Braiding is the oldest form of hairstyling. Africans have been known to braid hairstyles as far back as early 1800’s. Women (and some men) wore their hair in different braided styles for different reasons. It is considered an aspect of personal grooming and fashion. Braids specially hold certain practical, cultural, and popular considerations which is often depicted in the braiding designs.
The culture of braiding began with the mothers making simple knots and braids for their younger children. As this is been done, older children watch and learn the process from them and start practicing within themselves and on their younger siblings, and eventually they learn the traditional styles of braiding. This was then carried on as a tradition of bonding between elders and the new generation- passed down from generation to generation.
As early as in the stone age, some regions used braids as a means of communication. It was used to give a great deal such as whether one is married, single or of the age of courtship or if in mourning. At a glance one could be able to get such information by merely observing.
Braiding is traditionally a social art. This is because of the time it takes to braid hair and so that time is used to discuss and share stories while braiding.
Braids were also a means of social stratification that is to say it was used to make distinction between class in the society. Also to differentiate between tribes and culture as certain hairdos were distinctive to particular tribes or nations.
In many African tribes, hairstyles are unique and used to identify each tribe. Other styles informed others of an individual’s status in society. In Nigeria, women from different parts of the country wore distinct hairstyles such that one could easily say where they were from.
For instance, the igbo women wore their hair in loose braids or threaded knots popularly known as ‘Isi Owu’ which is sometimes done more elaborate with ornaments. According to Ukpuru (a document of Igbo history) ” Women of the time used ornaments like thread, feathers, shells, bone, wood, beads, Igbo currency, coins, or cloth; mud containing colourful ores, yellow and red camwood powder or paste and palm oil and charcoal were also used.”
The Yoruba people believed hair had a certain spiritual value and so they only allowed braiding within themselves mostly family members. They strongly believed children born with dreadlocks possessed divine powers. It is believed that the goddess Osun was the first hairdresser and as such, her priestesses wore the most elaborate styles adorned with a range of ornaments including cowries.
The Fulani/Hausa hairstyles were said to have originated from Senegal. The senegalese women decorated their hair with beads and other accessories. Since they had a nomadic lifestyle, their hair styles was widely spread out to other west African states including Nigeria. The Fulani women wore their hair in an “architectural design” that was only known within them and gradually became a common trend. It is said that the Fulani way of braiding encouraged hair growth too.
In recent times, many hairstyles have originated from ancient ways, some of which are very trendy and in fashion. Even the international scene, African braids always standout and are always popularly admired.