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Hair Braiding and Styling: Creating a Sense of Community, Agency and Expression

© "Natives Hair Dressing", Zanzibar, Tanzania, late 19th century, A. C Gomes & Sons

"In Oshindonga, a Bantu language spoken in Namibia, ‘panda’ (braid) or ‘okupanda (to braid) also means ‘happy’ or ‘to be happy’, respectively. And that is exactly what braiding hair signifies, happiness. Braids, to us, are more than a fashion statement, they are a symbol of grooming and self care.” Says Nambian photographer Tuva Wolf

In African tribes braiding hair was considered a custom where family members and close friends did each other's hair and the long hours women spent together provided a space for social interactions. Not much has changed, hair salons still provide a central place for women to tend to their appearance, be in the companionship of other women and exchange information.

In African tribes the person who braids hair performs it as a ritual and a social service. In “Hair in African Art and Culture” by Roy Sieber it is referred to “as an art form passed down by the senior female member of the family to her daughters and close friends”, and with hair being an elevated part of one’s body, ancient communities believed that it was a vessel for divine communication. This belief is the reason why hair styling was entrusted to close relatives.

© Children treated to a hair day, Kombat, Namibia, 2019, Tuva Wolf

Braid Patterns As an Indicator of Socio-Economic Status in Tribes

African braiding dates back as far as 3500 BC in Egypt, every region and tribe in Africa has distinct styles of hair braiding that stem from it with symbolism significant to that tribe. The patterns can indicate a person’s community, age, marital status, wealth, power, social position and religion or spirituality.

With over 3000 diverse African tribes, for the purpose of this article I will highlight a few. The Mangbetu, a Bantu tribe formed between 18th and 19th century in the northeastern Democratic Replubic of Congo performed a tradition of skull elongation which is referred to as “Lipombo”, which began a month after a child’s birth and continued for several years. Their cone-shaped braided coiffure (denoting a crown) was held in place by bones shaped like needles. The practice of “Lipombo” was a sign of higher intelligence and a status symbol of majesty, beauty and power among the ruling class. 

The Mangbetu tribe’s hairstyle is quite similar to that of the South African Zulu tribe wherein married women would grow their natural hair and shape it into isicholo to show their status publicly. The custom evolved to weaving a hat (of dried grass intertwined with cotton) into the hair; nowadays the hat is worn separately.

In the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria, the oldest recorded braided hairstyles are the shuku (also referred to as suku ), panumo, agogo and onjopeti, Evidence of these hair braiding methods can be found as far as 2500 years ago. The most extricate shuku styles were originally worn by queens and princesses to distinguish them from the commoners. Also in Yoruban culture, hair threading known as Irun Kiko dating back to the 15th century, was used to depict sociocultural affluence with some of the styles resembling crowns or skyscrapers.

© Kisangani, Congo, 1967Eliot Elisofon

The practice of braiding or grooming hair has always created a sense of community for women, it evolved from from being a custom kept within family structures, to being a communal activity for women from different walks of life to connect. Today there is the development of various grooming trades both formal hair salons and informal street salons where the skill can be self-taught or passed down from one woman to another beyond family structures.

Documentary photographer Dahlia Maubane created a documentary photo series in 2012 called Woza Sisi, the series focused on street hairstylists in Johannesburg and Maputo. She shares her experience in documenting the women, “there is a sense of community, the women work in groups of about 10 members and they have a leader. The leader is responsible for making sure that everything operates smoothly, and represents her members if there are any grievances. The women feel secure together and have a sense of belonging in busy inner city Johannesburg.”

© Johannesburg, South Africa, 2012, Dahlia Maubane

As the structure of these hair braiding communities have evolved to reflect current societies, braid hairstyles have just as well evolved to reflect individual expression rather than social status in developing and developed communities, and although the tribes mentioned here are still in existence, many of their customs have evolved accordingly. 


African Tribes and the Cultural Significance of Braiding Hair,, 

Chioma Nnadi, October 27 2017, This Centuries-Old African Natural Hairstyle Is Staging a Stateside Comeback, 

Cynthia Okoroafor, October 4 2017, Inspiringly Eclectic Hairstyles and Their Origins Across Africa,, 

"Fall in Love with the Shuku hairstyles", January 8, 2017,

Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler, "Design History Beyond the Canon", (7 February 2019), p. 165 

Jessie Wender, March 26, 2013, Distance & Desire: Encounters with the African Archive,, 

Rimanka, February 5, 2019, History of Hair the Ancient Civilizations,; ps:// 

Sieber, Roy and Frank Herreman, “Hair in African Art and Culture.” African Arts vol. 33, No 3 (2000), pp. 54-69. JSTOR, 

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