Not all men relish spending an entire afternoon in a hair salon. Sheridan Mahavera survived, unscathed, and shares the hairy issues from his visit to De Hush, owned and run by Mary Ademiluyi.

“Everything starts with a foundation. If your foundation is strong you can build and thrive on it,” Mary Ademiluyi, 25, tells me. She doles out this piece of advice after she is done sweeping the floor and hanging up the hair dryers for the night.

We are at De Hush, an enterprising hair salon specialising in Nigerian hair products, doubling as a fashion boutique, with a catering service on the side. Mary arrived in Malaysia three years ago from Nigeria, a savvy businesswoman with hairdressing skills learnt from her sisters in her youth.

For two years, Mary serviced snipped, styled, washed and weaved at her clients’ homes, storing the tools of her trade in her car boot. Eventually, she saved enough money for a rented shop lot in USJ One, and started De Hush with her husband as a business partner.

On any given afternoon, Mary or her sister, Princess, are hunched over sewing, braiding or attaching hair extensions on to a client’s head. Her cousin Toba Balogune, takes up the other half of the salon as he clips men’s hair.

This niche service is necessary for any African migrant community, even more so in Asia as the shafts, follicles and structure of African hair are markedly different from Asian hair types. Styling and shaping these locks requires specific skills and products.

For example, African men prefer to use electric hair clippers to trim beards, moustaches and eyebrows, says Toba (right), because normal razors cause unsightly bumps. However, it takes a certain skill and sensitivity to “shave” with a clipper, which is often found only amongst men with similar hair.

It gets even more complicated with women’s hair. Getting hair extensions is a standard practice involved in any trip to the salon. The most basic procedure is putting in relaxants to straighten out natural kinks and curls.

Getting an extension weaved on can typically cost between RM200 to RM350 per visit depending on the type of hair extension a customer chooses. The most expensive is Brazilian hair extensions, says Princess. De Hush also stocks creams and lotions to care for hair extensions, since they cannot be washed.

Watching Princess at work on a client’s extension is fascinating. She works a long needle threaded with hair on its eyelet into a client’s hair. Her motions are effortless, weaving in and out – a flurry of needle and fingers flashing away.

“Some people can carry their hair for a month. Most do it for one to two weeks,” says Mary. After which, they will have to return to the salon to replace or remove it.

Calling it “carrying hair” gives the act and the idea of beauty that goes with it an extra layer of meaning. In a literal sense it is akin to hoisting something that was not there onto your body and taking it with you wherever you go.

On another level, there is a connotation that the act of “carrying” is burdensome and not necessarily voluntary. Some suggest it to be political; that more than just hair, women are carrying societal expectations that have been thrust upon them. I try to glean some insight on this matter from my new friends.

Interestingly, Mary and Toba answered the questions posed to each other. Within earshot of the other cousin, Toba claimed that for women, long hair equals beauty. The arduous and expensive procedures are worthwhile, he remarked, “(Not only in African culture), but also for Indians and Malays… every other woman (and culture)”.

Mary offered no comment on this, but instead weighed in on what grooming means for African men, as seen in how many African men wear dress shirts even for the most casual of occasions in town.

“If you walk around looking like a ruffian, people will look at you negatively. Dressing neat is so that the cops and other people won’t think you’re a criminal,” she opined.

Princess & Toba

De Hush is one few salons in Malaysia specialised to specific hair styles and types, servicing scalps and tending to weaves sejauh Cheras ke Damansara.

In any culture, a salon transmits a society’s ideals of beauty and acceptable behaviour to the individual. Together with the media and fashion industry, salons also operate along an unspoken hierarchy of class: salons do hair styles of varying complexity and price, barbershops only do a few types.

Deciding what kind of salon you visit, how you get your hair done, how much you pay or whether you do any of this at all, is to stake a claim on where you stand in society.

However, in the Malaysian context, where African migrants battle perpetual judgement on how they look in our society based on local perceptions, the role of an African salon takes on a different level of importance.

Embellishment, adornment and looking good are no longer just fashion or cultural statements; they have become essential tools towards surviving the migrant experience in Malaysia.

Audio: A discussion on the politics of hair | Duration 7:08

Carrying Hair