After attempting to study medicine in her home country, Bianu-Ntamba “Espe” Binta’s career took a turn when her sister saw her talent for hair and make-up, and moved her to Cape Town to pursue a career in the beauty industry.
Now she is a successful hairdresser specialising in weaves, dreadlocks and other forms of hair extensions at Jabula in the city centre, and has aspirations to eventually open a salon of her own.
Espe grew up in the Congo and pursued her studies as a doctor but it didn’t work out the way she planned.
“Studying in Congo is difficult. There are politics in colleges and universities and I ended up staying at home because we had no lecturers for long periods at a time.”
But even then, Espe had been playing hairdresser and make-up artist for the girls in her community at home.
“My sister who had moved to Cape Town saw my skills and she fetched me to live with her to study beauty therapy. There were more opportunities in Cape Town at the time.”
She arrived in Cape Town in 2004 not knowing how to speak English but determined to learn.
“I stayed at home for a year to attend classes to learn to speak English because I only spoke French,” says Espe who then did a beauty course where she learnt some hairdressing and how to give manicures, pedicures and massages.
She landed a job at Jabula soon afterwards but only knowing how to properly relax hair and blow-dry it.
“This is where I learnt everything I know. I started plaiting braids, which was very popular at the time. I also learnt to do dreadlocks for all types of hair.”
Espe said the most difficult thing to learn when she first started was how to weave hair.
“I could plait hair, but plaiting it the right way, and then learning to use the curved needle and wool to sew it in (was difficult) – we don’t have curved needles or thick wool where I come from. But now, it’s my favourite thing to do. It’s quick and has become very popular.”
She said when she first started, she used to braid lots of hair but now weaves have become more popular.
She said in the past weaves and braids were seen as a “black thing”, but her client base has now grown to mostly coloured and even white people.
“It was particularly difficult for me to plait coloured people and white people’s hair, but I learnt to do it, because I have so many customers of colour now. People who can’t manage their hair or don’t have the full hair they would like, they come to me to get weaves.”
She said she was privileged to learn how to do hair of all types and textures, and attributes this to the fact that she works in the city centre.
“If I had to work in say Khayelitsha, I would have little experience with other types of hair. The same if I had to work on the Cape Flats. In town, everyone passes through, and they pop in here to do their hair. It’s convenient for customers, and we meet all kinds of people.”
She said even tourists visit their salon. “I get lots of tourists from Europe and America. They love braiding their hair and going back home to show that they were in South Africa. Men come in here too. They have dreadlocks and braids done. Extensions are not just a thing for women anymore.”
Espe said when she first moved to Cape Town and started working in the city centre 12 years ago, she felt safer, as there were not as many protests and xenophobic attacks. “Now, with the protests and strikes, it is a bit scary for us foreigners, and when it happens, it’s also bad for business because customers are scared to come to town.”
But otherwise she loves working in the city centre because it is convenient. “You get everything in the city. You can go clubbing after work in Long Street, there are shops and a mall. It’s good to be near to everything,” says Espe.