A bit of history is never harmful!

Modern day replica of a West African hairstyle Source

 We thought long and hard about how we were going to kick off Fro’stoppin February. We want it to be a month in which we can all leave feeling proud of our natural hair and understanding a little bit more about how to take care of it and enjoy it! So we thought the best place to start would obviously be at the very beginning (Julie Andrews spoke sense)…so lets get started!

To fully grasp the issues that many people face with afro textured hair, it’s essential to go back to the roots – well, as far back as possible.

Generally in pre-colonial Africa, a person’s social status, wealth, religion and age was often immediately evident by just a simple look at their hair. The grooming of hair among both men and women was regarded as an essential part of one’s life; the better kept one’s hair was, the more respected he/she tended to be. In contrast, much like today, a lot of negativity such as being unclean or mentally deranged went hand in hand with uncared for hair.

Pharaoh’s children wore a distinctive plait on the
right side of the head, Egypt Source

Men at annual celebration in Tiker quarter, Cameroon Source

Women especially took time to design hairstyles that would signal the crucial stages of their lives, these included puberty, fertility and marital status. The various ceremonies that revolved around these special milestones required a more than polished appearance to go with it.

A puff back in the day Source

Another elaborate hairstyle Source

Appearing in public with admirable hairstyles required much time and expertise. The female head of a household had the chief responsibility of taking care of all other females in the home (this included their hair). The skills were often passed down generations and a long client list often came out of excellent hair craftsmanship. Decorations combs, beads and shells were used for these works of art; some combs even had a story behind them - click here to marvel at pictures of combs from countries across the continent (Angola, Congo, Ghana, Zambia, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Mozambique, and DRC).

Women also took advantage of their ‘grooming time’ to socialise and create and/or strengthen relationships with other women within their communities and also learn from or share their experiences. This cultural practice across societies was also a useful tool in maintaining the togetherness of community beliefs and non-hair related practices. A ritual that you could say goes on in many hairdressers today, although the conversation will most likely be how shocking it was Romeo was kicked out of Celebrity Big Brother rather than what it takes to be a good wife!

Caring for hair in Grand Bassam, Côte d’Ivoire Source

Products used to care for afro textured hair in the pre-colonial era was nowhere close to what we see in hair shops these days. The four essential processes (shampooing, oiling the scalp, moisturising the hair and protecting it front he sun) were dealt with by using simple products:

1. Wash – soap (e.g. black soap in West Africa)

2. Scalp care – oil (e.g palm oil again in West Africa) 

3. Moisturise – shea butter 

4. Protection – oil (e.g. Argon for protection)

Of course, depending on the region and the type of hair (e.g. more or less kinky/coily…) there will be variations of products however these four simple steps made up the basis of hair care.

It’s interesting to see that not much has changed over the centuries, essentially our hair is still used as a form of expression and has a way of bringing community members together. The only thing that’s different now is that not all of us are seeking to turn our kinks and coils into works of art. In the next post we’ll be taking a quick look at afro-textured hair post-colonialism when the big ol’ afro reigned supreme!…kinda.

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