She first started braiding hair in high school to earn a few bucks for lunch.
Now, Sunielia Tom is reviving her hair-braiding skills to teach her 13-year-old daughter Mahana Sijp the same trade.
But it’s not for lunch money. Tom is helping motivate her daughter into an entrepreneur, a young woman who can be independent enough to make something for her own future.
“I learnt to braid at school in Melbourne, Australia,” says Tom. “I was doing it for five bucks to get lunch money some days. I would do my friends hair into Dutch braids, braids on either side and get paid for it.”
She was the same age as Mahana back then.
Tom’s mother is from Mitiaro and her dad is from Aitutaki; she brought her family of six home to Cook Islands 10 years ago.
Her three boys attend Apii Avarua, and Mahana is a student at Nukutere College.
In February this year, their family took a trip to the Gold Coast, Australia. Mahana wanted her hair braided with synthetic hair.
“She saw it and she really wanted it. It was $75 and expensive,” Tom laughs.
“And when she said she wanted to learn I told her I knew how to do that. I taught her and she liked it. She was learning and has ended up being really good at it.”
When the family returned, they embarked on a new business strategy, one they thought they would test at the Punanga Nui Market.
The mother and daughter hair-braiding style has been welcomed and seems to be the next big thing for young tourists and Cook Islanders.
Three weeks they’ve been going now, and the duo is excited about showing off their new skills and giving a new look to young people’s hair.
Tom says they began with just taking donations and were not sure what their price should be.
“We found that maybe we should keep doing this. And now every Saturday, we do it at the market behind our candy floss stall and it ended up booming with more tourists coming through.”
The cost of the braids depends on the length of the hair.
They have also introduced hair-wrapping where they provide the beads and wrap and last Saturday they used wool instead of synthetics.
The possibility of opening a shop for the hair braiding business is in the pipeline, but Tom is looking at continuing at the market for now.
She has had people message her on Facebook and call her for their children’s hair to be done for the day or for an event.
“I never thought I would be doing this now. Back then it was casual lunch money. But, Mahana wanted to do something with it, she learnt it and I thought why not make something out of it.”
She said as Mahana grasps the technique of hair braiding and more new styles, she is proud of her daughter.
“I wanted her to be independent and to be an entrepreneur, she’s only 13 and I want her to build her strengthen in the business area and be self-employed.
“At least she knows she can be independent”.
Tom advices young people to showcase their skills and talents and don’t be shy.
She also called on parents to help their children put their talents out into the world.
“If they got something they are interested in, come out and push it forward. Let’s go local.”