Lots of White folks don't realize how Black hair works. We regularly meet folks in the states that think that Mo's hair either grows really fast, or actually grows in already braided (or "plaited" in some parts of the world, including here in TZ.) When I was in high-school I wanted to go to school to do Black hair but somehow ended up in computers. ;) I taught my little niece how to braid years ago in Zimbabwe. I can braid decently, but I'm not good at cornrowing. Mostly I take Mo's hair out (remove the braids) which can take two or three hours depending on the size.
Folks can just cornrow their hair by starting a braid and using the next little bit of hair farther back on the head to start the next bit of braid, so you're braiding against the hair. If your hair is straightened and healthy, you can braid it alone, but most people like to add extensions to their natural hair because most hair isn't thick or near long enough to support some of the more complex braid styles. Adding hair also takes the pressure for supporting the braids off your own hair. Extensions can be synthetic or natural; it's largely a religious argument, but a $2 pack of braids can often look as nice as the most expensive human hair. Human hair purchased for braiding black hair is often grown by Asian folks because of it's straightness and smooth texture. When buying synthetic hair some folks are careful to buy flame retardant hair - something to watch for.
Braiding or plaiting with extensions is basically weaving the human hair along side the added hair until they aren't easily distinguished. Typically the person's real hair stops somewhere in the middle of the braid and the extensions finish the rest of the length. The ends can be left un-braided or they can be held with small rubber bands. It's also popular to either boil the tips in hot water or - if it's synthetic hair - burn the tips with matches until the hair melts, thereby holding the braid together and preventing the whole style from unraveling. Black hair works much better for braiding than white because of the hair's texture. Black hair tends to be "textured" in such a way that the braids have something to grip, while many white folks have oily or slicker hair that braids can slip out of.
Mo always likes to get her hair done towards the end of trip whenever we're in Africa. In the states, depending on what you're having done, braids can cost over a hundred bucks. Also, unless you have a regular person you trust, you can get unreliable results. Good singles (smaller braids) should last at least 6 weeks and some folks can stretch them for a few months depending on how fast their hair grows. We came to TZ with Mo's hair in braids that were a month or so old, and since her hair has been growing, like artificial fingernails, you can see the "new growth" near the scalp and that makes the braiding look more obvious. At this time it's good to start over. Last night the girls took her hair out using nails and toothpicks to unbraid each one at a time. When they are all our her hair is combed, her scalp washed and greased (Black folks often have very dry skin, unlike my personal oil-producing nation, I mean, scalp).
Ideally we'd have taken her hair out a month ago and "let it breath" naturally before braiding it again, but we're only here another week and we want to cross this off our list of things that need done. Good braids virtually encompass all the hair in an artificial sheath and it can be hard on hair. Additionally, since the extensions are adding weight to the hair (and head) the roots need to be very strong, otherwise an entire braid can rip out, either at the root or, if poorly tied or tied to hair that's too short, just slip off near the root. Many folks like to get their hair straightened using chemicals before braiding, but Mo usually avoid chemicals and just has braids added to her natural hair.
The braider today charged TSH25,000 (about US$20) for very small singles, smaller than Mo usually gets done because in the states it's so very expensive. The smaller the braid, the more money it costs. With really small braids it can take from six to even twelve hours to do it all in one sitting. Often two or more girls work on the head at once. With my carpal tunnel-like symptoms, I can't personally do nice singles anymore.
I'm personally looking forward to doing Z's hair, although since he's mixed, his curls are much looser and softer and his hair will require significantly different maintenance. Everyone's different!
Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. I am a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.