Venezse pulls the tiny baby hairs close to my head. It feels like she’s ripping them out of my scalp the way she handles them. Pulled tight, tighter, tighter, wrapping them so they are in close braids all around my head and down over my shoulders.
I have never had my hair braided before in rows along my head. We do it in three sessions because I have class during the day. All together, it is probably three to four hours of work and Venezse, the girl down the street who is tall and thin and maybe sixteen years old but quiet-spoken and always in the background, has asked 200 Goudes (or about five dollars) for her work. I take her up on it, not expecting much. I figure if anything I’m helping inspire her to eventually open up her own professional salon. She does not go to the Matènwa school so sometimes I feel bad for her. I see that she is very thin and I worry that her education is about as strong as her nutrition.
She wraps my hair tightly because she wants it to last. She takes brightly colored rubber bands that I purchased for her at the store down the street. The “store down the street” is a little shop about an hour’s walk over rocky chalk roads and past my friend Etienne’s mother’s house. His mother runs a bakery and as we walked past earlier that morning we saw the long rows of square loaves of bread, ready to be baked in an enormous, room-sized, hot oven.
Venezse is careful which rubber band to use on which braid. She wants to make sure that my hair is equal in its color diversity- that red, yellow, blue, green, and orange are all fairly represented. When she is finished, I am shocked by their beauty. My head looks different than I am used to but the effect of my hair is exciting. “Ou belle!” Everyone exclaims. “You’re beautiful!” Their eyes glimmer in excitement. “Ou Ayisien kounye a!” they yell. “You’re Haitian now!” I give Venezse the rest of my rubber bands. Perhaps she can use them to braid someone else’s hair someday.
The next day Venezse walks with me to the market. When I stop to take pictures or look at something or talk with someone, other friends walk ahead but Venezse stops and waits for me. “Don’t worry,” she says to me in Creole. “I won’t leave you behind.” She smiles, her face warm. It seems our four hours together have built something reminiscent of a friendship.
I look at her beautiful, mahogany wrists. They are covered in maybe fifty brilliant colorful rubber bands, all wrapped together in an intricate bracelet. It’s funny that I don’t think to do things like that anymore. Her ability to create something beautiful out of nearly nothing- gorgeous long braids, a fabulous bracelet- inspires me.
“Li belle,” I say to her, pointing to the bracelets. She smiles and adjusts my hair. I feel the cool breeze brush my scalp and it is wonderful.
Beth is the founder and CEO of Wanderful, which she developed while riding through the streets of São Tomé and Príncipe on her blue Yamaha motorcycle. She is the creator of the WITS Travel Creator + Brand Summit and has been recognized in Business Insider as one of 17 travel industry changemakers, as one of BostInno's 50 on Fire, and as one of TimeOut's 10 people changing a better Boston.