Between October and December 2018, PREMIUM TIMES’ Kemi Busari visited four major Nigerian cities to examine the state of the blade barbering industry. His findings in Abuja, Ibadan, Kaduna and Lagos reveal a barbering method plagued with unsafe practices.
“Are you mad?” the tricycle operator bellows, looking ferocious, at the same time frustrated. The paint on the driver’s side of his Keke NAPEP, as tricycles are fondly called, has been scratched off and a part of the steel dented. He now wants a ‘settlement.’
“I think you are mad, you didn’t see my pointer?” he questioned again, now more aggressively.
Haggard-looking, the ‘culprit,’ a Hausa tricycle operator who understands no Yoruba, soon broke into his own version of curse and so began the verbal brawl.
As the vulgar exchange heightens, so does the attention of onlookers at the suburb of Ijora Under Bridge in Lagos, arguably Nigeria’s most populated state.
But Abdulkareem Amzat is less interested. He concentrates on shaving frayed hair off Bolaji Raimi’s chin to earn another 100, the third for the day.
He muses a song that seems like a catalyst while carefully depositing nauseating patches of damp hair on the dorsal side of his hand.
Ish! Mr Raimi, popularly called Pa Raimi, suddenly makes a sound – a signal Mr Amzat has to slow down. The sexagenarian has just been cut by the blade. Blood was out of his chin in an instant.
It’s a familiar scene to Mr Amzat. A triple glissade movement of his right hand on the affected area soon brought the flow to a low.
But the blood will not stop Pa Raimi from using blade another time, neither would it ever make him change to the use of clipper.
“I will never use clipper,” he declares. “Even if you visit the barber, they still use blade. The only difference is the way they have decided to shape the modern one (clipper). Everybody use blade.”
The last time he remembers to have used a clipper was during his youthful days when he still fancies ‘shaping.’ That was over 35 years ago.
Throughout these years, such cut as he sustained this Tuesday morning is part of the shaving process. “Are you referring to this one?” he said, smiling to douse the ‘alarm’ on the face of the inquirer. “It will dry up by itself. I got cut because of a little bump around there.”
Pa Raimi is not aware of any infection he could contract through this means of head shaving but is confident he cannot be a victim.
“He doesn’t use one blade for two people and that gives me the confidence,” he says of Mr Amzat when asked the source of his confidence.
To his customers, Mr Amzat’s expertise and experience present themselves as enough shield against the possible contraction of diseases.
Twenty years ago, Mr Amzat started the barbering business he found his father and other grownup males in his family doing.
“The process of starting was very simple. All I needed was blade, the handle, soap and water and this was readily provided by my family,” he started.
He not only enjoys many years of consistent practice, which started from Kano to Taraba and then Lagos where he has been practising since the military regime of General Sani Abacha, but also takes ‘measures’ to ‘protect’ his customers.
The ‘measure’ exists in his long years of monotonous and metamorphosed practice.
The shaving process starts with the application of water on the hair of the customer after which soap is rubbed on the head to soften the path for the blade. For this stage, Mr Amzat uses the same soap for every customer until it is finished. He uses purchased sachet water which he pours into a cup. He does these with his bare hands which he dries on a rag thereafter.
Then the scraping begins right from the middle of the head to the back, back to the middle, front, until the last hair is snipped off.
While the cutting continues, the pasty patches of hair are either dumped on a cleared plot on the head, on the dorsal part of his left hand or right on the barbing bench. Other patches make their way to the ground.
At the end of each shaving process, Mr Amzat either rubs cream on the head of his customers, spray methylated spirit or both; sometimes none. He repeats the process for as many customers as visit his make-shift shop in a day. He is confident of their safety.
“Sickness and its treatment come from God. I believe that even if there is an infection, it can’t threaten the life of the person involved. I’m aware that people can contract diseases through shaving.
“The preventive method I know and I’m confident of is the use of new blades for every customer, use of spirit for treatment, anti-dandruff creams and I pray as well,” he said.
EXPERTS’ ANALYSIS OF AMZAT’s METHOD
A medical analysis of his method shows that even though he uses different blades, the use of the same blade handle for hundreds of customers is a potential threat.
Mr Amzat said he uses the handle for at least six months. He shaves up to 50 on heydays and 30 when business is on the low. It then means that Amzat uses a single blade handle for about 7, 200 at an average of 40 per day.
Ayomide Aranmolate, a dermatologist who specialises in plastic surgery, said diseases can be transmitted through improper use and sterilisation of the handle.
“The handle has nothing to do with transmission but if they are using it and there is a cut on the person it could be dangerous. If that person (that was cut) has hepatitis or any other disease and the new blade cut a new person again, it can be transmitted if the handler is not well treated.”
Mr Amzat believes in the use of water for staying out of trouble in such situations but water will not do enough.
“Water will definitely not clean it,” Mr Aranmolate said. “If the organism touches the sharp end and the other person using it now has another cut, that’s how you can transmit viruses and even regular organisms that stay on the skin.”
Mr Aranmolate said the use of spirit as aftershave does not give as much protection as barbers think.
“Spirits basically can crystalise objects but not necessarily stop some viruses. There are some viruses that some specific temperatures have to exist to kill them but spirit can’t do this. Even at barbers shop, it doesn’t stop you from getting bumps. If you go to the salon and they applied it and it became pepperish you think you’re protected. It’s just psychology.”
Another dermal expert, Shakirat Gold-Olufadi, the Senior Registrar, Dermatology, Rheumatology and Genitourinary Medicine, Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), faults the use of same soap for many customers.
“Soap can serve as fomite (which harbours disease organisms) if not properly stored,” she said. “The risk increases when the soap is rubbed directly on each person’s scalp. It is better shampoos are used for this purpose,” she said.
AN ENDURING PRACTICE
With the advent of the first electronic shaver in 1929, men world over gradually bade farewell to the use of the razor for the most part of the 20th century, but not entirely.
While a good number made the shift towards clippers, some still prefer to use knives, a shaving tool in vogue up till late 19th century and blades, which first came in a disposable form in 1895.
Majority of razor and knives faithful still exist in Nigeria; not only in rural areas but also in urban cities.
In Nigeria, the practice is habitual among the northern Hausa/Fulani tribe where some families have over the years passed the skill down to their generations.
With population surge and the need for expansion, some of these barbers made their ways to urban centres and there, they create a habitat for comfortable practice, unchecked.
To be a commercial razor barber in Nigeria does not require formal training, certification or regulation.
“It’s a lineage business. Once your father or guardian sees you are coming of age, he would introduce it to you, transfer some of the equipment to you. You mustn’t reject if you don’t want the wrath of God. Once you embrace, the blessing of God will abide by you and the business,” says Abdul, Mr Amzat’s Under Bridge neighbour who would not speak further as he has an appointment to meet.
About 500 metres to the Ijora Bridge is Abubakar Ilyas, a native of Jigawa State who started the shaving craft at the age of six. Mr Ilyas is now 36. He practices his trade in the popular Sango Ijora axis of Lagos and is already planning on how to transfer the skill to as many as possible of his eight children.
“It’s a lineage job. This was what my forefathers did, this is what I met my father doing, it’s what I’m also doing and will transfer to my children,” he boasts.
He does everything like Mr Amzat; including the application of spirit, washing of handles, and disposing used blades. But he takes his precautions a step further. To shield his customers from infections, Mr Ilyas believes in a medicine passed to him by his forefathers.
“In the situation that someone has a cut, there is a medicine that my forefathers use. Once I rub it, by the grace of Allah, it will heal. We call it blood medicine,” he said. “From my experience, nobody has ever come to complain about contracting any disease. I believe in the medicine.”
Ilyas rarely uses the medicine and despite persuasions, he would not bring it out for anyone to see except he needs it.
IT’S AN OCCULTIC PRACTICE – BARBER
Away from Ijora, commercial shaving with razor exists in every corner of Lagos from the slums of Obalende to the pavement of Iyana Ipaja community mosque, Mile 12 and Island communities of Lekki and Victoria Island.
As pervasive as this practice seems, however, making a move of apprenticeship under a local barber could be one of the hardest.
None of Abdulkareem Guzau, Bashiru Shuaib and Kaila Haruna, all plying their trade in Orile area of Lagos, would talk to this reporter about their profession. Instead, Mr Shuaib concentrated on shaving his colleague, Mr Haruna, as there were no customers on this Tuesday afternoon. The trio are the champions of ‘aske’ (a Hausa word for razor) in the densely populated Orile Iganmu area of Lagos.
Their reluctance is understandable in one argument; the trade is close-ended and with limited or no access to outsiders which they consider journalists to be.
Mr Shuaib was quick to talk off this reporter as he shaves Mr Haruna but minutes of insistence got him to spill a little about his work.
“It’s (the profession) cult-like. We don’t teach anybody anyhow,” Mr Haruna says questioning why this reporter wants to know about it. “No matter how much you offer me, even if it’s one million. This job is not ordinary, there are some spiritualties attached to it. If you see my child do this thing, you will be surprised at his expertise. If he refuses to learn, I will beat him.”
The ‘cult-like’ nature of the work has preserved its pride all the while, Mr Haruna believes. Back in Jigawa, one has to be a family member to be allowed into the trade.
“I’ve never trained someone in Lagos, only family members at home. I have trained many people who are related to me. I have trained my children already so that if I die, others will continue.”
IN ABUJA, ALUM USED AS AFTER SHAVE
Aminu Ibrahim, Husseini Zelani, Gambo Abdullahi and their fourth, who would not mention his name, are the masters of the blade in Kurudu Abuja.
Their services are similar to the Lagos barbers and they also learnt from family members but there is more to desire from their practice, especially from safety lens.
While most barbers use spirit as an aftershave, the four deploy alum – yes, alum!
On this Friday morning, the three are busy shaving their customers and after each shave, the white stone (alum) is produced to ‘protect’ the customer from infection. But the alum is believed to do more than that.
“If there is an injury, I use alum and the blood will definitely stop. I trust the alum to wash off any infection on the head of the person and you know that the germs cannot stay on it,” Husseini Zelani who started the trade in Babura Local Government of Jigawa State many years ago says.
Gambo Abdullahi and Aminu Ibrahim also use alum.
“I also use spirit but it has finished,” Mr Abdullahi added showing a container where he normally pours the substance.
PREMIUM TIMES research shows that alum, which comes in any form of aluminium sulphate, has some anti-bacterial properties which could be useful but an aftershave requires more.
To treat and prevent transmission of bumps, pores and shaving related infections, a barber should fortify himself with antibiotics.
Antibiotics are a broader range of antimicrobial compounds which can act on fungi, bacteria, and other compounds. So, certain antibiotics can kill bacteria, fungi and parasites although they have no effect on viruses
Even at that, all forms of alum can cause irritation of the skin and mucous membranes.
This position was corroborated by Mr Aranmolate who faulted the choice of aftershave.
“What is in alum?” he questions. I don’t know why they are using alum. Aftershave is supposed to be something that prevents bacteria from growing on the area. If anything, it should be antibiotics that ought to be used, not alum. Alum is not an antibiotic.”
Specifically, Ms Gold-Olufadi said neither alum nor spirit would prevent viruses
“Application of alum or methylated spirit cannot eliminate several viruses including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B and hepatitis C amongst others. The proper sterilization techniques which will include autoclaving will be needed to eliminate these viruses mentioned,” she said.
Mr Zelani, who started his trade in 2007 in Abujam barbs with razors. Like others, he does enough to wash his handle with water.
“We change razor to prevent disease and once we see that blood touches the handle, we wash with water before starting another shaving.”
Mr Zelani’s current handle is over a year-old and from his experience, the tool lasts for up to ‘four or five years.’
‘I don’t change the handle so long it is still working,’ he adds.
At the age of seven, Mr Ibrahim had been inducted into the shaving and circumcision business of their family, popularly known for the trade in Bauchi.
Coming to Abuja since 2017, the father of eight, husband of two will not transfer the skill to another person except family members.
While he shaves, strands of the cut hair dribble to the ground. They won’t be swept until after the day’s work. After every shave, the used blades are also dumped on the ground.
“After the whole day’s work, we sweep and pack all the dirt in a sack and hand it over to dirt collectors,” he says.
Mr Ibrahim believes the practice is the best way to clear the waste as they have no use for it but this may not be absolutely safe.
While the interview was on, a 12-year-old boy, who simply identifies himself as Hassan, sauntered to Mr Ibrahim’s bench to harvest one of the used blades.
“I want to use it cut materials to make rope,” he said when challenged.
Again, dermatologists fault this ‘carelessness’ on the part of the barbers.
“Apart from the fact that it is careless to drop blades on the ground to prevent cuts, diseases can also be transmitted if that blade has been used on a person infected with these viruses highlighted above. If the child (or an adult) sustains a cut, then he is at risk of getting infected. The risk is particularly high with Hepatitis B virus. Every barber should have a ‘sharps box’ to dispose all sharp instruments correctly,” Ms Gold-Olufadi notes.