Hair braiding: Opening a second home with Nita’s Unique African Braid

Nita Unique African Braid Anita Tarpeh is the owner of Nita's Unique African Braid Shop in Des Moines, which is open six days a week.

No matter where Anita Tarpeh is she’s able to work.

Braiding hair is something she’s been doing since she was a little girl growing up Liberia. But because of a civil war in 2004, Anita found herself in a refugee camp where she would take advantage of a visa program to come to the United States—but leave her family in Africa.

Since leaving Liberia in 2004, she would live in New Hampshire, Minnesota, Virginia and Tennessee before putting down roots in Iowa in 2012.

But regardless of where she was and what her full-time job might have been throughout those years, she would always be braiding hair.

“Back home we do hair,” Anita says. “Especially when we are going to school we have to get our hair done. So you learn from each other, you do your sister’s hair and she does your hair. It just became part of me and at 16, 17 years old I was doing hair, so when I came over here, it’s just something I started to do.”

Despite several setbacks—including being a single mother of five children—Anita would save money until 2014 when she officially opened Nita’s Unique African Braid Shop on the North side of Des Moines in 2015.

Anita is the first in a series of stories this month focusing on the diversity in Iowa’s tech, startup and art communities.

Here’s her story:

Starting from her living room

Nita Unique African Braid
Anita Tarpeh opened her own hair braiding shop at 2901 Douglas Avenue in Des Moines all with her own savings. But getting to this point took her over a decade and to five states.

Up until 2016, the State of Iowa required anyone who wanted to do natural hair braiding to have a cosmetology license, which requires 2,100 hours of training that was mostly unrelated to braiding.

And that training cost money.

“So I decided to just get a business permit to be able to do something even though it was not legal to do hair, they gave me a paper to do hair,” Anita said laughing.

Anita said initially she would work out of her home—which is a common practice for hair braiders.

She would open her own shop in 2015.

“It’s like a second home,” she says. “You have bills here and bills at home, it’s hard. But when you love doing something you just do it.”

Anita says everything in her store is paid for through her own savings, no financing.

“Because I don’t have a loan, if I make $50 I have to see if I can take some for my kids, some for the bills and share that,” she explains. “Then I’ll buy more product, so it will take awhile to get that.”

Getting her own shop

Nita Unique African Braid
An example of some of the braiding work Anita Tarpeh does at her shop in Des Moines. Photo courtesy of Anita Tarpeh.

Patience is key to being a good hair braider Anita says.

“If you don’t have it you don’t do it,” she says.

Somedays she will come in as early as 8 a.m. and leave as late as midnight, six days a week; Standing in one spot.

“I just go from next to next,” she says.

But it beats the alternative because shortly after arriving in Des Moines in 2012 to help her sister, she was kicked out and had no place to live. She would take over a lease on a house but then be kicked out days later by the landlord.

Anita said her and two of her kids slept in her car for a week in 2012.

“One day we were at the bus stop and my hands were so cold, I couldn’t even push the stroller,” Anita says. “A pastor came by and offered to drop us at home.

“But now we don’t have to wait at the bus stop.”

Anita looks at her journey and believes that she is equal parts lucky and blessed.

And now she’s trying to give back.

“When God blesses you I believe you need to bless someone else,” Anita says. “I know what it’s like going through without eating, drinking and sleeping in the cold.”

She hopes to make a trip back to her home country of Liberia in Africa to visit her family, who she hasn’t seen since leaving in 2004.

“Two weeks ago I went down to see if I could get a passport and on the way down I started seeing homeless shelters and I just cried,” Anita says, as she begins tearing up. “Each day I work and I save.”