Photo by Martin Harvey.
A Regional Walk Through The History of African Hair Braiding
From West African Fulani braids to Southern Africa’s Bantu Knots, we explore Africa’s rich history and connection to hair braiding.
Hair braiding has, for centuries, been a pivotal ingredient in building identity and community and representing beauty amongst people around the world. Interlacing three strands of hair together has connected people, cultures, and ideologies, from the French’s intricate braid to the Vikings’ iteration of plaiting. Like all good things, however, strong evidence suggests that braiding originated in Africa. Researchers have traced the earliest artistic depictions of braids to the Venus of Willendorf, a 30,000-year-old female figurine found in modern-day Austria, and France’s cornrowed Venus of Brassempouy, who is estimated to be about 25,000 years old.
African styles of braiding have dominated modern beauty trends amongst Black and African communities for generations. Where the Africans go, so too do their customs, languages, and relationships. The act of braiding has offered African communities opportunities to bond, develop skills, determine status, and pass down traditions, no matter where the world takes them. Though it’s a profession and fashion that tends to be dominated by women, men have had their fair share of fun throughout history. The earliest drawings of braids in Africa were found in Ancient Egypt, dating back to 3500 BC, though Namibia’s Himba people’s red, pigmented strands have been around for as long as they’ve needed to protect themselves from the sun.Regardless of who the first braiders were or where they came from, the practice is rooted in so many distinct and diverse manifestations, many of which are refashioned versions of the styles our ancestors walked around with. In this article, OkayAfrica takes you on a regional journey through Africa’s history of braiding and the many ways the continent has shaped modern-day beauty.
Vintage engraving of a noble of Sudan. Ferdinand Hirts Geographische Bildertafeln,1886.
Stock image via Getty.
Egypt’s well-maintained historical records have permitted researchers to understand much of their practices, including their beauty and hair rituals and trends. Archeologists have discovered remnants of 3000-year-old weave extensions and even multi-colored hair extensions.
Hair, in Ancient Egypt, was a beauty tool used to signify status, age, and gender. Around 1600 BCE, hair braiding amongst women of royalty, nobility, and concubines was adorned with gold, beads, and perfumed grease, while common folk kept to simpler styles necessary to get work done.
In Sudan, young girls adorned mushat plaits, signifying sentimental time spent with matriarchs, and illustrating the poignant role femininity has played in preserving culture and traditions for generations. Back in the day, braiding hair was considered a special ceremonial practice amongst Sudanese women, even holding the braiding “events” on specific days when female neighbors and friends were invited to partake. To prepare for matrimony, brides underwent a multi-day braid-a-thon surrounded by female friends assigned to keep them entertained with chatter and singing—often for two to three days at a time. Tradition called for long, silky, perfume-grease threads, as was necessary for the performance of a bridal dance crucial to the rite of the wedding program.
North Africa’s tendency to associate more with their Arabic heritage, however, has made it difficult to trace their wider relationship with braiding and Afro-textured natural hair.
Maasai people. Men commonly mix ochre and oil to color their hair and skin red. Near Amboseli National Park, Kenya.
Photo by Martin Harvey/stock photo Getty Images.
Braiding’s roots in East Africa have been traced back to 3500 BC, with cornrows (called Kolese braids in Yoruba) maintaining the top spot in popularity for just as long. In Somalia, much of the population follows the Islamic faith, and modernized adaptations of braiding are considered haram, making it a lost art. Historically, Somali women have been recorded donning long, small braids when approaching puberty.
Ethiopia has maintained an admirably close relationship with its traditional forms of braiding. In the Southwestern Omo Valley, the Hamar tribe have perfected their hairstyles as a means to dictate male worth and female marital status. For generations, the tribes have used a mix of fat, water, and red ochre paste to congeal their dreadlocks – and heritage – into place. Former Ethiopian emperors Yohannes IV (1837 - 1889) and Tewodros II (1818 - 1868) are depicted with cornrows, further illustrating the practicality of the style amongst warriors, too.
Albaso braids, popular in both Ethiopia and Eritrea, communicate and categorize different ethnicities and the role they play within society. The remarkable hairstyle is created with seven cornrows, braided straight back, acting as a crown in the front, and a mane of hair left to flow in the back. Ethiopia boasts a plethora of braid styles from the Sheruba style to the Mertu style favored by the Oromo people.
The importance of braids in communicating identity is a rich part of Uganda’s history, too – and unfortunately, the influence of colonialism has had a lasting effect. During the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, enslaved Black African women had their heads shaved by colonialists in their quest to dehumanize, brutalize, and abuse. In 2016, a group of high school students in Kampala shed light on the fact that in many Ugandan schools, Black African girls are still forced to shave their heads – while their non-Black counterparts are not.
In Kenya, the Maasi and Kikuyu tribes have donned their famed matted braids, intricate beading, and gold detailings since at least 1910. Of the 43 tribes (we can account for) each one has its own signature style of wearing and braiding their hair, and those privy to the distinctions can tell which tribe you belong to by sight, though the introduction of artificial hair extensions has inspired some Kenyans to venture off of the beaten path.
While Tanzania’s indigenous Masai tribes have found survival in transitioning to professional hairdressings, some are even ex-warriors.
Young African man from Sierra Leone dancing with plaited hair.
Stock photo via Getty Images.
West Africa boasts an abundance of hair braiding styles, many of which have influenced global Black culture and trends for decades. The Fula people, whose 30 million strong population exists across West Africa, gifted the world with Fulani braids. Traditionally, the style called for five long braids fashioned into loops or left to hang to frame the face, with a coiffure braided into the center of the head. Over time and with the modernization and globalization of communities, however, the braids now manifest in many different ways. Fulani tribeswomen would adorn their braids with silver or gold coins, beads, and cowrie shells, sometimes symbolizing wealth, status, or marital status.
In Ghana, the iconic Banana or Ghana braids have gained favor for their easy application, upkeep, and excellence in providing protection to natural Black hair. The introduction of hair extensions offered Ghanaians the opportunity to devise new ways of presenting the more traditional cornrow that the world has come to love, and each distinct manifestation of Ghana Braids was known to identify one’s religion and social standings. The style of braiding is easily recognizable as the front of the head is braided into small cornrows, before branching out into larger braids that hang off of the head. The first examples of this way of braiding are traced back to hieroglyphics and sculptures found around 500 BC.
Similarly, Nigeria’s rich history of braiding can be traced back to a clay sculpture dated to 500 BCE depicting a cornrowed member of the Nok tribe. Like most of their counterparts, Nigeria’s unique styles of braiding are tied to the matriarchs, as they are the ones to pass the skills down through generations. The women in the Miango tribe have been known to cover their braids with leaves and scarves.
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade’s role in redefining identity and culture in West Africa was arguably the most egregious. When faced with the reality of being enslaved in their own countries, it was the women who created forms of communication and networks through cornrows and certain braids. Evidence suggests that the early fifteenth century is when communities from Wolof, Mende, Mandingo, and Yoruba tribes began to carry messages through certain braid styles.
Traces of Mali’s influence in the history of braiding are found within the Dogon tribe’s momentous archive and close ties to their original way of life. Various religious and spiritual idols depicting cornrowed spiritual leaders, and the retained tradition of The Dama dance have allowed us the privilege of understanding the bewildering society that contributed to our understanding of our universe.
One of Africa’s last remaining indigenous tribes, Sierra Leone’s Mende people, have maintained the same strict standards of beauty that their ancestors lived by. For Mende tribeswomen, hair is closely tied to femininity and is juxtaposed with the way forests grow out of the Earth – the vegetation covering Mother Earth grows skyward the way Afro-textured hair grows out of the head. Hair is to be kept under tight control, and styled in intricate ways in order to communicate beauty, sex appeal, and sanity.
Senegal’s Senegalese Twists or “Rao” as they’re known locally came in vogue as an alternative means of creating individual, long braids – if locs or “box braids” aren’t your style. Pictures from 1884 show us that Senegalese women have stayed close to their original styles where they used Yoss, dried vegetable fibers dyed black before adopting Lebanese brand Darling Hair’s artificial hair extensions as their own. The style stands out as it’s made by mixing two strands of hair together – usually rubbed between fingers or two palms – instead of the usual three. The kinky texture of the hair extensions holds its shape for at least three months and is said to have become ingrained in Senegalese society as it mimics the action of weaving cotton rugs and more – a custom ingrained in their history.
Gambian warriors were known to march off to war with tightly coiled braids, too.
A Mrua (Warua) man from Central Africa. Wood engraving, published in 1891.
Stock image via Getty Images.
In the heart of Africa lies a world of beauty beyond your wildest dreams. The Mangbetu people of the Democratic Republic of Congo became known for their practice of wrapping their skulls into a cone shape from infancy, locally referred to as “Lipombo.” The elongated heads were then adorned with braids plaited into a crowned, basket shape called edamburu. In a testament to the wonder of the human body, the brain is unaffected by this and simply grows with the newly shaped skull. Lipombo was a status symbol among the Mangbetu ruling class – dictating beauty, power, and high intelligence.
Cameroon’s bountiful Fulani community has kept many of their hair traditions well and alive, while the region’s Bantu population participated in the popularity of the now-famed ‘Bantu knots’.
In Chad, the use of the exceptional ‘Chébé powder’ has led to generations of women with hair sure to draw envy. Women of the Basara Arab tribe are known for their thick, long, luscious hair – often plaited into waist-long individual braids. The powdered mix is made from seeds and dried vegetation indigenous to Chad and has been a staple for centuries.
Portrait of a Mumuhuila teenage girl, Huila Province, Chibia, Angola on December 4, 2010 in Chibia, Angola.
Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Art In All Of Us/Corbis via Getty Images.
Southern Africa boasts an abundance of braiding styles that originated in the region. Namibia’s Himba people have gained international recognition for their age-old means of maintaining their hair. The community of pastoralists use various braiding styles – including dreadlocks – to communicate the different phases of their human experience – young girls start out with two small braids that hang from their foreheads, until puberty, for example. Once puberty is reached, long dreadlocks are formed and covered with a mixture of goat hair, red ochre paste, and butter to foster the growth of thick, long, and luscious hair throughout their lives.
The country’s Mbalantu tribe uses eembuvi braids as an initiation into womanhood – our first examples of single braids or “box braids”. Animal fat and grounds of the omutyuula tree have young women achieving ankle-length braids by the time they hit puberty.
In Angola, asking someone to braid their hair is asking them to be friends. Among certain tribes, hair grooming was an activity trusted only by other family members — something that women were taught at a young age and encouraged to participate in throughout their lives to promote womanhood. The origins of the ever-popular Bantu Knots have been traced to the Bantu people who exist across central and Southern Africa. “Bantu” means people and was the term colonialists used to identify over 400 ethnic groups whose languages shared similar characteristics.
South Africa’s “Zulu Knots” are said to be the original manifestation of the style, donned by members of the Zulu Kingdom and its people to symbolize strength and community. As is typical within African culture, the elevated knots were considered spiritual as they are the highest point of the body. South Africa is also credited for the invention of “Box braids”, with evidence of the style being traced back to 3500 BCE. Being able to afford the time and price of the style signified great wealth, accomplishments, and more. The term “Box braids” was coined when American singer Janet Jackson rocked the style in the ’90s.
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