Women are adorned all over the world. In some places its makeup, in others neck rings or footbinding, in others its applebottom jeans and boots with the fur. In the Swahili coast, the epitome of beauty is the intricate patterns and ornate designs of henna, drawn on women and girls for thousands of years at times of celebration.
Attending a wedding a new weeks ago, I was able to get henna for the first time. Apart from the excruciating waiting time where I could do nothing but sit, hands and feet splayed, while the paste hardened and cracked, leaving behind reddish brown filigree dyed into my skin.
Henna is made of powdered leaves of the mhina plant, grown throughout the Middle East. The paste is crushed and mixed with water, then placed into tipped plastic bags (think icing a cake) to be squeezed in delicate patterns along the arms and legs.
Henna is used throughout the Arabic world and was traded as far as the Far East for thousands of years. Each region has adapted its own use of the plant (in the Kashmir region for example, henna is often used to dye men’s beards bright orange). The Swahili coast region’s influences of Arabic, Indian and homegrown henna designs have evolved over the years into a uniquely Swahili style of decoration.
I’m oddly self-conscious about my hands (the Seinfeld episode about Man Hands really messed me up), but I felt so beautiful with my henna. Walking through Stone Town with my freshly painted hands and feet, my neighbours call out “Mrembo!”. That’s Swahili for a sophisticated woman who takes take of herself and pride in her appearance (if only they knew). Everyone knows that I’m participating in a wedding – henna is a symbol of celebration.
Traditionally, henna represents a Swahili woman’s adulthood, the owning of her beauty and the signaling that she is a woman worthy of adornment. Unmarried women and girls are able to get henna, but the most elaborate and expansive designs are reserved for married women. Henna is seen as so seductive and sexy that it would be considered vulgar for an unmarried woman or girl to decorate herself as elaborately as a married woman.
Henna is a perfect example of the secretly sensual nature of many Swahili traditions. Even the act of getting henna is an indulgence – women spend hours in the salon, poring over books of designs, drinking spiced tea or coffee, and gossiping while they wait for their henna to set.
For her wedding, the Swahili bride has the chance to get the most sumptuous, intricate designs of her life (except, perhaps, when her own children get married – mothers of the bride or groom here are celebrities of the night in their own right). For the rest of her life, she will decorate herself in highly wrought designs for celebrations like Eid, weddings, births and other milestones like the circumcision of a son.
Traditionally, the bride will take part in a singo, a fiercely protected and secretive ritual in which married women friends and family get together to teach the soon-to-be-bride about sex, pleasure and other aspects of conjugal life (hopefully the source of an upcoming column, stay tuned). She will be sequestered from men a week before the wedding, so her entrance at the wedding, be-decked with henna and all her finest, is a grand one indeed.
In a wink to their new husbands, many brides will have their groom’s initials or name incorporated into their henna in a secret place on their body – all the sexy fun of a tramp stamp, none of the regret or pain of laser removal! After a week or two, the designs will fade away.
Henna is the perfect way to live out that Celtic arm band tat dream – but pro tip: If you’re vacationing in the Swahili coast (or India, the Middle East, or anywhere henna is offered to tourists) make sure your artist uses real henna. At least in Zanzibar, most of the women walking on the beach offering henna tattoos are using cheap hair dye, which can really irritate your skin. Better to go to a professional – their designs will be real Swahili designs, with organic henna, and you might learn something about the designs and the cultural importance of the ritual while you’re there.