The Value of Indigenous Hair-care and Knowledge

Yesterday was a whirlwind day. What began as a by the way conversation with someone at the office turned into something with infinitely more possibilities.

As a gender activist, I apologise for the bare boobs, I generally oppose publishing such shots as I think it is unnecessary. However, it is the only one in my collection (as in, pictures that I took myself, with my own camera), that depicts the red clay that initiates traditionally wear in their hair while in seclusion. Unfortunately, this picture was taken at the annual Likumbi Lya Mize traditional ceremony and so the amount of clay in the hair was more for show than genuinely authentic. Normally, there would be so much clay that you wouldn’t even be able to see the hair. It would just be red clay caked on the head.

A mwali (female initiate) of the Luvale people in Northwestern Zambia. That’s ma peeps right there y’all

So, what is it about the clay?

I have recently started using a bentonite clay face mask which I had to purchase from the health food store. So far it isn’t working. But, I digress.

I was having a chat with a lady in our building who has been concerned about traction alopecia. She cut her hair down to a TWA, but still suffers from the long-term effects of common styling methods. I mentioned that I had read on the internet about people rubbing/massaging Jamaican black castor oil into their hairless patches, usually on the temples. She remarked, “Castor oil? You mean like the one our grandmothers used and that they still use in the village?” My ears perked up and I urgently leaned forward in my chair. “What do you mean by “like the one our grandmothers used?”. She went on to explain how it grows in the back yard and that you can plant some today and it will sprout in no time. Back in the village, they dry roast the seed/nut and then pound and press it to force out the oil. A similar process to that used in making sunflower oil. You boil it with water until the oil rests on top. Next, you take a chicken feather and glide it across to collect the oil (oil and water don’t mix, if you remember). Then you take your fingers and slide them over the feather and into a dish/cup/bowl to collect the oil. Repeat until only water remains. The oil keeps a long time (doesn’t go rancid), and a small bottle lasts for ages as you only need a little to moisturise your hair.

I asked her about other traditional hair-care remedies and she mentioned the clay that is put in the hair of initiates while they are in seclusion. When they came out, she said, once washed, their hair was always so soft and had really grown. After initiation, it was common for women and girls to continue to treat (deep condition) their hair in this way.

I have read on mainly American blogs, about experiences of black Americans who have traveled to Africa, thinking that they were coming to the home of healthy hair-care practices, with natural, unprocessed and pure ingredients; only to be disappointed that in most parts of Africa (except Ethiopia), we generally treat our hair very badly, do not take care of it at all, and wouldn’t know the first thing about indigenous products and techniques. Sadly, this doesn’t only apply to hair-care, but to many other areas as well, where we are only now beginning to embrace our own heritage and acknowledge the value of the traditional ways of doing things. Think of how traditional medicine and foods have made a comeback as part of the response to HIV an AIDS. However, this was only after it was legitimised by some western educated professor and rubber stamped by USAID and other such organisations. We still have a long way to go.

I remain super excited about that conversation as it opened up the possibility of so much information and knowledge out there waiting to be shared. I will be investigating more about this issue and taking time to speak to my mother and grandmother to learn more. I am also waiting for my consignment of home made castor oil and clay to come in from the village. I cannot wait to try them out.

2 responses to “The Value of Indigenous Hair-care and Knowledge

  1. There is definitely still a long way to go. It would be great if purely natural methods like this would be recognized more. That would save everyone the trouble of risking things with synthetic chemicals. I am curious to know though, if that red clay technique works on hair wigs though.


  2. Xander, I am not sure about using it on wigs, although, I have read about people who deep condition their weaves and other hair pieces. Especially those made with 'human' hair.


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