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Cultural Significance of Braiding in African Tribes

written by: Deepa Venkitesh • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 6/6/2012

Braids are a part of the tribal customs in Africa. The braid patterns signify the tribe and help to identify the member of the tribe. The cultural significance and roots of braiding can be traced back to the African tribes. There are many interesting beliefs associated with braids.

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    Hair Braiding in African Culture

    Braids are regarded as a cultural trait of the African people, and they can also be a fashion statement. The history of African tribes and the cultural significance of braiding is deep and long.

    Africa is a large continent, which consists of innumerable tribes. The Massai and Zulu are among the primary tribes. Others include:

    • Afar
    • Anlo-Ewe
    • Amhara
    • Ashanti
    • Bakongo
    • Bambara
    • Bemba
    • Berber
    • Bobo
    • Bushmen
    • Chewa
    • Dogon
    • Fang
    • Fon
    • Fulani
    • Himba
    • Ibos
    • Kikuyu
    • Pygmies
    • Samburu
    • Senufo
    • Tuareg
    • Wolof
    • Yoruba

    These tribesTribal girls  have varied cultures, and the hairstyles are unique and used to identify each tribe. Braid patterns or hairstyles indicate a person’s community, age, marital status, wealth, power, social position, and religion.

    Elaborate patterns are done for special occasions like weddings, social ceremonies or war preparations. People belonging to a tribe can easily be identified by another tribe member with the help of a braid pattern or style.

    Immense importance is given to the custom of braiding. The person who braids hair performs it as both a ritual and a social service. It is an art form taught by the senior female member of the family to her daughters and close friends. The person who braids well is considered an expert. The man or woman who braids does it as a social duty. No rewards are expected.

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    Examples of Tribal Braiding

    • The Mangbetu women plait their hair and arrange it around a cone-shaped basket frame. They decorate it with bone needles.
    • The Miango women cover their braids with scarves and decorate with leaves.
    • The Massai belong to South Kenya and Tanzania. They like red and use this color to dye their hair. The men usually braid their hair and stiffen it with animal dung. The boys who are entering the stage of youth spend hours or days to have their hair braided. Each design is innovative.
    • Cornrow braids are the most popular. The braids indicate cultural traditions. The patterns are handed down through the generations.
    • Himba women make an ointment from red ochre, butter, ash and herbs. The ointment is applied on braids. They are considered the most striking among all tribal women.
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    The Importance of Hair

    It is believed that if a woman has thick hair, she will have many children, farms and riches.

    Loose hair indicates filth, untidiness or mourning. A member of a tribe is not allowed to have loose hair as it is generally not regarded as appropriate. This belief is also shared by the Hindus of India. Hair is let loose only during death ceremonies.

    The official groomer of the family is usually the oldest member. The younger generations look on while the braids are done and practice it on others who are willing. The items used for braiding include palm oil or shea butter or argan oil. The oil is basically used to guard the hair from extreme heat. The act of braiding can last for several hours or days.

    A well groomed person is considered healthy and well mannered, and the social customs encourage braids. Well done braids help in attracting a partner during ceremonies. As fire and fire dances are typically a part of social ceremonies, a practical aspect of braids is that it keeps the hair away from fire.

    Modern immigrants have revived the custom of braiding, which was lost due to slave trade to a certain extent. The immigrants who hail from Guinea, Cameroon, Mali, Benin and Togo use the latest hair products and synthetic or human hair available in the market to braid, and appointments are readily available through online booking centers. The descendents of immigrants are often encouraged to sport braids and not let go of the traditional customs of African tribes.

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    Commonly Shared Beliefs Among Tribes

    Some common beliefs associated with hair among the tribal people are:

    1. Hair should be cut on a full moon day for it to grow longer.
    2. Two people are not allowed to braid a person’s hair at the same time. It could result in the death of one groomer.
    3. Pregnant women should not braid others hair.
    4. A boy’s hair should not be cut before he comes of age.
    5. Hair caught in a brush should be burnt to avoid black magic spells.
    6. Women should not cut men's hair.
    7. It is unlucky to thank the groomer.
    8. Hair should not be combed or braided in the open.

    Hair should be covered during menstruation, which is associated with the belief that the head is the closest to the divine God. Menstruation is considered an unclean period of time, so women cover their heads with scarves.

    Braiding is considered a reciprocal act among members of the tribe. It establishes a bond of friendship and brotherhood among members of a tribe. The culture of the tribe is continued from one generation to the next through such customs.

    These tribal customs convey the cultural significance of braiding and other rituals of African tribes to the rest of the world.

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    Reference and Image Source

    1. Tribes and People Groups, " African People & Culture", africaguide.com, http://www.africaguide.com/culture/tribes/index.htm

    2. African Cultural Center, USA "Tribes", http://www.africanculturalcenter.org/5_1tribes.html

    2. ValerieK, "About Massai tribe- African Art", African Art, http://www.africanartguru.com/african-american-products/142-about-massai-tribe-african-art/

    3. Image: Young girls from Grand-Bassam by Emile Bayard under Public Domain

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