Posted on Leave a comment

Culture Tuesdays: Meaning of African Hair Braiding


The bible says it best, there is nothing new under the sun. For women of African descent, hair braiding is nothing new. From the beginning of time, we’ve been wearing braids in our hair in so many styles that can’t even be counted in number. What has changed though is the meaning, hair styles have always been a significant part of Many African cultures. The same way a ring symbolizes marriage in American culture, hair styles signified marriage in some African cultures. Some styles we rock now have been around for centuries, although at times, we think we’re doing something new. I think although people may say “it’s just hair”, I think it’s important to understand the history of our hair to at least appreciate what it has always meant to us. The fact that we have so many thousands of styles is not something to take lightly, think of it as a God given gift that we share with the world through our cultural experiences. Although many traditions are similar throughout Africa and the Diaspora, I think it’s safe to say that hair braiding is one that unifies most Black people on this earth.

Africa is a big continent with 54 countries and over 1000 languages. These cultures in these ethnic groups vary, and the hairstyles uniquely identify each tribe. Braid patterns can indicate a person’s community, age, marital status, wealth, power, social position, and religion.

Historically, specific braid patterns have been done for special occasions like weddings, social ceremonies or war preparations. People belonging to certain ethnic groups can easily be identified by their fellow ethnic group member by their hairstyle or braid pattern. As one article puts it, “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”, and, “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”, interesting.

My experience is Namibia, a country in Southwest Africa, showed me the importance of tradition. The Himba people are some of the only people that still practice their culture as it was before colonialism. The hair patterns of the women signified who they were and their importance in society. I found an article describing the hair patterns of other ethnic groups, check them out:

• 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. (

I say all this to say, even though we may wear hairstyles now that may not have any significant meaning other than looking beautiful and doing what our hair was created to do, recognize the strength and meaning behind why it has been done before. Let’s take pride in our hair and hairstyles, and realize that it is a representation of who we are!

Leave a Reply