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style leaders: no. 16

Hair apparent

Chantal Biya, Cameroon

Chantal Biya looked a bit different before she became Cameroon’s first lady. The clothes were duller, the hair far less extravagant. Biya was just 23 when she became President Paul Biya’s second wife in 1994. He (38 years her senior and now 76) had already been Cameroon’s president for 12 years and even now is showing little sign of giving up the job.

Biya’s clothes are up there with Africa’s most flamboyant. But it is her hair – which requires a full-time hairdresser to make adjustments – that’s catapulted her into the premier league. Francis Nyamnjoh, a Cameroonian academic, has even written a paper about it: “The Domestication of Hair and Modernised Consciousness in Cameroon”.

“The hairdo seems to be an embodiment of all the challenges the country is facing,” he says. “She is carrying on her head all of our problems and they are buried deep beneath her hair.” Cameroon certainly has problems, many of them caused by Biya’s husband. Paul Biya came to power in 1982 and has since won four elections though none could be considered fair. The constitution has just been changed, again, to allow him to run for another seven-year term.

“It has become a very royal presidency,” says Nyamnjoh. “You must venerate it and never question it. Biya’s whole style of dressing encapsulates that.”

1. Hair style
Biya’s head of hair (officially it’s all hers) gives her an extra foot or so in height and has drawn comparisons with Marie Antoinette.
2. The cut of her cloth
Some of her clothes are bought from Paris boutiques. Others are handmade by Cameroonian tailors, although the fabric always comes from France. 3. Handbag
The handbag always matches the shoes, whether it’s a bold black and gold combination or turquoise.
4. Shoes
Mrs Biya’s heels, combined with her hair, allow her to rise above her diminutive husband, an effect it is said she is fully aware of.

Cameroon facts:

  1. Originally a German colony, Cameroon was split into French and British sections after the Second World War. After gaining independence, the two united in 1961.
  2. Last year Cameroon took control of the Bakassi Peninsula, a strip of land that may hold large oil deposits and that Nigeria also tried to claim.

Gym’ll fix it


A fitness centre in Iraq? Entrepreneurial folly or viable business adventure? Ibrahim Abdullatif has no doubts: “Iraqi Kurdistan is the place to invest,” says the 31-year-old businessman who has opened the Fitness Health Centre in his home town, Dohuk, near the Turkish border.

The gym – complete with the latest muscle pumping equipment, pool, steam room and Jacuzzi – looks as though it could be anywhere in the world. But it is unusual in that its members are “hand picked”.

“They must have a job and make some money,” says Abdullatif. “They must also be over 25, law-abiding, and own their own house,” says the young entrepreneur, who vets all would-be members.

Abdullatif had been a refugee in Tennessee for 12 years and raised the money to open his gym by working as a translator for US troops after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Mane line


Kenya and Uganda are to spend €2.7bn on a revamp of the railway line that links landlocked central African countries to the coast. The so-called “lunatic express” was built by Britain in the 1890s. Hundreds of workers died – many from malaria, some eaten by lions.

Today, just the journey from the steamy Kenyan port of Mombasa to the relative cool of the capital, Nairobi, can take up to 16 hours. Unless, as regularly happens, it breaks down.

Under the new plan, the line will be rebuilt and extended to Rwanda and Burundi with a branch line to Sudan. Hopefully the lions will leave the workers alone this time.

Plenty of room


Namibia has fewer people per sq km than any other country in Africa. Only about 35 per cent of its two million people live in a city – low, even for Africa.

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