by Andy Kozlov
We are sure you’ve heard about sustainable development. International NGOs, government programs, eco-friendly campaigns. The idea that a novel about the emotional vicissitudes of a Harare hairdresser can be a narrative of social development is probably something you’ve heard less often. Tendai Huchu‘s novel The Hairdresser of Harare that hit the shelves in 2010 is a good example of the fiction of development.
As a group of academics from the LSE have argued, “not only are certain works of fiction ‘better’ than academic or policy research in representing central issues relating to development, but they also frequently reach a wider audience and are therefore more influential”.
The Hairdresser of Harare is one of those texts that speak out on contemporary life in Zimbabwe and make this nation surface on the mental map of the world. In addition to that, this 189-page work of fiction resonates with those
Zimbabweans like its author himself (who is now based in Scotland) dispersed across the planet. What the diaspora might find fascinating about this book published by the Harare-based Weaver Press is the sense of nostalgie for the homeland. A chance to come back to the “packed streets of the city”— people marching in different directions. Being able to look around and enjoy the careful descriptions of Harare, “here a woman carries a basket laden with fruit on her head and there a man with a bicycle pump walks along whistling a tune by Oliver Mtukudzi”.
The story is told by Vimbai, a star hairdresser at a salon in the Avenues, whose career and eventually whole life get challenged and twisted by the arrival of a new employee named Dumi. He is cute, he is hard-working and… he has a secret. Lots of them, in fact. Otherwise, why would a graduate of St. George’s look for a job at a hair salon? Why would he ask a township girl Vimbai to move to her place while his family is used to hosting the likes of the President’s wife?
As Fungai Machirori, a novel’s reviewer for The Standard noted this book is “a refreshing addition to Zimbabwe’s growing body of post-2000 literature. And by the time you are done reading, you too might be left with this debatable question, “Just who is the hairdresser of Harare?” Here is our reading of it. When he first put pen to paper, Tendai Huchu proclaimed in a “boisterous voice” that he was “the rightful heir to Dostoevsky”. So it is interesting to look at his work through the lens of a 1990s Russian cinema epic The Barber of Siberia set in the 19th-century Russia.
Yana Hashamova, a Russian film critic who explores this film in her book Pride and Panic: Russian Imagination of the West in Post-Soviet Film claims that after the fall of the Soviet Union Russia struggled to establish itself as a unique nation against the background of the intense globalization. This identity search was partly done through the medium of film. It is permeated by the question “Who are we? Where do we go?”. Hashamova compares Russian identity formation with the unease of the adolescent forced to seek self-determination. Admiration for all things Western at first—then a shift to loathing them, showing off the greatness of the Russian heritage. The Barber of Siberia might be wrong historically but there is one thing you can be sure of—it places Russia in the heads of the masses, makes us reflect, makes us debate.
Zimbabweans and Russians may be distant geographically but they are certainly in the same ‘society in transition’ boat. One factoid to look at is life expectancy. According to the recent Human Development Report done annually by UNDP, an UN agency, in nine countries (out of 135 in the sample) life expectancy fell below 1970 levels: six in Africa (including Zimbabwe) and three in the former Soviet Union (including Russia).
The Hairdresser of Harare, through its treatment of the controversial issues of gender, politics and vivid descriptions of the 2008 economic meltdown, is certainly doing a better job in representing central issues relating to development than your usual policy research. And for those living in Harare, it makes them reflect, discuss and simply enjoy one of the few novels on life in this city. There’s only one thing left to say: “Creatives out there, hey, churn out more fiction to help develop our real lives”!
A part of this review appeared in the May issue of the Hello Harare! magazine. We sent a copy of the magazine to Tendai Huchu in Scotland.
This is what he replied:
I’ve just received the copy of Hello Harare that u sent me… Thank you very much. It is an excellent publication and I’m enjoying reading the magazine which takes me home.
You can write to Andy Kozlov on firstname.lastname@example.org