The General’s Orders – Vam
When I first arrived in Calgary I took a job in a small law office, doing paralegal work. I got romantically involved with one of my co-workers, a Ugandan Indian woman, Ameena Ramkrishnan, who had been driven into exile with her family. Her parents were in Britain with her grandmother. Ameena had completed her degree in Canada and was hoping to get into law school at the University of British Columbia. I guess being new in a new city and Ameena being, as she used to say, “an outsider”, meaning that she had no family and really was very far removed from the Indian community in Calgary, who were all either from Punjab or Pakistan, drew us together.
She had spent the first years of her exile in Britain with her parents, who she told me were very traditional and strict. She used to joke that they would never approve of her relationship with a “European”. Our relationship had moved quickly from friendship to intimacy. Ameena told me that she had only had one other sexual relationship and that was with a European teacher in Uganda. She joked and said, “He loved me no matter what I looked like.” To me Ameena was a striking beauty: shoulder-length black hair that was as thick as rope and shined like a panther’s coat, firm breasts, nut-brown skin that was as smooth as silk and enormous black eyes that glowed. To me she was the most beautiful woman I had ever known and she was one hell of a lover. In bed Ameena tried to live up to the reputation of the Kama Sutra.
One Friday night after work, I had asked Ameena to join me for a drink. We went to the local brew pub and after a few beers, I asked her to move in with me. My roommate had decided to go back East and I needed a roommate. I knew that she was having trouble making her rent since she had lost her roommate two months ago. We discussed it and decided that we would try living together. She added one proviso: until she could explain to her parents about us, to let all her phone calls go to her answering machine, to keep our secret. We went back to my apartment and after terrific sex, we both decided that we had made the right decision.
The following Saturday, I rented a van and spent the day moving Ameena into my apartment. Boxes and boxes later, we had finally finished. As Ameena started unpacking she showed me her family photo album. “This is our house outside Kampala, before Idi Amin evicted us.” There was a photo of Ameena, and two older women I assumed were relatives standing in front a Victorian mansion. Then she said, as I held up another album, “Oh no you don’t want to see those pictures, they’re from school after Amin took over our school.” I had to see that album, maybe because Ameena didn’t want me to, maybe just curiosity. She reached for another album from the box and started to show me the flat where her parents lived in London, describing each room nervously, because she could see that I was still focusing on the school album. “O.K., O.K., I can see that you’re not going to be satisfied until you see this one.”
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I said “I’ll make you a deal, I’ll show you my high school yearbook first, then you show me your album.”
I dug out my old Castlefrank Collegiate year book and turned the yellowed pages showing her all pictures of me circa 1968, me playing guitar in a jug band, me on the track team and my graduation picture. “O.K. fair is fair, let’s see yours.”
Then she handed me the book and said, “The first part is my school before the General took over.” She showed me her picture in a group of girls, African and Indian, all wearing tan jumpers, sensible shoes and khaki caps. Ameena was not wearing a cap in the first picture, her hair was braided and hung down past her waist. She was standing beside an African girl who by contrast had a shaven head but was otherwise dressed the same as the Indian girls in the picture. I asked Ameena if that was the custom, shaving the African girls’ heads. “Not really, but after Amin took control it was the rule,” she said. “I remember the day that the headmistress called the Asian girls to the office and read us the General’s Orders: ‘All female students will be required to have their hair cut and styled in the African fashion. There will be no exceptions.'” Then she turned the page and there was a group of photos of Ameena and another Indian girl wearing only bras and panties. The next photo showed them Ameena sitting on a stool while an African woman raised her braid. Ameena said, “I have never shown these photos to anyone,” and turned the page. Each photo showed the African woman cutting off first her braid, then the long tendrils that were freed from the severed braid with big shears. It was obvious why she had kept these photos hidden. The African woman barber, Ameena said, was the headmistress of the school and given the task of being sure that all the girls complied with the General’s rule, that all female students shall wear only traditional hairstyles. Ameena then added, for the Achioli and Swahili that meant bald! In the next shot Ameena’s long locks had all been sheared away, and she was trying to hide the tears that had clearly welled up in her big black eyes. “I kept saying that I would be brave and not cry, but it wasn’t working. When the headmistress started using the hair clippers, I could not control myself. Her hand gripped my head so I could not move as the hair was piling up on my lap. See in this picture she has clipped all the hair off the left side of my head, and this one she has finished the right side. Each time she released the clippers locks tumbled down covering my face. Oh my God it was so horrible, when she took the razor. I can still feel her hand on the top of my head and the warm soapy water, the scraping sound of the razor against my skin. She took what seemed like an eternity shaving the last hair off. Then she rubbed my head with oil. I reached up to touch my head and felt a smooth alien head. The teacher who took these pictures tried to comfort me by telling me that I looked great and that it would grow back. That was the last thing that I wanted to hear as I looked at my long black braid and all my hair on the floor. The teacher from CUSO, who took these pictures, was the first Canadian I ever met. She was so kind to the Asian students, particularly when the Ugandans shaved our heads,” Ameena said, choking back tears. The next picture showed Ameena with the African woman shaving her scalp with a straight razor. The last two pictures were “before and after” pictures: the before picture Ameena said was taken the day before the haircut and the after picture was taken after the headmistress finished shaving her head. Then Ameena said, “I thought that I would die when I first saw myself in a mirror, but after a few weeks I got used to being bald. Besides, they shaved our heads every few weeks. That was more than 7 years ago, my head was kept shaven for two years while I was in school. When I got to Britain everyone thought I was a boy because my hair had grown into a crew cut. I still remember it like it was yesterday,” Ameena said as she curled a tendril of black hair around her finger. “I am going to let my hair grow now until my mother or father dies – that’s our religious tradition. My mother said, when she saw me with my head shaved, ‘Poor child, but it would have been much worse if you did not follow the General’s Orders.'”
I was so turned on by the pictures, I buried my face in her black hair and started kissing her neck. We were in bed making love in the next 5 minutes, the whole time I could envision Ameena 7 years ago – her as a bald girl getting out of the barber’s chair.