Updated: Jul 28, 2021
While many of us change our hairstyle frequently, there is a deeper meaning behind many traditional hairstyles. African people have traditionally expressed their tribal affiliation through their hairstyles. Their hair also provided information about their social or marital status. Some tribes believe that hair was the most elevated point of the body and that it could serve as a conduit for spirits to reach the human soul. Hair, therefore, holds spiritual significance for some communities.
With thousands of tribes across the continent and hair textures ranging from wavy to coily, there are endless styles spread across the African continent and diaspora.
In more recent history, certain Black hairstyles were even worn and used to express a political statement. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the USA, the afro, wearing natural hair out, became a symbol for emancipation, pride, and rebellion. Leaders of the movement, such as Angela Davis, have shaped the image of the afro-wearing freedom fighter.
While many wear dreadlocks for style reasons, they generally stand for an expression of an alternative way of life that opposes capitalism and the dominant forms of society. Rastafaris also rock their dreadlocks for religious reasons. They believe that their hair serves as an antennae for connecting to religious inspiration.
The Himba community show how hair is used as a way to express the marital, age, wealth, and rank status through their hairstyles. The hairstyles are created by using butter, goat’s hair, and ochre. Children’s hair is kept shaved, except for a small part on the crown of the head, which is sculpted into one plaited braid for boys and two braids for girls.
Once entering puberty, girls wear dreadlocks. Women ready to get married wear their “dreadlocks” tied back, while married women are able to wear a headpiece (Erembe) made of goatskin. Once married, men cover their hair and only uncover their hair at funerals. Generally, thick and lustrous hair is a symbol for fertility and health.
The Tigray-Tigrinya women, located in Ethiopia and Eritrea, are known for their complicated and filigree braiding skills. Young girls traditionally shave the sides of the head, and the shaved part closes over the years. After marriage and giving birth, the hair will be worn fully braided. The many styles to braid the hair depend on the region and social status.
The men of the Afar are known for their perfectly curly hair. The tribe is located in the Horn of Africa region in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti. Among many hairstyles, the most common are the ‘asdago’ afro styles and the super curly 'dayta' style, where a stick is used to create defined spiral curls. For both styles, goat butter is used to protect the hair from the sun and create the desired shape.
The Fulani are the largest nomadic tribe in the world. They can be found in Africa’s Sahel region, West and Central Africa. Depending on the region, the hairstyle may differ significantly. One of their hairstyles became very popular in contemporary culture among the Black community and was named “Fulani braids.” The hairstyle is based on cornrows on the crown of the head that end in loose braids at the back. Traditionally the style is decorated with cowrie shells, coins, or amber.
The Malagasy women of the 20th century took their hairstyles to another level and have created hairstyles for any occasion and even for different times of the day. Hairstyles do not only represent age or marital status in Malagasy culture, but is adjusted for family celebrations, ritual demonstrations, and other events by all family members. Due to their very diverse community, hair textures vary very much from straight fine hair to curly and coily hair. Rihanna (pictured above),has rocked a Malagasy inspired hairstyle.
Image sources: CHL Hahn, Collection Antje Otto, nationalgeographic.com, https://designyoutrust.com/2017/05/photographer-documented-more-than-1000-intricate-afro-hairstyles-in-nigeria-during-the-1960s-and-1970s/
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