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Are these the dying days of the puller?

By April 23, 2012June 6th, 2023No Comments

April 22nd 2012

As they say, old habits die hard. I found out the truth of this old adage only the other day when I was trying to look for what we used to call a ‘puller’. I realised then that the names of some of the things we used to cherish in the old days are disappearing from today’s lexicon.

I was looking for that small item but could not find it in any of the shops in the main streets of Kigali. After combing all the shops in vain, I decided to try shops in the backstreets. But even there I had no luck until I went to Nyabugogo, near the line of butcheries. Even then, though, I had to make gestures for the young traders to understand what I wanted.

And if those young traders couldn’t understand it, I imagine that neither can you. Quite simply, a puller is a comb; a comb that pulls. Not pulling out, as in ‘uproot’, but pulling down flat, as in ‘flattening’. A puller therefore flattens your hair onto your head. If you’ve seen old men with white hair that seems to stick on their heads, stretching backwards, you get my drift.

Unfortunately, with our generation thinning out with every day that passes, so are things like pullers. Looks like soon they’ll be classified among the endangered species of the world. Then we old buffalo soldiers will have no alternative but to all turn into skinheads. And I’ve seen a few old skinheads, which means we won’t be the odd-man-out. Problem is, some of us have heads with cucumber shapes!……….

Talking about cucumber, I remember turning translator in Kenya. A countryman and a Kenyan friend, both teaching colleagues, were trying to communicate but finding it impossible. We were all in the market: the friend from Central Kenya, the countryman from Nyakivala (we called such a man a ‘cow-refugee’), and me from Nshungerezi (they called such a man a ‘hoe-refugee’).

The Kenyan, encouraging my countryman, said: “Those are shyoshyobas, take them.” When the countryman looked bewildered, I explained, in Kinyarwanda: “Izo bwendebupfe!” My countryman exclaimed: “No, folas we have kato! We don’t eat anysing to do wiz glass!” I had to repeat the correct pronunciations for them to understand each other: ‘cucumbers’, ‘for us’, ‘cattle’, ‘anything’ and ‘with grass’……….

But we were talking about ‘pullers’. Before the arrival of the modern, plastic puller, we used to suffer at the hands the old type………. But first, let’s get clear about this puller. A puller has a stem and a flat, round head with small, pointed projections on it. It’s those projections that are used for flattening hair onto the scalp. The puller can be red, yellow, et al……….

And how did the modern, plastic type rescue us from the old type? The old type was a wooden stem with a flat, round head, just like its plastic counterpart. For pointed projections, however, nail-type metals used to stick out of the head. It’s those metals we used for matting hair, but with every pull on the hair, the metals would be getting sharpened.

Once they were sharp, blood would be drawn out with every little inadvertent weight on the puller. In such instances, it was not uncommon to see unhappy faces in their blood-stained Sunday best in church!

Interestingly, though, there was a way of using those bruising metallic spikes to advantage, even if their advantages came later in the lives of some of us.

In exile in Uganda, we lived in crowded refugee camps. It so happened that whatever effort we made to be clean, we never succeeded in living in completely hygienic conditions. The effect of these conditions was that we could not avoid being attacked by lice. Lice in hair and their accompanying white eggs are embarrassing. But as everybody in the refugee camp had them, sometimes we did not even notice that we carried them. We happily scratched away as we went about our business.

Now imagine relocation to secondary school, where you were joining boys from the free world of no refugee camps! Lice could be tolerated as they sometimes remained hidden in their sanctuary (hair), but their white eggs had the nasty habit of sticking onto the tips of hair.

I remember a Munyankore boy peering at my hair and asking me: “Ingina Pankuriyas, why does your hair have white heads?” From then on, I was preoccupied with using the puller on my hair for hours on end, during week-end mornings. It didn’t help much, but at least I got comfort from trying!

That’s why those who were acquainted with me at the time don’t wonder that my grey hair started with a straight line on my dome and with side fore-hairs. With the force that I used to remove the eggs, it’s a wonder that I did not become a skinhead. O, rather, a ‘shyoshyoba’ head!

How I shudder, when I imagine that I could’ve gone to secondary school before the arrival of wooden-metallic and plastic pullers. ‘Mukushi’ (puller in Kinyarwanda) then used to be in form of a dry fruit with thorns, known as ‘rukuruzi’. The pain it inflicted, acha tu (byihorere)!

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