Angela Okafor braids hair

African-born women living in Maine say that very few local hair salons are prepared to care for their hair. Many tell stories of traveling long distances to get their hair braided, and of exorbitant prices for hair care. When there is a wedding, people have to wait in long lines. They either rely on friends to do their hair, or else travel from all over Maine to one of two hair salons in Portland, or on to Boston or other destinations for braiding. Many consider the lack of affordable and convenient hair care to be a serious drawback to living in Maine.
The Black Student Union at the University of Maine hosted the 2nd Annual Hair Care Fair on March 3 in Orono, in response to this lack. Angela Okafor, proprietor of Tropical Tastes & Styles in Bangor, sponsored the event. She provided hair braiders and hair products. “G” the Barber and stylist Kassandra, both from Shear Concepts, also styled hair. All hair care was free of charge, and dozens of men and women turned out – hair braiding is common among women, but some men also braid their hair. Black Student Union President and Vice President Taylor Bass and Leila Rollins noted that hair care has historically played a huge role in the lives of African women. “Our self- esteem and mental health are connected to hair care.” They pointed out that the lack of hair salons equipped to deal with African hair is problematic for black students who have been actively recruited to attend the university.
The culture of hair braiding in Africa goes back thousands of years. In addition to being decorative, different braiding styles were associated with a person’s tribe, age, marital status, wealth, power, religion, and/or social position. Hair styles changed for special occasions, such as weddings and war. Hair braiding patterns were often intricate, and on a continent where thousands of tribes lived in proximity to each other, members of one tribe could identify members of another tribe by their hair style. Maps were sometimes secretly braided into the hair of enslaved people. In contemporary times, hair braiding is one of the most profitable businesses on the continent. African women note that braiding hair helps protect it from winter weather and is also a time-saver, since hair can be braided once every three months and still look good. In a busy country like the United States, they say saving time is important, and unlike Caucasian hair – which can generally be styled in a much shorter amount of time each day – African hair requires considerable time and effort if it is not braided. Tough licensing regulations, as well as language barriers, mean that African women with lots of experience back home have not opened salons here in Maine. With well over 10,000 African-born Mainers, ambitious entrepreneurs would do well to take note of this niche waiting to be filled.