Walter Mpete needs to earn money to put food on the table. The greatest satisfaction he gets from his barber job at MaAfrica Hair Salon at the Kgale Spar Mall is seeing his clients literally transform before his eyes.
“I like this job a great deal because I enjoy exposing people’s beauty through cutting and shaping their hair,” he says during a short break that he creates in order to give this interview.
Truth be told, you can go to many other salons to have your beauty exposed but Mpete’s strongest point is that his adherence to salon hygiene standards is really something to behold.
Perhaps in single-minded desire to have their beauty exposed, all too often clients overlook this aspect but the hair salon can be a breeding ground for bacteria and dirt and thus poses one of the greatest health risks.
Those who frequent salons would be familiar with the smoker barber whose fingers reek of cigarette smell, the hair washer who thrusts your head into a dirty wash basin, the barber who won’t sterilise the blades of the barber machine unless you tell him to or another who puts you on a constant diet of other people’s hair through a towel that has been used on different customers.
You understand the scale of the problem when you notice that the average salon worker (male or female) thinks nothing of eating from an uncovered plate of food as hair and clouds of hair spray waft around.
Thanks in part to his training at a South African school, Mpete undertakes quite elaborate cleaning, sterilising and disinfection processes.
In the hands of a careless barber, the moustache hair he just trimmed from you might end up stuck between your lips because it was brushed off the wrong way. Mpete makes slow sideways brush strokes to ensure that doesn’t happen. When you have to get your head washed, he first cleans the surface of the washbasin where you will stick your neck.
“There is a tendency by some barbers to sterilise the blades of a machine but not the brush they use on the blades. When that happens, the whole sterilising process comes to nought. Other barbers reuse a towel on a client because it is not wet, but not wet doesn’t mean clean,” he says.
Entering the haircare business in 2003 in his home village of Mochudi, Walter Mpete didn’t even know how to hold a barber machine. He didn’t have to because his job was limited to calling out to passers-by at a busy commercial location, asking them to get a haircut at the ramshackle stall where he worked.
However, in time he learnt how to do basic cuts like the clean shave and close crop – “chiskop” and “brush” as they are more commonly known in Botswana.
Getting more confident, he graduated to more complicated hair styles and with the money he earned, bought himself a full barber’s toolkit.
In 2008, Mpete went to a barber school in Bloemfontein where he learnt all the tricks of the trade.
Coming back home, he was in a league of his own and decided to set up shop at his family house. The crude language, horseplay and general lack of professionalism among the group of boys that he worked alongside in Mochudi always rankled, and he had a great desire to move elsewhere. The other reason he relocated was so that he would be able to implement a full hygiene regimen.
Staying competitive also means keeping with the trends in the haircare business. At the Bloemfontein school he would use mannequin doll heads to practise doing a variety of basic hair styles. He no longer has to do that because he says that once you master the basics, you can do pretty much every style that comes along.
His observation is that new clothing trends come with new hair styles and that both are always from the United States. Social media is the main vessel of new fashion and on occasion, he beseeches regular clients to try out new styles he chanced upon via this media or television.