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First Person: Braiding Community

Aida Ngmom braids a client's hair.
Photography by Brent Holmes

Aida Ngmom braids a client's hair.

Savoring the life and energy of the city’s first African braid shop

When I was a child, at least once a month my sister and I would accompany our mother’s friend, Ms. Louise, to her favorite salon on the West Side to get her hair done with the other women from her church. I remember being resistant to these trips, feeling like salons were spaces for girls and women. Boys went to the barber shop, where it smelled like Barbicide and Black ’N Milds, and they played sports on the TVs and hip-hop on the stereo. The salon smelled like vanilla and incense. The movies were romantic dramas with mostly black casts. It had all the things the older men around me avoided, so I thought I was supposed to avoid them too.

But the energy at the salon was like a family party — some auntie offering me candy while the grown folks gossiped, laughed, and talked wise about what so-and-so ought to do or have done. Every time we left, Ms. Louise had more air in her laugh. She seemed more herself. It made me feel good to be around her that way.

So now it seems almost inevitable that I have become a man who loves few things more than getting my hair braided at the salon.

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The first time I got braids was in my early 20s, so my first visit to Adja’s African Hair Braiding Salon (5100 W. Charleston Blvd., in 2016 was both new and familiar. I stumbled on Adja’s after a Nigerian friend insisted she would only let an African woman braid her hair, finding everyone else less proficient than the women she knew back home.

Patience Bearlar chats as she works.

That day, I was quietly taken by how welcoming the space felt and how at ease I was watching the calm bustle of the braiders at work. The women’s hands moved with masterful precision, switching strands between their fingers so quickly the hair comes together as if done with an electric loom. And yet, there’s a gentle care that is familial and soothing. I, of course, fell in love with the salon and all the women there immediately.

Adja’s is owned and operated entirely by black women, most of whom immigrated from West Africa, primarily Senegal. The owner, Adja Ngom, moved to Las Vegas after nearly 15 years of operating salons with her sister, Aida, in the Midwest and the South. Adja’s opened in 2013, and has recently expanded into their newly renovated salon, located next to the original location, which is now home to Adja’s African Beauty Supply Shop.

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“We just knew Las Vegas was the perfect location,” Adja says. “Braids are such a West Coast thing, but braids are global. They’re part of the culture everywhere, so we knew locals would be interested, as well as tourists.”

[Adja Ngom, owner of Adja's African Hair Braiding Salon, pictured right]

Most women in the shop speak at least three languages (English, French, and Wolof), and some know Spanish, too. Sitting in the shop can sometimes feel like walking through McCarran or the Fashion Show. I remember listening to an exchange between two braiders and two Brazilian customers in which the story was told first in Wolof and French, then translated to the customer in English, who then relayed it to his partner in Portuguese. We laughed in four languages — total strangers connecting, even if only for a short while, sharing stories as if we had always known each other. It felt like such a Vegas thing to watch play out.

And that’s just a regular day at the shop, a commingling of people it seems might never come together outside that space. On any given visit, I’m as likely to see local families and working folks — laborers, entertainers, performers — as I am tourists. There are as many people getting their hair done for practical and professional reasons as for aesthetic ones. Folks pull up in fancy foreign cars, some in modest family vehicles, and others take the bus. Some come once a month, some come every week, but everyone gets the same attentive care.

Vegas is a place where millions have found a home, often unexpectedly or by chance, coming here suddenly or finally, and staying a while. Adja’s was the first African braid salon in Las Vegas, and by a stroke of good fortune, there were several Senegalese and West African women here, eager to work in a salon featuring traditional African styles.

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“There aren’t actually a lot of West African people here, but we just found each other from the salon and now we’re like a family,” Adja tells me. Vegas was the perfect place for her shop, a place where so many people believe anything is possible, you couldn’t convince me it isn’t true.

I spend as much time at Adja’s as I can. I always laugh at the little boy in me who thought he didn’t belong in a salon. Though Adja’s is run by and mostly populated with women, I also see young men, my age and younger. And if I’m being honest, that doesn’t necessarily feel like the Vegas I know, but it does feel like the Vegas I hope to see one day, one that empowers and compensates women in equal measure as it asks for their labor.

And sure, perhaps my belief in possibility, like my belief in luck, is a symptom of being raised here. Maybe it’s something else. I can’t honestly say. What I can say is that I feel incredibly lucky that Adja has braided herself and her family into our community. And not just because I know where I can get my hair braided into whatever style makes me feel most beautiful and most myself, in case I have a show or a big date coming up, or I need to feel tended to, or I just want to walk through the world feeling like a work of art.