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Meet the woman at the center of a circle of caring at Le Balafon African Braiding Salon

A circle of community and caring at Le Balafon African braiding salon
A circle of community and caring at Le Balafon African braiding salon 05:03

BERKELEY (CBS) - Over and under or under and over. Repeat like a mantra, like a prayer. At Le Balefon African Braiding Salon, in Berkeley, fast fingers transform individual strands of hair into long braids, in a matter of seconds. 

For owner, Fatoumata Bamba, braiding is community and community means caring. She opened her salon in Berkeley 22 years ago, earned a business degree, and got her real estate license. They've raised the rent on her three times, but she's still here. 

Every morning, Fatou, as her friends call her opens up Le Balafon.  She named the salon after her favorite West African instrument played at celebrations and gatherings.  

"Gloria is always the first one here," says Fatou, as she sweeps up and readies the salon for the day. 

Like Fatou, Gloria is from the Ivory Coast. Would they have met at home? 

"Africa is very big," says Fatou. "So I don't think so." 

The women who work here come from all over the continent.  

"Congo, Benin, Mali, Burkina Faso," Fatou says. 

In addition to braiding, she imports African clothes from all over the continent. The baskets are as varied as the women who work here. 

"Ghana... Mali ...Cote d'Ivoire... Senegal," she says, pointing to a shelf full of baskets in all shapes and colors. 

By noon, the shop is full of clients who entrust their precious locks to these beautiful African women. There's Flora from the Ivory Coast, and Mireille from Congo. Fraudia is the youngest. She's from Benin. She brushes out bundles of hair extensions to make the ends 'less blunt.' She'll graduate from cosmetology school in a few months and she loves what she does.  

Every day at 2:30 pm, Fatou has to leave to pick up her little cousin, Prince. His papa is a single dad, so Fatou is helping out.  

It seems she helps a lot of people. 

Ils faut s'entretinir, c'est la communaute' she says in French. 'We have to take care of one another ... it's our community." 

Prince is her heart. 

The 5-year-old literally jumps from the top stair of the school bus into her waiting arms.  

"Prince!" says Fatou, hugging the smiling boy close and carries him to the car. 

Le goute, the French word for 'snack' is an afterschool tradition in Fatou's native country. The pair head for a nearby boulangerie. Bread, cakes, bear claws, pain au chocolat fill the glass case. Today, Prince wants a croissant.  

Back at the salon, Prince plays games on Fatou's phone to channel all that after school energy. No rest for Fatou, though. She's got more heads to braid and more work to do. Fatou relieves Gloria so she can take lunch. Afrobeats fill the air, from the videos playing on the TV above the door. The mood is light, but laser focused. 

Freudia says she has always loved braiding. She would go braid hair for free back home in Benin. 

When asked if Fatou is like a mentor, Freudia disagrees. 

"She's much more than that," she says working on her customer's flat braids. Her hands move like lightening. "She is more like my mother."  

Nearby, Flora's customer is getting box braids. women is getting hat would you call these box braids? " 

"I got school next week, so I had to get my hair done immediately. Oh, it's beautiful. Thank you. [6.7s] 

Meantime, Fatou's and Gloria have almost finished their customer. 

She says the feeling at this shop is different. 

"Yeah. Yeah. More warm. Not a lot of kids running all over the place," she says, adding with a chuckle, "The last lady that did my hair was kids, like, everywhere, and I just couldn't. And I'm like, Oh, my God, I need some peace. 

As if on cue, Prince's dad comes to pick him up. He's been so quiet we forgot he was here. 

Fatou won't let him leave without one last hug and he runs to her arms to oblige.  

But her day is far from over.  

It's 9:30 p.m. and Fatou is helping Fraudia finish with a customer. Despite the long day, these two are giggling like two girls at a sleepover. Silver hair glows under the selfie lamp, like mercury. It's beautiful. Freudia's fingers are braiding even faster than before. 

"I love the gray hair," says Freudia. "So pretty." 

"Okay. I think we all do Saturday," says Fatou on the phone to a customer, finishing paperwork and appointments. 

Freudia tidies up. She's beautiful tonight in her traditional dress from Benin. Fatou turns off the lights as they exit the shop, and locks the door she opened this morning.  

They exchange 'les bises,' two quick kisses on the cheek and go their separate ways. Fatou says Freudia will be a success everywhere she goes in life. But tomorrow they will return here, to their community, a circle of caring.  

And at its center, Fatou at Le Balefon. 

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