Here’s a brief history of Africa’s traditional hairstyles and their meaning

Vanessa Calys-Tagoe October 04, 2022
Kenyan women in traditional hairstyle. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/COSV

In fashion, clothes are not the only accessories that make statements; footwear, jewelry, bag, attitude, and personality also do, but most importantly, the hairstyle. A good fashion statement encompasses all the above and prominence is given to both the attire and the hairstyle because hairstyles communicate something.

Over the years, African hairstyles have evolved, made a comeback, and then evolved again. African hairstyles make strong statements and always communicate either a social, ethnic, or religious status. The natural state of African hair allows it to be anything and everything. 

In the past, during the years of slavery, hairstyles were done to store grains of rice in the braids so that when hungry, the slaves can have something to eat. Some slaves also weaved maps using their braids to help them escape. This practice helped keep some slaves alive.

There are various African hair textures throughout the continent, and specific hairstyles have been created for each texture. These haircuts are closely linked to identity and have deep cultural roots. African hairstyles are distinctive, adaptable, and lovely. These unique hairstyles, which range from braids to cornrows and ornamented hair, are a wonderful representation of creativity and art.

In several African communities, hairstyles continue to have social significance. Age, marital status, ethnicity, religion, money, and social standing are all frequently expressed through hairstyles. Another way to recognize a region is by its hairstyle. For instance, young females in Senegal’s Wolof culture would split their hair as an obvious sign that they were not courting. For instance, the Nigerian Karamo tribe was well known for its distinctive hairstyle, which had a shaved head with a single tuft of hair remaining on top.

Similarly, bereaved ladies would neglect their hair throughout their period of grief to avoid appearing alluring to other men. This practice is still very much alive in some African countries as women would shave off their heads when the husband passes on to connote their mourning. Furthermore, the leaders of the community wore extravagant hairdos. The royal family would frequently wear a hat or other headgear as a sign of their importance.

Socially, hair was a sign of fertility. A person’s ability to have healthy offspring was indicated by having thick, long, and tidy hair. People would give their hair very little thought if they were in grief. Today in Ghana, girls from basic school to senior high school are made to cut their hair just like boys to show that not only are they minors, but they are students as well. A few schools, however, give room for girls to have their hair done, but majorly, the first characteristic of a ‘school girl’ is hair down cut. 

Among the Fulani tribe in the Sahel region and West Africa, as a tradition, young girls decorate their braids with amber and silver coins from their families. In addition, they include amber and coins for decorative purposes. Through the decades, families have continued to practice this custom.

Some ancient societies also thought that hair aided in spiritual connection because it was high on the human body. Close relatives were given the responsibility of styling people’s hair because of this idea. People believed that if hair came into the hands of an enemy, the owner of the hair could suffer damage. A common social pastime, particularly for women, involved hair. While styling one another’s hair, people got the chance to interact with one another. Hair is still a part of the social tradition. This practice is still very active in today’s world as it is common to find sisters taking turns to plait each other’s cornrows. 

While healthy hair is of importance today, it is worthy to note that, the cultural way of stretching black hair, threading, continues to be a growing culture as more Africans and black people continue to learn about historical practices and how relevant they can be in today’s world. Threading is a hairstyle, not just a maintenance style in some African countries. 

Culturally and socially, the black woman’s hair remains supreme and versatile as always. Braid weaves, twist-outs, afro, and wash-n-go have become the order of the day promoting the versatility of African and black hair as well as maintaining its cultural and social relevance of it. 

In the past, stigmatization was the devil’s bullet when it came to African hair, but today cultural appropriation is happening. Notwithstanding, the power, versatility, and representation of African hair both culturally and socially can never be ignored and black women everywhere in the world today have proved that.  

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: October 5, 2022


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