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On the second floor of the Latyfah hair salon in Dakar, brushes, hairdryers and scissors were in constant motion. Sitting amidst bags full of wigs, owner Awa Ndao checked the finishing touches before handing over the precious locks to the delivery men, while glancing at the video surveillance screens set up in the middle of the room. In recent weeks, the store has been undergoing security upgrades, after thieves recently tried to gain entry in the middle of the night. "Burglars took about 30 wigs, computers and perfumes three years ago. More than 20 million CFA francs [€30,500] were taken," explained the company manager.
"We only use quality natural human hair, which is very expensive," explained Ndao, who has been in the business for over 30 years. Nicknamed the "queen of small heads" for her famous short styles, the hairdresser sells wigs that cost from 75,000 (€100) to several hundred thousand CFA francs, depending on the cut, density, texture, length and material of the hair.
She has a flourishing business as wigs resist the "nappy" trend – a contraction of "natural" and "happy" – which aims to rehabilitate natural African hair. As the holiday season approaches, orders from Senegalese women explode, and these "locks of gold" equally attract increasing numbers of thieves. The wigs are often resold on the black market, or on social media, at a much more affordable price than their initial value. On the street, thieves sometimes prefer them to telephones or handbags.
'Customers can keep them for up to 10 years'
In Dakar, women are no longer safe from having their wigs snatched. Nogaye Sidy Fall, 42, had this bitter experience in September 2022. She was shopping in the popular Colobane market, on the eve of the start of the new school year. "Suddenly I felt my wig was gone. It was made of natural hair, and I had paid nearly 300,000 CFA francs [€400] for it," she said.
She had bought it a week earlier but hadn't dared tell her husband the price. So she preferred to tell him that it was made of synthetic hair – which is much more affordable – and that there was no point in going to the police with a complaint. "I don't have the luxury of buying such valuable wigs every year," explained the mother of one. In her cupboards, she keeps two other quality hairpieces worth 150,000 and 200,000 CFA.
Adji (who prefers to remain anonymous) had her wig ripped off her head by teenagers on scooters as she got off the bus on her way to work. It was a bobbed curly haircut she'd just treated herself to. "I'll have to wait a long time before I can afford a new one of the same quality," she said, sadly. It's all the more ironic as she works at Enera Beauty, one of the capital's most renowned hair salons for its natural hair wigs.
"We import human hair from Vietnam at 200,000 CFA a kilo, and it's treated without chemicals," explained business owner Arène Khouma, who opened her salon in Dakar's Ouest Foire neighborhood in 2017. Each month, she imports between 5 and 10 kilograms of hair – 30 kilograms in the holiday months. At Enera Beauty, wigs cost 165,000 to 400,000 CFA francs. "Customers can keep them for 10 years with the right care," she explained. "We don't do mass production, we customize all our products because every customer has a different head. That explains the price."
Most salons import their wigs from China or India, where the locks are collected in temples when worshippers shave their heads as religious offerings. These countries have become the world's biggest suppliers of human hair with 2,383 tonnes exported in 2022, an increase of 66% between 2018 and 2022. In Senegal, the value of imports of "feathers, artificial flowers and hair" rose from 145 million to 286 million CFA francs between 2017 and 2021, according to the Agence Nationale de la Statistique et de la Démographie (National Agency for Statistics and Demographics, ANSD).
The Senegalese police are now dealing with multiple cases of hair theft. In September, following a complaint from a victim who had recognized on TikTok the wig plucked from her head a few days earlier, the thieves were arrested. They were in possession of 91 second-hand wigs and were sentenced to three months in prison, with 21 months suspended.
Nevertheless, these cases are difficult to resolve. Despite the CCTV footage delivered to the police when he filed a complaint, Melchisedek Ibrahima, manager of the Perles Hair salon in Dakar's Ouakam neighborhood, has never been able to identify the thieves who targeted him. "On Sunday, July 24, 2022, at around 6 am, neighbors called me because the windows were broken. When I arrived, all the mannequins' heads in my store were naked, the stock had disappeared. We estimated the damage at 14 million CFA [€21,400]," said Ibrahima.
A year and a half later, the store's shelves, decorated with artificial flowers, were once again filled with wigs of all colors and lengths. "We had to start from scratch. But we've stepped up security by hiring a security company," continued the salon manager. "It's all worth it, because, as his colleague Khouma puts it, "a wig salon is now like a jewelry store."