-Rahel, do you need juice and yoghurt tomorrow for Yusef?
She smiles and says thank you. Two year old Yusef, in nappies and t-shirt, is playing with a toy car on the gravel footpath beside which twenty or so tents are pitched. This is the Eritrean “camp” in Calais.
–Dumoo, dumoo, squeals Yusef. The biddable black cat emerges from the long grass. Yusef scoops it up and it hangs limply from his arms.
-Baba Alex, will you get me tinta.
It’s tall, beaming Haile.
-Haile, what’s tinta?
–Black tinta for hair.
-Haile..why do you want black tinta?
– My hair going brown. Too much sun.
Sure enough, the tips of his tall spirals of hair are distinctively brown.
-Ok Haile, I’ll bring you hair dye tomorrow.
Hair dye, that’s a first. Curious to learn more about this browning, I google. The “Locs Therapist” in Georgia, Alabama, informs viewers of his facebook video that discolouration can result from too much sun, poor diet and stress. Haile ticks all the boxes.
Teinture pour les cheveux noirs. I try first at a pharmacy. The assistant offers me an “all-natural” product for twelve euros. In my poor French, I politely decline. Carrefour in the same shopping mall has Kera teinture bleu noir for four. I’m confused by the bleu bit, but take my chances and buy it. I cycle to the Eritrean “camp” with juice and yoghurt for Rahel and the four euro tinta for Haile. It’s mid-morning and already into the low thirties. It’s due to top forty later in the day. The tents are still in the shaded lee of the wall. There’s no sign of Haile so I give the tinta to Osman and ask him to pass it on.
I return in the afternoon. A dozen young guys squeeze into the circle of shade cast by the single young ash tree. There’s an intense game of cards underway; others are sleeping. Haile is sitting crossed legged on the burnt out grass, eyes closed, smiling broadly as his gloved accomplice Mewael vigorously works black dye into his hair with a tooth brush. The tooth brush is then discarded and Mawael now rubs the dye into Haile’s thick mop with his gloved hand. A second accomplice, Semare, dips the corner of an old t-shirt into a cup of water and wipes away smudges of dye on Haile’s neck. Work on the crop of hair completed, Mewael now turns his attention to Haile’s pencil thin sideboards that taper to a point just below the line of his ear lobes. The task is delicately achieved using a dry stem of grass.
-don’t touch, says Haile – He’s seen my intense interest. –tinta stays many days on your skin. He shows me the tip of his stained black thumb.
I have to leave, but later return. It’s night time. Haile’s jet black hair glows in the glare of the streetlights.
Alex Holmes July 2019.
(Haile is now an asylum seeker in UK)