Friday, February 19, 2016

Lalle, Anella, and Fudden: Henna in West Africa

I’ve already blogged about henna in East Africa here, and of course I’ve done several posts about henna in North Africa (e.g. here, here, and here), so I figured it was time for West African henna traditions to get their time to shine.

Woman applying henna for Eid, Burkina Faso, 2012.
Photo by Bridget Roby.
Henna has been a part of West African culture for at least a thousand years. While it is likely that henna has been growing in North Africa as early as the Roman period, the oldest record that we have of henna in the region of West Africa is from the medieval Andalusi geographer al-Bakri (ca. 1014-1094), who writes in his book Kitāb al-Masālik wa-al-Mamālik (“The Book of Roads and Kingdoms”):
Awdaghust [is] a flourishing place, a large town containing markets, numerous palms and henna trees… Excellent cucumbers grow there, and there are a few small fig trees and some vines, as well as plantations of henna which produce a large crop. 
Today Awdaghust (or Aoudaghost) is an archaeological site located in south-central Mauritania, but in the Middle Ages it was an important oasis town for trans-Saharan caravans of gold and salt, under the control of the Ghana Empire (not to be confused with the modern country of Ghana). In fact, henna may have been growing there even earlier, since scholars have suggested that al-Bakri is likely borrowing this information from the 10th-century writer al-Warraq (McDougall 1985, pg. 7).

Medieval trans-Saharan trade routes (map by Sam Nixon).

Henna was apparently also grown in the medieval city of Marandet in central Niger, which was another important centre of trade, especially copper. According to the Nigerien archaeologist Djibo Hamani, henna is still found growing in the ruins, although it is not found anywhere else in the immediate vicinity (Hamani 1989, pp. 124-125). Throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period, henna was grown in Hausaland (today comprising southern Niger, northern Nigeria, and parts of Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Benin) with indigo, tobacco, onions, cotton, millet, sorghum, maize, and peanuts. Henna was also one of the commodities imported from North Africa by trade caravans, along with dates, salt, paper, camels, and horses (Laya 1992, pg. 475-479).

The first European mention of henna in the region comes from Michel Adanson, a French naturalist who was stationed in present-day Senegal from 1746-1754. He sent a specimen of local henna back to his academic colleague Bernard de Jussieu in 1751 (only a few years after Linnaeus had given henna its Latin name of Lawsonia inermis!) writing (Lacroix 1938, pg. 195):
I am attaching in a separate envelope some leaves of a species of Lawsonia which the Black Wolofs call foudenn; the powder of these leaves is used by women of the Country to dye their nails. The Powder, when mixed with water to the consistency of paste, and left on for 4-6 hours on the nails, gives them without any pain a beautiful colour of deep red which lasts about six months. I myself tried this on my Fingernails and Toenails and found that the colour lasted for five months, during which time the nails stood out from the fingers by their adornment.
It is very amusing to imagine this dignified French botanist having hennaed fingernails for months — all for the sake of Science! In June of 1753, Adanson also recorded seeing henna growing in the marshes at the mouth of the Senegal river (Adanson 1757, pg. 174). 

The Wolof language still uses the word fudden today, and the related word puddi in Fulfulde, to refer to henna (Munro and Gaye 1991, pg. 46; Breeveld 1995, pg. 334). A linguistic analysis actually suggests that the use of henna had originally spread in West Africa via the Amazigh and Tuareg communities of the Sahara, since the word used for henna in the 17th-century Bornu Empire (today northeastern Nigeria) was nalle, borrowed from the Tamasheq (Tuareg) anella (Barkindo 1992, pg. 506). This was later borrowed into Hausa and Yoruba as lalle, which is how it is still known in West Africa today (Kossmann 2005, pg. 70).

Preparing fresh henna in Togo, 2007.
In the early 20th century, the British historian Sidney John Hogben recorded an amusing folktale about the origins of henna in Nigeria, which connected the introduction of henna to the conquest of Nigeria by North African Tuareg nomads: claiming to use leather straps to create reverse patterns, the Tuareg tied up the locals and gained control! As Hogben writes (Hogben 1967, pg. 163):
There is a story that has come down from the past and is still told in several parts of the country which illustrates how the nomad immigrants cunningly gained domination over the local Sudanese people. First they got permission from the chief to live peacefully alongside them. Then after years of increasing familiarity with the newcomers the local inhabitants began to admire the way in which the foreigners painted their nails with henna, and they asked to be shown how it was done. The process was duly explained by which the hands were stained with henna and then wrapped in strips of leather. Allowing themselves in this way to become tightly bound, they fell easy victims to the treacherous Berber nomads, who then had no difficulty in establishing their rule.
Roland Fletcher, a British military officer stationed in Nigeria from 1904-1914, records another fascinating story about the origin of henna use, attributing it to Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet (Fletcher 1912, pg. 86): 
Nana Fazumatu [Fatima], a daughter of Mahomet, married one Saidi or Sidi Ali. One day she was lying beside her husband, who had fallen asleep on her right arm, when the Prophet arrived at the house. She had then to choose between two unseemly actions, namely, to waken her husband, or to keep her father waiting at the door. From this dilemma she freed herself by taking a knife and cutting off her right arm. The blood flowed out on to a henna shrub growing near, which has ever since provided the blood-red stain in common use. On greeting her father she discovered that a new and more comely arm had miraculously grown in place of the one she had sacrificed. 
No matter how it was introduced, by the 19th century henna was a widespread practice throughout West Africa. The Scottish commander Hugh Clapperton was sent on expedition in West Africa in the 1820s, through the Bornu Empire to Sokoto, the capital of the Fulani Empire (today in north Nigeria), and noted in several places the use of henna to dye men’s beards and women’s hands and feet (Clapperton and Denham 1826, pg. 122, Clapperton 1829, pg. 121, 381). 

While visiting Bida, in central Nigeria (which he calls Nyffee), Clapperton saw henna as part of the celebrations of ‘Eid al-Fitr: “The new moon, having been seen last night, put an end to the fast of the Rhamadan… The women were dressed and painted to the height of Nyffee perfection: [their hair] dressed, plaited, and dyed with indigo; their eyebrows painted with indigo, the eyelashes with khol, the lips stained yellow, the teeth red, and their feet and hands stained with henna; their finest and gayest clothes on; [and] all their finest beads on their necks” (Clapperton 1829, pp. 171-172).

Of course, like in North Africa, henna was also an important part of wedding ceremonies. Traditionally, as part of the preparations for the wedding, the groom sent the bride a series of presents, known as lefe baskets, containing henna, indigo (for her hair), kohl, clothes and headscarves, jewelry (especially cowrie shells), and shoes (Fletcher 1912, pp. 73-74). 

A Yoruba couple in Nigeria, circa 1910.
In the remarkable life story of Baba of Karo (a Hausa woman from northern Nigeria, 1877-1951, whose autobiography was recorded by anthropologist Mary Smith and published in 1954), she described many details of Hausa wedding henna traditions in the early 20th century (Smith 1954, pp. 88-91) — the trope of the ‘reluctant bride’ who tries to escape the marriage is common throughout North Africa as well, as we saw in this Moroccan henna song (and in fact is common across the world):
"Seven days before the marriage-day, the bride’s kinswomen catch her and rub her skin with henna; when they come to do this she runs away, and when they get her she cries and wails, she throws herself to the ground again and again crying because the time for marriage has come… Her friends lead the bride to her mother’s sister’s hut, she is her mawankiya, the ‘mother’ who will wash her for marriage. She talks to the bride and lectures her about behaving properly… 
The henna is brought from the compound of the bride’s father and the grandmother comes again to put it on. Outside mawankiya’s hut the girls are preparing the henna-leaves, and the drummers and singers are busy at the front of the compound. When mawankiya leads the bride out from her hut, her friends seize her arms and legs and hold her while she struggles. The girls begin to sing again, while the grandmother is putting on the bride’s henna they sing this song: 
Save my life, hankaka, save my life,Save my life, hankaka, save my life,
On the day of marriage;
Save my life, hankaka, save my life,
Bazara has come,
Hankaka with the white breast,
White-breasted one, marriage has come. 
The bride wants hankaka, the pied crow, to rescue her, so that they shall not give her in marriage… 
Some of the girls go over to the bridegroom’s compound, if it is his first marriage too they will be putting henna on him… The bride stays in her mawankiya’s compound for four nights; mawankiya puts henna on the bride’s arms and legs every day, and ties them up in leaves, but she doesn’t put the long henna-gourd on her hand and arm, so the girl just unties the leaves and pulls them off and runs off to play."
As Baba of Karo mentioned, grooms also receive henna, if it is their first marriage. This is especially important among the Tuareg, for whom the groom's henna ceremony, called eghumi, is a community-wide time of songs and stories. The henna is applied by smith women known as tchinadan, who also serve the community as leatherworkers, griots, magicians, musicians, and ritual specialists (Rasmussen 1997).

A Tuareg groom has his feet hennaed, Niger, 1999 (Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher). 
Now let's talk about patterns and technique! Baba of Karo mentioned the “long henna-gourd” — this is a uniquely West African tradition, drawing on the importance of the calabash gourd in the region. 

Hausa woman after applying henna, ca. 1900. Her feet
are wrapped with rags, and her left arm is in a decorated
henna gourd.
Early on, like in other regions, the henna was wrapped up in cloth or leaves to ensure a dark colour. In the early 19th century, Clapperton described how the henna was applied and wrapped in gourd leaves, foreshadowing every person who has ever seen me with wrapped henna and asked me if I’ve burnt myself (Clapperton 1829, pp. 247-248):
The henna or salli [sic — he probably meant lalli], with those leaves they stain their hands and toes, is made of pounded leaves, mixed with water to the consistence of a poultice, which is laid on thick, and bound with gourd leaves to keep it on. 
To see a person in this state, without knowing that he was sacrificing comfort to make himself look beautiful, would be apt to excite pity for the poor man, and imagine that he had fallen from some great height, and bruised his hands and feet so badly as to require their being poulticed to reduce the inflammation. Some great people go so far as to have themselves stained every three nights.
But by the early 20th century, a tradition had developed to use a long calabash filled with henna dye for the arms; the gourds themselves, known as zunguru, were often elaborately decorated with geometric patterns or figures of animals and people.

Henna gourd, Nigeria, 20th century, in the Smithsonian Museum of African Art.
The calabash gourds would be hollowed out, dried and decorated, and then filled with henna; then it could be put over the hand and left on to obtain a very deep stain (Hambly 1935, pg. 429). I suspect that it is this tradition that led to the prevalence of resist-style henna, which is still the primary type of henna pattern in West Africa to this day. 

A new mother celebrating her son's birth with hennaed hands, Bamako (Mali), 2013.
Photo by Katie Orlinsky.
As we saw from Hogben’s story, the reverse patterns were originally done with thin leather straps wrapped around the hands and feet, which were then inserted into the henna-filled gourds. Today, the patterns are created with thin strips of tape, like in Mauritania, and then the henna is applied thickly over top. You can watch the process in this video of a woman in Timbuktu having her feet hennaed for 'Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan, known in many parts of West Africa as Tabaski (from Michael Palin's 2002 BBC series Sahara):

Unlike Mauritanian patterns, which use small pieces of tape to create densely-patterned designs, most West African patterns use longer strips of tape to create geometric designs of stripes and stars on a fully-hennaed background. Mauritanian-style designs are sometimes seen, especially among Tuareg living in Mali and Niger (and for more on Mauritanian henna, see Nic Tharpa Cartier's excellent e-book Mauritania, with a historical introduction by yours truly). Many henna artists in large cities also now apply henna in free-form patterns in the Arabic or Indian styles, which is increasingly popular.

Hennaed feet for Tabaski, Senegal, 2015; photo by Casey McMenemy.

Henna is commonly done not only for weddings, but also for the end of Ramadan, to celebrate the birth of a child, and as a general cosmetic any time women want to look beautiful. It is also used medicinally, as in other areas, to treat burns and blisters (Muhammad and Muhammad 2005).

Unfortunately the dangerous ‘black henna’ is sometimes seen, especially in places with high volumes of tourists. But thankfully it seems that most henna in West Africa is still natural, and the thick application of the resist technique ensures a beautiful deep stain. Some of these patterns could be replicated with a cone by very carefully laying down parallel lines for the resist areas and then filling in the rest… But it would be easier to use either a flour-based resist paste or tape.

It was wonderful to explore yet another rich and historical area of henna traditions here on Eshkol haKofer! What region would you like to see featured next?


  • Adanson, Michel. Histoire Naturelle de Sénégal [The Natural History of Senegal]. Paris: Claude-Jean-Baptiste Bauche, 1757.
  • Barkindo, B. M. “Kanem-Borno: its relations with the Mediterranean Sea, Bagirmi and other states in the Chad basin.” In Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century (ed. Bethwell A. Ogot), UNESCO, 1992.
  • Breeveld, Johanna Odilia. Form and Meaning in Fulfulde: A Morphophonological Study of Maasinankoore. Leiden: Research School CNWS, 1995.
  • Clapperton, Hugh, and Dixon Denham. Narrative of Travels and Discoveries in Northern and Central Africa. London: John Murray, 1826.
  • Fletcher, Roland. Hausa Sayings and Folk-Lore. Oxford University Press, 1912.
  • Hamani, Djibo. Sultanat Touareg de l'Ayar: au Carrefour du Soudan et de la Berbérie [The Tuareg Sultanate of Ayar: At the Crossroads of Sudan and Barbary]. Université de Niamey, 1989.
  • Hambly, Wilfrid. Culture areas of Nigeria: The Field Museum Ethnological Expedition to West Africa, 1929-30. Chicago: Field Museum, 1935.
  • Hogben, Sidney John. An Introduction to the History of the Islamic States of Northern Nigeria. Oxford University Press, 1967.
  • Kossmann, Maarten. Berber Loanwords in Hausa. Cologne: Köppe Verlag, 2005.
  • Lacroix, Alfred. Figures de Savants [Scholarly Characters], vol. 4. Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1938.
  • Laya, D. “The Hausa States.” In Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century (ed. Bethwell A. Ogot), UNESCO, 1992.
  • McDougall, E. Ann. "The View from Awdaghust: War, Trade and Social Change in the Southwestern Sahara, from the Eighth to the Fifteenth Century." The Journal of African History, vol. 26, no. 1, 1985, pp. 1-31.
  • Muhammad, H. S. and S. M. Muhammad. “The use of Lawsonia inermis linn. (henna) in the management of burn wound infections.” African Journal of Biotechnology, Vol. 4 (9), pp. 934-937, September 2005.
  • Munro, Pamela, and Dieynaba Gaye. Ay Baati Wolof: A Wolof Dictionary. UCLA Press, 1991.
  • Rasmussen, Susan. "Between Ritual, Theater, and Play: Blacksmith Praise at Tuareg Marriage." Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 110, No. 435, pp. 3-27, 1997.
  • Smith, Mary. Baba of Karo, a Woman of the Muslim Hausa. London: Faber and Faber, 1954.


danie said...

How should henna wearers respond to the idea of ' cultural appropriation'? Even though my religion has a tradition of it, i am 'white' and i have known other henna wearers like me to be verablly abused because they have 'stolen' a practise that doesn't 'belong' to them. Henna is something that i really love, but i don't want to get abused for wearing it.

Noam Sienna said...

Danie, it's a complicated issue that doesn't have an easy answer — and especially not in the detached and decontextualized space of the internet! And of course, my personal opinion is not an authoritative answer by any means. I understand cultural appropriation to refer to such things as: the misuse of sacred symbols as accessories (like feather headdresses at music festivals or non-Jews getting Hebrew tattoos), taking traditional clothing to use as a costume or to promote stereotypes (like Katy Perry’s “geisha” performance or offensive Halloween costumes), the commodification of traditional handicrafts into diluted and cartoonish imitations (like Forever 21′s “Navajo-inspired” panties or mass-produced “paisley print Indian style” t-shirts), or praising white people for adopting styles for which people of colour are harassed and discriminated against (like Miley Cyrus’ playing ‘dress-up’ in “ratchet” style, or the issues of dreadlocks/natural hair and ‘professional’ attire). So it’s important to make sure that engagement with culture comes from a place of respect and education. If you’re wearing henna as part of a ‘costume,’ stop right there. And if you’re interested in henna just because ‘it looks cool’ without feeling the need to learn about the history, traditions, and symbolisms of henna throughout the world, then stop right there too.
But at the same time, henna traditions are not owned by any particular group. Especially if henna holds personal or religious significance for you — I would say it is entirely appropriate for you to use it. Unfortunately that might not protect you from abuse... But I hope that doesn't stop you from enjoying henna!

Unknown said...

Henna is nowadays used as an art or form of decoration. Basically it is worn mainly for aesthetic purposes. My mother is from the north and I am fully aware of its history. In Nigeria some people view henna as an art for only Muslims. I am a Christian and I wear henna when I go for weddings in the north as part of the wedding ceremony and because I feel it doesn't affect my religious beliefs. I feel it's all about the way you view it

Noam Sienna said...

Hannatu, thank you for sharing! Glad to hear that henna continues to cross boundaries and connect people in joy, beauty, and celebration.

Ben said...

Do you know what the purpose of coloring ones teeth red is/was??