The African headscarf – A work of art

The African headscarf, which is supposed to match clothes, comes in different fabrics, forms and styles. The target is to highlight the creativity and the beauty of African women.

Its name differs depending on the country – tukwi in Botswana; duku in Ghana and Malawi; musuro in Mali; musor gele in Nigeria and Senegal. Whatever its name, its main role is the same: protecting a woman’s hair from the elements of nature. It does however have many other purposes; according to the African cosmology, the head scarf is considered a tool of divine protection. In the Malian tradition, married women attract evil river and forest spirits which enter their body through the head. The head scarf, therefore, by covering women’s heads, protects them from evil spirits.

Over time, the headscarf has turned into a tool of subtle communication. A headscarf with the end leaning to the right indicates a woman is married whereas on with the end leaning to the left indicates a single woman. The wearing of head carves at home, at the market, at the church or on special occasion such as a birthday, wedding or a business lunch, is considered a “crown of beauty”.

There are over a hundred different ways to tie and style a scarf; the “Babaguida“, “Melekeni” and “Jamaican” styles are among the best known, with the Queen Nefertiti-inspired head wrap receiving increased popularity in the sixties. In those years, from east to west, passing through the centre of Africa, the headscarf became a symbol of emancipation of the continent.

The style of scarves depend on the occasions that they are worn. The common scarves are generally made from the same material as the dress the woman is wearing. The range of scarf-types is enormous – from the “Prét-a porter” (“Ready-to-wear”) type, to the “Gran Switzerland”, “Super Jubilee” and “Hayes Gele” type, which are usually manufactured in Switzerland. These type of scarves, often colourfully embroidered with drawings, have been passed down from mother to daughter for generations.

The tailor-made scarves are for special occasions, such as traditional marriages and other important celebrations. In Nigeria, these special scarves are made from the famous aso-oke, a hand-loomed fabric.

A head wrap is itself a work of art, since the process of wrapping requires patience and precision to achieve. The scarf motif often reflects a woman’s social status. The more elaborated the design of a duku is, the higher the social status of the woman who wears it. The scarf’s motif can also identify which particular region the woman is from.

A scarf can also reflect the variety of taste, as well as the fashion sense of each woman. The type of creased and large scarves worn by women today, originates from the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Wearing one of these scarves can be the perfect solution for a woman who wants to be beautiful and pay tribute to her African heritage. Nowadays, women from all over the world can wear these scarves and feel like Nigerian queens at any occasion.

There are five steps to wrap a scarf correctly: in front of a mirror, centre the scarf on the crown of your head, cross the right end of the scarf over the left tip under your chin, bring both ends of the scarf to the back of your neck. Tie at the back of the neck using a gentle double knot. Wrap the loose drape sitting under the knot around the knot to tuck it in neatly, done.

A badly wrapped scarf can jeopardize the look of a dress. That is why; there are gele experts in Nigeria – equivalent to the celebrity hairdressers in the United States and Europe. Creativity is the key word in the process of wrapping.

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