Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Cloves and Kohl: Henna Traditions On the Swahili Coast of East Africa

I had a lovely private appointment a while back whose client wanted some henna for her upcoming trip to East Africa, including Kenya and Tanzania. I warned her that black henna is extremely prevalent in that area, but unfortunately I couldn’t tell her much more about the history of henna there, so… (you guessed it) time for a new blogpost! I love invitations to learn more about henna traditions across the world — if you have any suggestions for other areas to research, please leave them in the comments!

In this post, I focus on henna traditions on the Swahili coast of East Africa, especially the archipelagos of Lamu (today part of Kenya) and Zanzibar (today part of Tanzania). I imagine that many henna artists, like me, might associate East Africa simply with 'black henna' and the dangers it poses

I want to emphasize that while this post will discuss and portray the use of various ‘black henna’ chemical substances, I DO NOT condone the use of ‘black henna’ and urge all my readers to use and support natural henna ONLY.

So first, a little history (if you want to go straight to the henna pics, I won't be offended — just scroll down a bit!). The Swahili coast has been a centre of trade and culture for over a thousand years. Known as Zanj to medieval Arab traders, East Africa had strong mercantile ties with the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, India, and even China. The Kilwa Sultanate controlled the Swahili coast throughout the Middle Ages, and once it broke up in the 17th century, imperial powers moved in. Zanzibar became part of the Sultanate of Oman in 1698, and a British protectorate in 1890.

The population of the Swahili coast, therefore, is a diverse mix of ethnic and cultural groups, including: Arabs, especially originating in Yemen and Oman; Afro-Arab families, formed as merchants intermarried with local women; African Bantus, including those living in slavery until its abolishment at the end of the 19th century; and Indians, including Hindus, Muslims, and some Parsis.

Brahmin Indian woman, Zanzibar, 1900.

While it is not clear when henna was introduced to East Africa, it was likely that these trading routes brought henna to the Swahili coast quite early on. Patricia Romero Curtin suggests that henna traditions “started among the Hindu women,” 1987, pg. 367, but I suspect that it is far more likely that it was brought by Arab merchants earlier on: probably in the 17th century, or even in the Middle Ages, in the period of the Kilwa Sultanate. Today (as I note in this post) in Swahili henna is known both as mhina / hina, a loanword from the Arabic al-hinna', or mkokowa, referring to the red mangrove (another dye plant that produces a similar colour) — thus supporting the idea that henna was introduced by Arab merchants rather than Indian Hindu migrants (who would have most likely referred to henna as mehndi).