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Caught in a legal tangle.

Summary: Many African migrants in the US have set up hair braiding salons to make a living. But new regulations are making it difficult for them to engage in practices passed down through generations.

Hair braiding is big business in the US, and many female African migrants have made this multimillion-dollar industry their own.

Part of a black hair care industry thought to be worth a billion dollars a year, African hair braiding salons, where braiders deftly twist and interlace strands of natural hair with synthetic extensions into striking hairdos, can be found in cities all across America.

Owned and operated mostly by women from the likes of Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire and Sierra Leone, these salons have given African women a chance to set up their own enterprises using a skill learnt from their mothers and grandmothers.

However, many braiders are fearful that their businesses could unravel because of a raft of new government regulations. In many states, salons are now required to be licensed and their employees formally trained. This training can reportedly take up to two years and cost as much as $20,000.

In North Carolina, for instance, lawmakers passed legislation in 2010 requiring braiders to be licensed, with the test being administered only in English. This is a problem for many braiders from Francophone countries. The new regulations also include public health requirements that are meant to reduce the risk of communicable diseases, but which many African braiders say has unfairly stigmatised them.

Gambian-born Adama Ceesay, founder of the African Braiders Association of North Carolina, believes the regulations are part of a ploy by rival Americanowned businesses to keep newcomers from prospering.

"They want to keep us out because they don't like the competition and because we do it better," says Ceesay, who left Serrekunda in Gambia in 1995 to move to North Carolina, where she opened the African Nubian Queens Hair Braiding Salon. "They are jealous because Africans have the gift through our ancestors to braid ... They want to stop us, though competition is the American way."

Ceesay says that before the new regulations came into effect, she employed 10 braiders but now only employs three. Many braiders, she says, are leaving the state or even returning to Africa to seek out other opportunities.

A mild-mannered and perhaps unlikely activist, Ceesay has lobbied legislators in North Carolina and led the African Braiders Association members in protests. One of those she points the finger at is former North Carolina state senator Earline Parmon, who sponsored the bill requiring regulation of the braiding industry. But Parmon, who says criticism of her motives still stings, rejects charges she and others tried to wreck the African hair braiding industry.

"The intent was not to put anybody out of business but to protect the public by having some standards in the braiding shops -- there were no standards, no health inspections," she says.

Asked how she feels about the fact some braiders, unable to pass the language test and meet other regulations, are struggling and considering returning to Africa, Parmon says: "It is sad, but that was not our intent. I don't know what more we could have done."

With 34 of the US's 50 states now requiring someform of training, examination, or licensing, however, there are few easy options for African women who want to earn their living braiding without regulations.

In New York, which has the largest African populations in the US, the struggles faced by braiders is seen as particularly tragic given the role they played in helping revive New York's Harlem neighbourhood in the 1980s. As Lloyd Williams, president of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, puts it, African braiders "occupied commercial space when no one else was interested in doing it.''

But now that Harlem has become a much-soughtafter residential and commercial district with high rental costs -- and with the added regulatory hoops to jump through -- dozens of African braiding salons that helped Harlem survive have been forced out.

In Chicago, Illinois, African hair braiders worry too that if gentrification does not get them then the new regulations will -- though they are not giving up without a fight.

"We came to America because of the free market, because of the business opportunity," says Oumou Wague, a Senegalese-born braider who owns and operates Sarafina Hair Braiding salon in Chicago. "It's incredible we have had to fight and fight just to pursue our profession."

In their struggles against regulation, African hair braiders have had some successes, and have been joined by a group of lawyers belonging to the Institute of Justice, a conservative organisation with ties to the Republican Party. The Institute of Justice has launched a 'Braiding Initiative' and won 12 court cases relating to braiders in Arkansas, Missouri, and Washington.

"Government ought not to being making it nigh on impossible for people who want to self-support themselves and self-sustain themselves to practise natural hair braiding, a perfectly harmless occupation which allows them to control their economic destiny," says Institute of Justice lawyer Paul Avelar.

The successful appeals by the group of lawyers and hair braiders have given hope to those struggling against what they see as unnecessary and prohibitive regulations. But for many, there is still a long way to go. And in the meantime, uncertainty is making it difficult for African braiders to engage in practices handed down through generations and generations of women.

"Braiding is our gift from our mothers," says Ceesay, not sure what the future holds for braiders like herself. "America should let us be free and let us use our gift."

They want to stop us, though competition is the American way.


Salons are now required to be licensed and their employees formally trained. This training can reportedly take up to two years and cost as much as $20,000.

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Publication:African Business (Al Bawaba (Middle East) Ltd.)
Date:Oct 6, 2015
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