Tupelo braider uses craft to help Africans

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com Melony Armstrong retightens Patricia Powell's sisterlocks Thursday afternoon at Naturally Speaking, the braiding salon owned and operated by Armstrong on Main Street.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Melony Armstrong retightens Patricia Powell’s sisterlocks Thursday afternoon at Naturally Speaking, the braiding salon owned and operated by Armstrong on Main Street.

By Stephanie Rebman

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Melony Armstrong is working hard to fulfill her dreams.

It all started 15 years ago when she opened Naturally Speaking salon on West Main Street. Then it continued in 2005 after the Tupelo resident successfully lobbied for legislative change for her salon and hair braiders statewide. Now she is bringing economic empowerment to women in Africa.

In addition to running a salon, Armstrong, 47, is also co-pastor of Kingdom Seekers with her husband, Kevin. This spring she joined a Masters Touch Ministries mission group and visited Nigeria, Benin and Togo, all in West Africa.

“The purpose was to go in and empower them with water pumpers and health care, so we were able to pass out medicine and vitamins,” Armstrong said. “We also supplied a clinic with an ultrasound machine. None of the people who came to the clinic had been able to get that type of prenatal care.”

While health care was a primary focus for the group, Armstrong had a mission of her own.

“One of my dreams in all of this was to be able to plant hair braiding schools in Africa. One of the main reasons is to empower the African women economically,” she said.

She planned to use her economic and political background to try to start the schools so African women can achieve some of her same successes.

Back in 2004, any hair braider in Mississippi had to have a cosmetology license to work at her salon – even though hair-braiding was not taught in cosmetology school. She filed a lawsuit in 2004 and worked with the nonprofit Institute for Justice in Washington, D.C. In 2005, the law was changed and hers was the first licensed salon of its kind in the state.

Still active in politics, Armstrong recently testified before a congressional small business committee about overbearing government regulations.

“Because of so many regulations and stipulations Congress puts on small businesses, it actually has a reverse effect,” she said, “not just on my business but on so many businesses.”

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com Armstrong uses a hook tool to retighten Patricia Powell's sisterlocks Thursday afternoon at Naturally Speaking.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Armstrong uses a hook tool to retighten Patricia Powell’s sisterlocks Thursday afternoon at Naturally Speaking.

While in Africa, she made connections and was asked to start her first hair-braiding school in Togo.

She said there were two extremes the mission group visited – those in the bush and then the ultra-rich. But in the bush, she said, “they’re so happy that you’re there – they’re so happy people would come to aid them.”

“My favorite part was just connecting with the people,” she said of the mainly French-speaking country. “It wasn’t as hard as I thought it might have been, even with the language barrier. It’s seeing they are just like you are.”

Her first step is to bring some African women to Tupelo to work in her salon. They already have the skills down-pat, but will come and learn to be leaders before going back to train others and operate a business.

“I’ll train them how to work in this environment,” she said. “There in Africa, they would braid on the street, under an umbrella, with someone sitting on a rock. Here I’ll teach them leadership, with them seeing this is a bona fide business.”

There’s also an added economic benefit.

“For the hairstyle I do, I would charge $200. There, the lady charged four U.S. dollars,” she said. “If she would come over here and get paid, she’s then able to send money home to her family. I really see how beneficial it would be to have them here.”

Armstrong hopes the women will arrive this year, and right now they are getting together passports, visas and final government approval for the trip to the U.S.

“A lot of my dreams – you just keep on tucking them away on the shelf,” she said. “I had been wanting to go to Africa for years, then it all fell into place.”

stephanie.rebman@journalinc.com