HAIR IS AN INTERGRAL PART OF AFRICAN CULTURE. BEYOND ITS AESTHETIC AND EXPRESSION OF SELF-IDENTITY, HAIR SPEAKS TO IMPORTANT CULTURAL PRACTICES THAT ARE CENTRAL IN RITUALS AND TRADITIONS SUCH AS HAIR SHAVING AROUND DEATH. PEOPLE OF THE XHOSA TRIBE WHO BELONG TO THE NGUNI ETHNIC GROUP SHAVE THEIR HAIR WHEN MOURNING THE DEATH OF A LOVED ONE. THE FACE OF HIMBA TEENAGE GIRLS IS SLIGHTLY COVERED WITH THICK BRAIDS TO HIDE THEIR FACES FROM BOYS. IN THIS ARTICLE, WE TAKE A LOOK AT THE DIFFERENT HAIR PRACTICES OF THE HIMBA, FULANI, MAASAI AND HABESHA PEOPLE.
THE MAASAI PEOPLE OF KENYA AND TANZANIA
The Maasai people are found in Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are believed to be among the tallest people in the world. They speak the Maa language, some are also fluent in Swahili and English, which are official languages in both Kenya and Tanzania.
For the Maasai people shaving hair off is common practice, marking a stage in one’s life or symbolising a change in one’s life. For example at rights of passage, shaving hair symbolises a new beginning for young children.
While women often keep shave heads or wear cropped styles, warriors however braid theirs and spend hours styling it. To make the braids longer they use cotton or wool. Their thinly braided long hair have inspired what we know as a “twist” in modern culture.Once warriors go through the Eunoto ceremony – a four day ritual where they go from being junior warriors to senior warriors or junior elders their mothers shave their heads and decorate them.
THE HIMBA PEOPLE OF NAMIBIA AND ANGOLA
The Himba people of Namibia and Angola are indigenous peoples popularly known for covering themselves with otjize paste – made from butterfat and ochre pigment. This paste works as a cleanser, mosquito repellent and protects them from hot and dry weather conditions. Their diet consists of porridge and on occasion meat.
Similar to other Africans, hairstyles and jewellery indicate age and social status for the Himba people. Infants and small children keep shaved heads or braids – girls usually have two braids plaited towards their face while boys will have one braid plaited to the back. Once they reach puberty the girls get many hair braids – some are deliberately styled to hide their faces from boys. To indicate marital status, young married women with children wear a headpiece.
Black Panther, which showcased and paid homage to many cultures across Africa included Himba braids spotted on one of the elders.
THE FULANI PEOPLE OF WEST AFRICA
The Fulani people are one of the largest ethnic groups found in West Africa and the Sahel region – spread across 20 countries. They make up 20 to 25 million people in total. They speak the Fulfulde language, and among the things they have in common is their culture, religion (most of which are Muslim) and history that includes the Atlantic slave trade.
For Fulani women traditional hairstyles include having long braids that are let loose to hang or can be looped on the sides. They also accessorise their braids and hairstyles with beads and cowrie shells, and apply henna on their hands. Accessorising with silver coins and amber is a particularly important tradition that is passed through generations because it stand as a symbol of heritage.
THE ABYSSINIAN OR HABESHA PEOPLE FROM THE HORN OF AFRICA
The Abyssinian also known as Habesha people of east Africa are a group of people believed to be descendants of the Axumites. They are related, through language, culture and ancestry to other ethnic groups such as the Afar, Agaw, Beja, Somali, Sidama and Hadiya. Many languages are spoken by this group including Tigre, Tigrinya, Amharic, Harari, Gurage and Zay.
Habesha women wear ankle length dresses called habesha kemis. Many of these women, which are mostly Ethiopian and Eritrean also wrap a shawl, around their waist, shoulders and head – particularly when they go to church.
Hair is also an important part to the whole ensemble. Habesha women take pride in their braids. The cornrows are braided very thick, very thin or both thick and thin on only half of the head while the back is left loose with a big afro or curly pattern to complete the look.
Feature image by Gary Frier