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In West Africa, Creative Coifs Are Cool

Imagination runs wild as hair is straightened, shaved, braided, or beaded

Nasta Rasta Man, Stand Up, American Boy. Step Punk, House Party, Flat Punk. Chief, Star, Fly Top.

These are not the names of teenage gangs or rap groups. They are the names of something much more wide-reaching in African culture: hairstyles.

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All over West Africa, one sees extraordinary hair styles, which can reach the heights of creativity and expression. Some coifs are flights of sheer fancy, resembling butterflies or flowers. Others involve intricate plaits passed down through the centuries.

Hair is straightened, woven, braided, relaxed, ironed, extended, beaded, flattened, twisted, or even just left alone. It is hidden under ornate wigs that would entice Marie Antoinette. Sections are shaved in ancient geometric patterns or in more intricate designs - such as Mickey Mouse.

Others weave in stiff wires, extensions, shells, ribbons, cloth, or beads. Others go for "retro" beehives or classic chignons.

Those who can afford it will spend a precious day off or much of a month's wages to get their hair done in just the right coif.

The more humble will employ the services of kith or kin to braid their locks in the privacy of home. A good hairdo adds an element of glamour for what to many people is a life of hardship. It is a proof of dignity and pride, especially if one lives in a shantytown and has only a simple cotton cloth to wear.

Imagination runs rampant with the names of styles, too. Take the Flytop, for instance, which involves shaving the sides so that the top seems to be flying off the head. The Half Bow resembles a beret, a bush jauntily arranged on one side while the rest of the hair is cut close to the scalp. The Black Bush is a short rendition of the 1970s-style Afro favored by black-power activists in America.

The Stand Up is popular among West African women from Angola to Nigeria - bits of hair twisted to stand up by themselves like delicate saplings in a field. The twists can extend as high as four inches.

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Yousef Shefiou, who goes by the name "Chef," is a streetside barber who works at a splintered wooden bench next to a rubbish dump on the side of Accra's busy Kandala Highway.

With kitchen scissors as his only tool, he attends to clients in the heat. They pull out from the traffic, attracted by his wooden sign advertising the latest styles. He will clip the hair of those who dare for a mere 50 cents (US).

To a friend, Chef recommends a Step Punk cut, which entails shaving the sides and spraying the remaining hair to stand up straight like a rectangle.

The barber also favors the New Zealand, named in honor of a friend who went to that country and never came back. It is a simple Mohawk.

"People take hair very seriously," he explains. "It is not just growing on your head. It is who you are."

Business is good, but not as good lately as it had been because of growing competition, Chef complains.

'THERE are too many barbers these days," he laments. "Everyone is doing everyone's hair."

That's certainly the way it appears. Ubiquitous are women sitting outside plaiting the locks of friends and family in the shade of a tree or on a doorstep.

Ubiquitous, too, are the simple hand-painted wooden barber signs that hang from trees in open-air markets or on the streets of any village. They are works of art in themselves, featuring drawings of various options.

Those catering to the male population tend to favor illustrations featuring tough-looking dudes, often in sunglasses. Women are depicted with a dreamy, movie-star sort of glamour, embodying the sort of transcendence that one hopes for with a new cut.

Zina Kamalah, a waitress in central Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, spends $3 - one-third her monthly wages - and most of a day off once a month at the hairdresser to achieve a sought-after Kolcho style. This entails weaving into the roots of her hair dozens of thick, circular black wires that are shiny and hard. The result is a lacquered-curls effect.

It's glamorous, but it hurts. She admits to trouble sleeping because it's so hard. But such is the price of beauty, she says.

One of her colleagues takes the easy way out. She wears a wig, with similar wires, which reaches in corkscrews to her waist and has a magnificent crown of thick, coiled braids.

It must weigh at least a pound. Surely it is oppressive, in the near-Equatorial heat? "That's not the point," she explains. "Good hair is worth a lot of trouble."

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