Before she was ‘Hawa Afromeric’, a 30-year-old mother of three, she was a street hawker of hairnets, cosmetics, and other little things at the busy commercial area known as Victoria Park. Hawa would go into Afromeric Salon to show her wares to the store’s patrons. She was so pleasant Josephine the store manager never drove her away. This went on for years until one day, Hawa who by now would run errands for staff in the salon, was asked why she wasn’t training at Afromeric. Hawa said she couldn’t afford to, so Josephine’s mom, Mary Koroma offered to pay for Hawa’s first term. And that was how Hawa Sesay became ‘Hawa Afromeric’, one of the 2000 women and some men who have been trained as certified cosmetologists at Afromeric Salon and Cosmetology Institute in Sierra Leone.
Founded in 1993, Afromeric just celebrated 20 years in hair styling last December. The school has at least one student working at every trendy salon in Freetown and in Makeni where it has a second branch.
“From ‘Variety’, ‘Pimp My Looks’, to ‘Head Masters’ you’ll find our students either working there or managing these salons”, boasts Hair Stylist and Store Manager Josephine Koroma. She took over the salon 7 years ago from her mom Aunty Mary who founded it in 1993. She explains that some people think that Afromeric is old fashioned, but she insists that it is the skills that people learn there every year that continue to drive the entire local hair and beauty industry.
Josephine, who prefers to be referred to as Joe, studied Cosmetology in Virginia where she was born. Her mom Mary who founded the salon when Joe was just 15 years old initially studied to be an accountant and later also learned cosmetology. Joe says that Afromeric is what kept her and her family afloat even during the worst days of the civil war. In 1997 when rebels invaded Freetown she and her mom fled to London and closed the shop.
“When we got to London we stayed with my mom’s sister who had a house in Hackney. In no time at all, my mom had turned one of the rooms into a makeshift hair salon”, Joe recalls.
The influx of refugees from Sierra Leone meant that they didn’t have to look too far for clients. In 3 months Aunty Mary had raised enough money to send her daughter back to the US. Then Joe says her mom flew back to Sierra Leone to check on her workers. Realising that conditions in Freetown weren’t going to improve she went to Guinea and used the money she earned in London to rent a 10-bedroom house in an area in Conakry called Bellevue. Once she was settled she came back to Sierra Leone and took all her staff to safety where together they re-opened Afromeric Salon.
“My mom is a go-getter, she can’t just let things be. So Afromeric never stopped, it just kept changing locations”, says Joe.
When Afromeric first opened there were two other training schools; ‘Fat Lou’s’, and ‘Franks’. However, neither of them were recognized by the Ministry of Education. Afromeric was the first to set up a training school with a set curriculum offering certification in cosmetology. Joe says that it was important for hair dressing to be certified because people still looked down on the trade. Most of the girls and women who come to the school are poor, illiterate, and often times drop outs of the 6334 formal education system. Though the stigma has not gone away, training and certification has brought dignity to the profession. Before the school moved to its current location at Victoria Park, it was in the East end of town in Kissy when it first opened in 1997. Just months after it opened the May coup d’etat forced its closure.
Today Joe says business is hard. Students are still from impoverished backgrounds and often do not complete the course due to lack of funds.
“A man will bring his girlfriend and initially he’ll pay for her to come and of course when they break up, and she can’t afford to pay, she stops coming”, she says.
The 2-year full course costs 1.2 million ($270) and the 1-year diploma costs half of that. To increase revenue the school is now offering new specializations in weaving, manicure and pedicure, cut and color, and facials. This way those who want to learn something specific in a short amount of time can do so. It took the Ministry of Education 2 years to approve the curriculum for these new courses. In addition the school also offers a mandatory adult education module to all students in the program as the majority of them can neither read nor write.
“We take a US curriculum for cosmetology and make it practical for Sierra Leone”, Joe says.
“Students should be able to go into a bank and write their name. Believe it or not we have students who are illiterate, but will say they didn’t come to us to learn how to read and write. But we let them know that even if you won’t use it for cosmetology, you need to learn for your life”.
Over the years Joe says her and Aunty Mary lose count of the number of heads they’ve styled, but all the women of substance have had their hair done at Afromeric at one point, or another. Loyal customers especially those who left Sierra Leone during the war still come to see if it is still there because Afromeric was ‘the salon’ from the old days. But Freetown is not like it was then.
“We now have Chinese, and Lebanese expatriates, and we need to cater to them all”. This is why the salon and school are trying to expand. Two decades ago Afromeric was one of the giants in a small community of well-known salons and training schools. Now there is a salon or three on every corner. When the war ended in 2002, the National Commission for Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (NCDDR) promoted vocational training. Dressmaking, catering, and hairdressing schools were set up to train women and girls who were no longer of school-going age and had been affected by the war. Afromeric trained several female ex-combatants under this program whose fees the government paid for but when the DDR program ended, it left Afromeric with more competition. Former students have gone on and opened their own shops.
In the next 5 years Joe says Afromeric is looking to become a franchise with its own line of makeup, and hair products. She wants to help her graduating students own a share of the salon. “My mom started Afromeric for girls who came from the provinces to the city looking for opportunities. She wanted to help them explore their talents and to let them know that there were other ways to go about their big dreams outside of selling themselves”, Joe says.
The school was set up for women like Hawa Sesay she explains. Women who wont know what they can accomplish because no one has given them a chance. Women who are the head of their households, whose husbands are either gone or jobless, depending on them to feed and clothe their children.
“When I see someone learning to do a hairstyle I feel so proud”, Joe says with a big smile.
“Hawa didn’t know she could do what she has done. All of them come in not knowing that they can get to a point where they are independent. By the time they leave us, they don’t need to ask anybody for anything.”