Every Friday, Oladapo Akindele drops off his boss at the glass-fronted entrance of a luxury spa in Lagos. Then, while he waits for her, the driver has his nails polished and scrubbed in a cheaper but equally popular pedicure stand on the roadside next to open sewers.
Itinerant barbers who throw in manicures and pedicures are an enduring fixture in the choked streets of Africa’s largest metropolis. It can prove a profitable trade in a highly fashion-conscious city. “I use these people all the time because I don’t have time to visit salons when I’m driving from morning until evening,” Akindele says as Indian oil is massaged on to his feet following a 150 naira (60p) mani-pedi.
The love of grooming across all social spheres tells a tale of two sides of the bustling city. Although natural beauty therapies such as honey waxes have long been popular in Nigeria, spas that elevate the pursuit of beauty to an extreme sport are a new phenomenon. At the top end, western-style establishments are booming in Lagos, promising glowing health and beauty with pure oxygen facials or 24-carat gold leaf wraps for those who can afford it.
“Ten years ago it would have been impossible to find a place like this in Nigeria,” says one worker in the perfumed interior of an upmarket beauty parlour. After arriving from India six years ago, the spas’ founders discovered there was enough demand for Ayurveda facials – using a blend of Indian herbs – to open another branch.
“It’s nice that you no longer have to go abroad to get this kind of thing,” says Yemisi Williams, a customer at another health club, as a Thai beautician smothers her body in a chocolate and marshmallow wrap and a concoction with crushed diamonds is plastered on to her face. “It’s not just about looking good, because people are more aware of the health benefits too.”
At the other end of society, the trade is dominated by Muslim men from the impoverished north of the country. Beneath a busy flyover in central Lagos, traders’ voices pierce through the roar of traffic. A jingle of flattened bottle-tops announces men pushing wheelbarrows full of plastic barrels of water, the main supply in many areas of the city. The click-clack of scissors leads to the outdoor beauticians, who sit on benches, their equipment laid out on newspapers.
“Once I went to a conventional salon. It wasn’t a nice experience at all. These people do a much better job for cheaper,” says Bashir, a lawyer who has been visiting for nine years, as a barber rubs his newly shaved head with a local crystal pebble to prevent razor bumps.
“We do home visits too because big men don’t like to come here,” says Mohammed, a barber, as he gestures towards open gutters and ramshackle buildings. His clients include a local politician who sends his driver once a week to pick him up, paying 10,000 naira – a 200% increase on the usual price – to have his hair cut at home.
Treatments promise medical miracles. Customers gingerly step over trash-filled puddles to inspect bottles of honey from forests in the north, and bits of bark used as painkillers laid out on the kerb.
“The pharmacist actually directed me here,” says Sesan Gbadebo, a policeman who was having his corns sliced off with a scalpel and a grey powder made of ground leaves rubbed on to his swollen feet. “If it’s a small thing I’ll go to the hospital, but for real problems I prefer here.”
Not everyone is a fan. The men are periodically chased away by officials, who say their unorthodox methods sometimes worsen serious illnesses and risk passing on diseases including HIV. The barbers say they are careful to change razors with each client, although a frequent lack of running water makes it all but impossible to sterilise equipment.
Still, their steady stream of clients shows no sign of abating. “They know how to use local medicines to the best effect,” says Aliyu Raibu, as a barber who doubled as a therapist prepares to treat his aching back using an ancient blood-suction technique, in which a dried-out bull’s horn draws painful clotted blood from a tiny incision in the skin.
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