for a haircut but never for the beard.
    At one point he used to kip a long beard when I was a child & people called him ‘mandevu’…mum thought my dads ‘mandevu’ were sexy those days..probably why she fell inlove with him.

  20. Biko:What happened to your previous barber Kyalo? Shaving was a good ritual and the inevitable nick that has a drop of crimson drip on the water…