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African hair braiding tradition lives on

Across the U.S., women from countries such as Senegal, Ivory Coast and Togo, have used hair braiding as a bridge to a better life.

Braiders of Harlem keep hair braiding tradition alive; women from Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Togo in West Africa use braiding as a bridge to a better life

HARLEM, NY (AFKI) — A number of African hair braiding shops are clustered around 125th street in Harlem, a large neighborhood in the northern section of the New York City borough of Manhattan. Much like the Apollo Theatre and Abyssinian Baptist Church, the braiding shops and braiders that work in them are a Harlem landmark.

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Hair braiding is a tradition that has been practiced in various African societies for centuries. Across the U.S., women from countries such as Senegal, Ivory Coast and Togo, have used braiding as a bridge to a better life. In the 1990s and 2000s, entrepreneurial instinct and the ability of braiders to amalgamate traditional braiding styles with hair trends within African-American culture, meant braiding was a secure source of income.

Most braiders come from French-speaking African countries, so if they do speak English, it is often their third language. French or Wolof tends to be the lingua franca inside the hair shop and English is only used while establishing price or in brief exchanges with clients.

The lack of English fluency makes it difficult to leave the industry. On the other hand, braiders from English speaking African countries often use braiding as a job on the side, to support them while they attend night school or while they learn a more economically advantageous trade. As soon as these women achieve their goal they stop braiding.

In 2002, Mama (as she calls herself) made the trip from Nouakchott, Mauritania to the U.S. At the time she was fluent in Wolof and French, and could speak only broken English. She found accommodation in the Bronx and was embraced by a network of African immigrants. They told her to go to Harlem and start braiding hair. Mama is middle aged and braiding has taken its toll on her body. Some days she works for 12 hours at a time; she has constant back pain but can’t afford the surgery.

What was supposed to be an opportunity has become a trap and Mama wishes she picked another trade when she first moved to America. Braiding is so niche that her years of experience aren’t easily transferred to another industry. “It’s not a job I’m doing and love it. I don’t have a choice,” Mama says.

Walk into any braiding shop and you’ll notice the incredible speed at which braiders move their wrists and fingers. No matter how long you stare, this speed makes it difficult to decipher each step of the process. It’s wondrous to watch because the women maintain this speed for anything from three to six hours. And on a particularly busy day they may braid for a total of 10 hours.

From OkayAfrica by Christiana A. Mbakwe. This story first appeared in Mbakwe’s blog on Medium, titled “The Braiders of Harlem.”

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