History of African women’s hairstyles

Hair played a vital role in the culture of ancient African civilizations. It symbolized family background, social status, spirituality, tribe, and marital status.

As early as the 15th century, different tribes used hair to show social hierarchy. Members of the royal family wore intricate hairstyles as a symbol of their stature.

Hair was also a symbol of fertility. If the hair was thick, long, and neat, it symbolized that a man could have healthy children. If someone were in mourning, they would pay very little attention to their hair.

Because the hair is at a raised part of the body, ancient communities believed that it aids in divine communication. This belief is the reason why hair styling is entrusted to relatives. People believed that if a strand of hair fell into the hands of the enemy, the hair’s owner could be of harm.

Hair was an essential social activity, especially among women. People were fortunate enough to socialize while styling their hair. The tradition of the communal culture of hair still exists today.

Africa is rich in traditions and ancient hairstyles. Here is the story of extraordinary hairstyles and hair traditions from across the continent.

Dreadlocks from the Himba tribe in Northwestern Namibia

In the Himba tribe, hair indicates age, stage of life, and marital status. The tribe lives in the northwestern region of Namibia.

The tribe members use a mixture of earthy ocher, goat hair, and butter to create their dreadlocks. They also include hair extensions when weaving dreadlocks.

Teenage girls wear braids or dreadlock hair that hang down over their face. Thus, it symbolizes that they have entered puberty.

Married women and new mothers wear Erembe headdresses made of animal skin. Young women ready for marriage tie their dreadlocks to reveal their faces.

Single men wear a single braid to show off their status. Once married, they cover their heads so that they will never be discovered in public again. They remove their head covering only at the funeral.

Braids and beads from the Fulani tribe of the Sahel region and West Africa

The Fula tribe, or Fulani, is the largest nomadic tribe in the world. They populate the Sahel region and West Africa.

The traditional tribal hairstyle is a big trend in contemporary braiding. Stylists called it Fulani braids.

Women braid their hair into five long braids that hang down or loop along the side of the head. They complement the hairstyle with a haircut in the middle of the head. They decorate their hair with beads and cowry shells.

Girls put their family’s silver and amber coins on their braids as a symbol of inheritance. They also add coins and amber for cosmetic purposes. It is a tradition that families have maintained through the generations. 

Braids and beads from the Wodaabe tribe of the Sahel region and West Africa

The Wodaabe tribe is a subgroup of the Fulani tribe that also resides in the Sahel region and West Africa. It is a nomadic pastoral tribe of around 100,000 inhabitants.

The girls and women of Wodaaba use their hair like their Fulani counterparts. Some braids are braided into the hair and add a coiffure in the middle.

They decorate their hair with pearls and cowry shells.

Ochre dreadlocks from the Hamar tribe in Ethiopia

The Hamar tribe is a pastoral community living in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia. The tribe has about 20,000 inhabitants.

Hamar women wear tiny ochre dreadlocks, called goscha, in their hair. They create their dreadlocks by combining water with resin. To add to their distinctive look, women wear jewelry in the form of colorful beads.

Pre-teens wear their hair in cornrows and decorate it with beads.