After a brief conversation on cultural appropriation and what our African hair and hairstyles mean to us, it is important to note how ancient African hair has inspired the hair we wear today.
Different braiding styles, dreadlocks, bantu knots, cornrows and other hair styles all have their history rooted in Africa from different tribes. Although many don’t pay attention, its interesting to know where exactly these styles originated from and what they meant at the time.
The Fulani braids we all know and love today actually originated in West African in the Sahel region. The style consisted of braids which mainly hung at the sides and was adorned in different beads and shells. Sometimes, girls would attach silver coins which were passed down from generations to their hair.
Beauty is a very important part of the Fulani culture with their elaborate hair and dress, not only for women but men too. Beauty contests for men are held within this tribe and judged by women. With their sheer outward beauty, it is easy to see why their hair is an important aspect of that.
The Himba tribe of Namibia are known all over the world for their hair and bodies being dressed in a mixture which creates a red clay, giving off a almost ochre tone. This red tone has become iconic of Africa and is not only used for beauty, but it also acts as a natural sun protectant and insect repellent. The clay is said to symbolize the earth and what it has given, while the red color is seen to symbolize the blood of life. The way a Himba’s hair is worn is dependent on their age, gender, and marital status. For instance, men do not adorn themselves in red ochre, only the women do that. Looking at is, it is simple to see what modern hair style the Himba have inspired; dreadlocks and faux locs. Although popular belief states the dreadlock started in Jamaica with the Rastafarian, when you look at the Himba, you notice how this ancient technique – sometimes still used today – has inspired these hairstyles.
The Mbalantu tribe of Northern Namibia – sometimes known as the ‘braided rapunzels’ due to the length of their hair – wore their hair long and proud. As depicted in the image above, their hair would be worn in what today would be referred to as ‘box braids’ which would run all the way down to their ankles. Their hair was not only an ornament, but illustrated which stage of their life they were in. Beginning at adolescence, the Mbalantu would prepare young girls’ hair for what is to come by first applying a paste which would accelerate hair growth over the years, it is then kept in thick, long, ‘eembuvi’ braids when they are 16 – before their initiation ceremony until the braids would finally be arranged into a beautiful headdress. Hair for Mbalantu girls was very important as it symbolized what stage in life they were in and where they were to go, although now box braids are used as a protective style and mainly for decoration, they hold a deep and special history for Namibia.
This popular hairstyle dates back all the way to 3000 BC in Ethiopia where cornrows were worn to illustrate what tribe you belong to, your social status, ethnicity, and overall general identity. In Ethiopia, cornrows were worn by kings and warriors to show their powerful status. These braids could be done in different patterns with intricate details and ornaments such as shells used to decorate them – forming a part of their self-expression. The cornrows are similar to Ghana braids with the exception that the latter begin with natural hair and then extensions are ‘fed-in’ to make the braid thicker as you go. During slavery, these braids were used to hide rice granuals and send messages to each other with their intricate patterns which slave masters would not understand.
African hair and hairstyles are not only beautiful to look at, but also hold much cultural meaning. Our hair has not only aesthetic value, but cultural too. A style which you may think is recent has most probably been taken from a traditional tribe in ancient Africa which may still be doing it today. Our hair is not something to be ashamed or afraid of, it is something to be celebrated. It holds history. It holds meanings. It portrays our identity.