The Original Slay Queens: A Look Inside Traditional Hairstyles in West Africa

In ancient African societies, hairstyles were channels of communication that told about one’s tribe, social status, marital status, spirituality and family background. It is believed in many African cultures that if your hair gets into the wrong person’s hands that person will be able to put the juju on you, so hair braiding and dressing was usually a job that was given to the people’s trusted relatives. Because the hair is at the top of the head and closest to the sky, many Africans believe that hair is a medium that allows you to channel the divine creator.

Ancient Egyptian wig
Ancient Egyptian styles compared to traditional African styles . Similar, right?

Hair jewelry dates back to ancient Egypt, where women wore them to show status and wealth in society. Many of the ancient Egyptians shaved their head and wore wigs made of flax, wool, animal hair, palm fibers and human hair. Slayed to the gawds, honey!! In varying parts of Africa, hair jewelry like beads, cowrie shells, or jewels signaled messages like high spiritual ranking, one was ready for a mate, wealth and status. Some of them are also used for spiritual purposes, like amulets being put inside the hair for spiritual protection.

traditional Igbo style
Traditional Yoruba styles

Fulani traditional hairstyles are very popular, now being worn by many people of color around the world. They are known for their elegant styles, most of them styling braids down each side of the head and with a long braid down or coiffure the middle front. Some of them adorn their hair in round disc shaped metal trinkets that have been passed down for generations.

traditional Fulani woman in Senegal
traditional Fulani style
Fulani woman in Niger
Akan hairstyle, tentacles
Mary of Nsawam, Ghana, wearing tentacles. 2019 by Asiedua’s Imprint

Bantu knots, which originate from the Bantu tribe, traveled with enslaved Africans during the slave trade and are a well known style in today’s day and age.

Bantu knots
Igbo women sporting Bantu knots

Braids were said to have originated in Africa in Namibia centuries ago in 3500 BC. The Himba tribe of Namibia use mud, butter and goat hair to make dreadlocks. The different styles mark different phases of life. If the girls hair is around her face that means she is avoiding male attention. If her hair is back and her face is showing that means she is ready to marry. Women who have been married for a year or just gave birth to their first child add an animal skin headdress to their hair. Young women who are yet to undergo puberty rites wear two long plaits, unless they are twins, which means they will wear one single braid.

Himba tribe girl who is avoiding male attention
Himba tribe woman who is married/ has had first child

The Hamar people of South West Ethiopia, also use butter and clay to create a reddish hue for the dreadlocks they sport.

Edo tribe hairstyle

Through the slave trade, and slavery time, braids became a way for enslaved Africans to communicate secret messages and escape routes to freedom.

Columbian woman getting her hair braided at
Tejiendo Esperanzas’ (Knitting Hope ) festival celebrating Afro-Columbian heritage and the 1851 end of slavery.

Although the meanings differ in varying parts of Africa, the influence of these traditional styles in today’s hair fashion is undeniable. In all parts of the world, from the Americas to the Caribbean, the legacy of African hairstyles continue to make its mark in developing the next generations of Slay Queens! What is your favorite traditional African or African inspired hairstyle? Comment below!

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