FACES OF DELAWARE
Del. Guineans form tight-knit community
Hair braiding lets immigrants make impact on fashion
By MIKE CHALMERS
The News Journal
Inside the Fantasy Braids salon at the corner of Fourth and King streets in Wilmington, Ramata Diallo's nimble fingers whip a strand of her customer's hair into a tiny braid as they watch television.
An English-language, African-produced soap opera that Diallo bought in Bear is playing, and its story of cheating lovers and double-crossing cops draws hoots and hollers from women in the shop. Diallo and her three other braiders are from the west African country of Guinea, where they learned hair braiding as young girls.
"In Africa, everyone does this," said Diallo, who used to practice on a doll. "Everyone knows how to do it."
There are only about 50 to 100 Guinean immigrants in Delaware, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and members of the community. But they are making their mark in the hairstyles of black women here, who now flock to Fantasy Braids and other shops in Wilmington that are owned and staffed by immigrants from Guinea, Senegal and other west African nations.
"In most of Guinea, at least one day a week, women do each other's hair," said Peter Weil, an anthropology professor and director of the University of Delaware's African Studies Program.
The braiding shops are more than just a way for immigrants to earn a living, he said. They also help workers learn English and learn about American culture.
Diallo said she didn't know English before arriving in the United States about 11 years ago. But Weil said Guineans generally have a strong capacity for languages because of the variety spoken in their country. Diallo spoke French, which is the official language of Guinea, as well as Fula, her native language. She learned to speak English by working in braiding shops, talking to customers and watching American television.
"Even now, I'm still learning," she said.
Such cultural understanding goes both ways, Weil said.
"A lot of American culture is being influenced by these immigrants," he said.
Edwina Gosa, of Wilmington, knows that just by looking at the hairstyles on black women in the United States.
"Look how many women you see walking around with braids," said Gosa, who spent about two hours and $100 at Fantasy Braids to get her cornrows and hair extensions. "For almost two months, I don't have to do my hair. I love it."
A poor nation of riches
Guinea has almost 10 million people and sits just north of the equator. The vast majority of its residents -- about 85 percent -- are Muslim, while Christians make up 8 percent of the population and other, indigenous belief structures make up the remaining 7 percent.
"Guinea is a very complex country because it goes from the coast up into the mountains, even ending in the grasslands," Weil said.
A former French colony, Guinea became an independent country Oct. 2, 1958. Its first president, Sekou Toure, ruled until his death in 1984. The military, headed by Gen. Lansana Conte, seized control of the government, and he was formally elected president in 1993. Reelected in 1998 and 2003, Conte continues to rule the country.
Guinea's land has major mineral, hydropower and agricultural resources, but it remains largely undeveloped because of low literacy rates and a corrupt government, experts said.
The climate in Guinea is generally hot and humid, with a monsoon-type rainy season that lasts from June to November.
"It's always sunny and nice, like Florida," said Saikou Diallo, Ramata's husband. "The nature is beautiful, but the country needs a lot of work."
Saikou Diallo, who worked as a banker in Guinea, emigrated to the United States in 1992 after waiting several years for a visa. He was 32 years old, single and spoke no English.
"No jobs" in Guinea, he explained. "There was no opportunity. The people who work for the government are very corrupt."
Saikou and Ramata, who grew up in the same neighborhood in Guinea, got married here. He worked as a security guard in New York City and New Jersey before they moved to Delaware in 1996. In June 1998, he took over the lease for the Fantasy Braids shop.
"I decided to try the American Dream," said Saikou Diallo, who became a U.S. citizen in 2002. "I'm loving having my own business."
Weil said pursuit of financial security is what prompts most immigrants to move.
"While there are many things they love about the United States, like our culture, what drives them to come here is economic," he said.
Some immigrants might be highly skilled at farming or woodcarving in their native country, but those skills are not in great demand here, he said. Also, if they don't speak English, they find it difficult to get a job in their field of expertise.
"People tend to define them as unskilled, but they might be very skilled," Weil said. "They often have to find jobs at the bottom rung of the ladder."
'No better place'
A few blocks away from the Diallos' shop, VH1 is playing in Ami Drame's braiding salon on Eighth Street. Like most people in Delaware's Guinean community, the Diallos know Drame, as well as the other braiding-salon owners in the city.
Drame came to the United States from Guinea in 1997, when she was 25, without knowing anyone or speaking any English. Her father died shortly before she left, and her mother died soon after. Her three sisters still live in Guinea, and she sometimes sends them money.
"The people keep fighting" in Guinea, said Drame, who speaks little English. "They don't have jobs. The situation never changes."
Diallo is perplexed when asked to compare Guinea with the United States.
"How can you compare the richest country in the world with the poorest country in the world?" Diallo said. "If you want to work here, you can work. There is opportunity for everybody here."
Still, Saikou Diallo expects to return to Guinea someday, probably when his four children are grown and on their own.
"Once there is a good government, the country is going to be rich," he said. "There is no better place than home."
Contact Mike Chalmers at 324-2790 or email@example.com.