Hair as Heritage Series: Hair as Commemoration & Celebration

Hairtage Series Part 1: Hair as Commemoration & Celebration

By Janine Jellars

Introduction

Hair in African culture provides a marker for many ceremonies – it’s part and parcel of how we celebrate and commemorate important milestones and significant events. From puberty, initiation and coming of age, to marriage, and accompanying our loved ones to their final resting places, hair is a signifier not only for the participants, but for the greater community. As modern African women, we often see these traditions as norms that have ‘always been done’, but they play an important part in our greater story as Africans. Across the continent, different cultural groups and tribes have found various ways to express their milestone moments through hair. And you’ll be surprised at just how much of this heritage is shared! 
 

From boys to men – and girls to women

Initiation ceremonies are an important rite of passage, in which children – boys and girls – cross over into adulthood. For some, this happens at the start of puberty, but this isn’t always the case. Hair plays an important role for young men in signifying their transition into manhood across various cultures.

In Maasai culture, the mother of a male initiate is responsible for shaving his hair in the Eunoto ceremony. This ceremony marks the start of him taking on the role of adulthood[1]. This tradition isn’t anything new to southern Africans. In Xhosa culture, during ulwaluko, the initiation process, one of the markers of male initiates is the shaved head as they’re expected to remove their hair to signify the end of boyhood and the start of manhood.[2]. In some African cultures, this kind of ceremonial shaving is not limited to boys.

For the Chewa in Malawi, during the Chinamwali ceremony – the initiation ceremony for girls – when a girl hits puberty, she is confined for 7 days and counselled by elder women on various topics related to womanhood[3]. The initiation is considered complete when the girl leaves the house after being shaven of all hair, including pubic hair.[4]
 

Hair marks marriage

Culturally, hair can also be used as a marker to show that women are now married. This is often a transition from more elaborate hairstyles to more subdued, conservative styles.
For the Hamar people in Ethiopia, married women style their hair in a braided bob, that’s coloured red by using a dye made from water, fat and red ochre. These short braids are called ‘goscha’ – they also have an aesthetic purpose and show that the woman is healthy and well taken care of[5].

The Dassanech tribe, also in Ethiopia, also place a large importance on how hair can differentiate young girls from married women. Traditionally, single women wear elaborate hairstyles. Women who are married, but not yet mothers, have short, shaved hair, while women who are married and have children have their hair styled with a row in the middle[6].

The Tsemay, or Tsamai, people also differentiate unmarried women from married women. Unmarried women generally have shorter hair, while married women have long braids covering the neck and shoulders[7].
 

Hair shows we’re in mourning

Tonsuring – the act of shaving one's head to show piety – isn’t anything new in cultures and traditions across the world. It’s also been used in the mourning rituals amongst people in Africa for hundreds of years. Hair is considered a symbol of life, shaving it off signifies death and re-growth is seen as a strengthening of life[8]. In many African cultures, removing hair shows a removal of an old identity or old way of being. Death is also not viewed as ‘the end’, but rather a transition into a new state of being for the deceased[9].

In southern Africa, Ndebele, AmaZulu, Basotho and AmaXhosa, all practice shaving of their heads after burying a loved one – those close to the deceased are expected to shave their heads. In Zulu culture, the hair along with clothing items belonging to the deceased, is burnt[10]. For widows in eastern Nigeria, shaving their heads is a part of mourning practices as well, but this has increasingly been criticised as it’s seen as a cruel act meted out by the late husband’s family[11].
 

Conclusion

Hair – or lack thereof – is a powerful symbol marking important transitions in our lives. These transitions can be into adulthood, into marriage and our journey into the afterlife.

This part of our hair heritage binds us across borders and is one more piece in the puzzle of the dynamism of African culture – and why our hair can never be ‘just hair’.


References:  
[1] https://www.theafricangourmet.com/2018/12/three-african-tribes-ceremonies.html
[2] The psychological significance of shaving hair as a ritual during mourning within the Ndebele culture by Zanele Margaret Tshoba (MA in Clinical Psychology, Unisa)
[3] https://www.corpsafrica.org/blog/culture-and-tradition-a-21st-century-chewa-woman
[4] https://www.corpsafrica.org/blog/culture-and-tradition-a-21st-century-chewa-woman
[5] https://www.exploring-africa.com/en/ethiopia/hamer/clothing-hairstyles-and-body-modification-hamer
[6] https://www.exploring-africa.com/en/ethiopia/dassanech/body-modification-and-hairstyles-dassanech
[7] https://www.exploring-africa.com/en/ethiopia/tsemay/tsemay
[8] The psychological significance of shaving hair as a ritual during mourning within the Ndebele culture by Zanele Margaret Tshoba (MA in Clinical Psychology, Unisa)
[9] The psychological significance of shaving hair as a ritual during mourning within the Ndebele culture by Zanele Margaret Tshoba (MA in Clinical Psychology, Unisa
[10] The psychological significance of shaving hair as a ritual during mourning within the Ndebele culture by Zanele Margaret Tshoba (MA in Clinical Psychology, Unisa)
[11] http://www.davidpublisher.com/Public/uploads/Contribute/55b0567f39cf5.pdf