Growing a beard, unearthing lessons old and new

 MR SIPHIWE MPYE has been obsessed with facial hair since he barely had peach fuzz on his teenage chin. Over two decades later, he reflects on the two years he has patiently grown and nurtured a full beard, and the life lessons this odyssey has reinforced. 

Even in my patchiest, earliest recollections, I can recall no clean shaven adult male in my space. Shaving was that thing done on certain special occasions, like those involving white people, who demanded the natives maintained some sort of ‘standard’ in their presence. The default male adult look on all sides  of my family, as far as I can remember and old photographs can attest, was ‘snappily dressed, with facial hair’. 
When I came of age, I was in no hurry to own a razor, I too had come to prefer facial hair: first through willing my moustache to appear in late high school; then growing the obligatory R&B goatee in my twenties and part of my thirties (along with dreadlocks, which, at the time seemed like a good idea) and finally, my  catching the 5 o’clock shadow/stubble trend at its apex. Growing, or at least trying to grow a full beard, was always going to be the next evolutionary incarnation, trend or no trend. 

“I can recall no clean shaven adult male in my space. Shaving was that thing done on certain special occasions, like those involving white people, who demanded the natives maintained some sort of ‘standard’ in their presence.”

 

Some rather amused friends relayed a few years ago, how during a talk, a particular South African trend observer was pleased to have picked up a ‘new beard trend’ among the sartorial, black and dope in Braaamfontein, Jozi, while they knew that all those cool kids (who had only recently come of age, and could now, physiologically,  grow an actual beard) grew up with uncles and dads with snappy suits and impressive beards. What else was going to happen? 
So, what purpose does the beard serve? It is armour, protection from the sun and other harmful elements. It imparts a sense of kinship that can save a potentially painful conversation with a stranger. When all small talk fails, “So what oil do you use on your beard?” is sure to break the iciness of a forced interaction at weddings, conferences and bank queues. Little boys hound you about when they too will be able to grow one, and little girls (or at least mine) seem to just enjoy smelling and tugging at it.
Beards have, in recent years, been known to resurrect vintage kwaito stars; make stars of vapid older men who’s only claim to fame is dressing like a teenager, as a badge of honour among men, it has helped ‘soft’ Canadian rappers claim some ‘man points’ in the patriarchal disaster that is popular culture. When the revolutionary words of Che, Machel, Tambo, Cabral and Fidel left their mouths and went straight into the history books, these titans sported beards. 
I have been growing my beard, the full version, for two years. It has been a long, trying, rewarding, debilitating odyssey that has illuminated some life lessons that I share below:  

 

Mr Siphiwe Mpye's beard journey
Patience is a virtue: Mr Siphiwe Mpye’s beard journey from 2015 (R) to late 2016 (L). He hasn’t taken a decent picture since late 2016, but he suspects the progress may not be visible to the casual eye. But that’s fine.
  1. Patience
The hardest and most common lesson learned by all beard growers. Beard growing is like building a house, you should always expect to wait longer – and pay a bit more – than expected. Thankfully, attaining healthy, full growth comes without the chicanery of builders and self-assuredness of architects. But it does take the patience of ex political prisoner Mr Kenny Motsamai.
  1. Nurture can trump nature
In this life, your disadvantages and inadequasies are no indication of your full potential. You will be exceptional, but you can overcome the challenges of your accident of birth – in spite of the prevailing deliberate, racialised structural inequalities – through hard work, dedication, education, connections, third chances and a bit of luck. If you take care of your beard, use the right products and put in the time, you can turn a patchy, brittle tuft into a healthy, gleaming mane.

“Beard growing is like building a house, you should always expect to wait longer – and pay a bit more – than expected. Thankfully, attaining healthy, full growth comes without the chicanery of builders and self-assuredness of architects.”

 

  1. If you want something done, do it yourself
If you have ever had a subordinate (or have one or two kids running around) you may well be familiar with the limitations of delegation. I have gone through a number of barbers in the last few years and have only recently settled on a regular visit to Ntando, who has shown enough patience to understand my fastidiousness, especially when it comes to the beard. But often, I don’t leave anything to chance, and regularly sit down in his chair having already trimmed the complex bits that look innocuous enough, but take months to grow if cut too close.
  1. Don’t be afraid to start again
We try, we fight and persisently grind away at life’s challenges, but sometimes, allowing (or enabling) it all to come crumbling down in favour of a new start is the only sane option. There is no shame in the sudden reboot when things haven’t quite worked out in your favour.  Getting really efficient with tiny scissors and clippers has meant many missteps along the way and everytime, I haven’t been shy to put an open clipper against the grain and start anew.
    5. Some things are not meant to be
I have a good friend with a full healthy beard that grows relatively quickly, yet he has never been able to grow a moustache. When he grew a full, mustache-less beard shortly after high school, we thought it was only a matter of time before his upper lip filled up. Two decades later, we know for sure that the smoothness of that upper lip will forever rival that of a baby’s bottom.
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