Last updated: February 15, 2019

African Hair Braiding

Sara Fletcher
Published 12:00 am

For the average person, having one’s hair braided is usually for practical or aesthetic reasons. In Africa, hair braiding is a much deeper and complex practice that’s been around for centuries. African hair braiding is a chance for girls and women in the community to bond. One’s type of braid can even symbolize one’s standing in the community.

If you’re curious to learn more about the ancient and beautiful art of African hair braiding, keep on reading. We’ll give you a brief rundown of the history of African hair braids, their multitude of functions over the years, as well as some tips on how to care and maintain your braids.

History of African Hair Braiding

You’ll be surprised to know that African hair braiding can be traced back as early as 3500 BC. This ancient art form has been kept alive through generation after generation. What’s more is that each style of braiding is unique, often having deep cultural significance.

There are different styles of braiding in every region and every tribe on the continent. Some have evolved over the centuries, but most have retained their distinct style.

Styles and Patterns

In West African countries especially, hair braiding slowly developed into more complex patterns, each signifying a certain aspect of the wearer such as their age, social status, and the village of origin. Complicated hair treatments are even done on African women’s hair, but they’re usually for special occasions. For instance, they do an elaborate hair treatment when a woman is getting married or other important ceremonies.

At a young age, the girls get their hair braided or knotted by their older relatives like their mothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, even grandmothers. Braided hair is mainly a form of individual fashion and self-expression.

In certain areas in Africa, there are also men who have their hair braided either for practical purposes or as a status symbol.

The Ancient Art of Braiding

Unlike the simple and common braids of today, African hair braiding can be extremely complicated and incredibly time-consuming. Certain styles are more difficult than others. Some braids can take a whole day to finish and others even more than that.

Women initially learn how to braid by watching their elders. Then, when they’re ready, they start practicing what they learn on girls of their age group or younger. Typically, no girl would agree to have their hair braided by a younger girl whose skills are still developing.

Once a woman has mastered the craft, they have wordlessly agreed to informal reciprocity to this art. You see, when a person braids your hair – spends their time and energy on making sure your braids are perfect – it is usually expected of you to reciprocate the favor. You have to braid that person’s hair too.

Interestingly, the practice of keeping this elaborate traditional art alive depends on how much free time the people in the community have. That’s why African hair braiding is more common for people in rural communities and tight-knit remote villages.

In urbanized areas, hair braiding is left to professionals since they’re likely the only ones who have the skills to create complex braid styles. People in busy modern cities don’t have the time to spend a whole day on doing someone’s hair.

Modern African Hair Braiding

Salons in urban areas in Africa now usually offer a simplified version of the traditional African braids. Even in the United States, braiding salons have gained popularity over the last two decades.

Better still, the custom of women socializing and bonding because of braiding continues even in professional hair salons. Even with less intricate braids, finishing a braid still takes quite a bit of time, so braiders and customers talk and joke during the entire session. It’s not uncommon to find a friendly and cheerful environment in hair salons.

It’s safe to say that African hair braiding has, despite rapid industrialization and urbanization, continued to live on.

Hair Talk

Now that we’ve explained a quick history on braids and why they’re so important, let’s get on to the actual hair braiding.  

First things first, you need to know that there are different types of hair and each type has a specific way they need to be treated and styled. Before you can even decide what braids you want, you need to know what type of hair you have.

Generally, there are four types of hair: straight, wavy, curly, and kinky. For the most part, African-American and black hair isn’t straight. Usually, it’s either curly to kinky hair, with a few closer to having wavy hair.

Kinky Hair – Type 4

Kinky hair – categorized as type 4 hair – is the type of hair that is very tightly curled. With this type of hair, you can clearly see a curl pattern. The strands can range from fine to thin, coarse to densely packed. Kinky hair is extremely wiry and even more fragile. This hair type has the fewest cuticle layers than on any other type, so it isn’t as protected from damage and stress. Because it’s incredibly tightly coiled, a type 4 hair is known to shrink up to 75% of the actual hair length. So if a person with this type of hair appears to have short hair that barely touches their shoulders, if you took a strand and stretched it straight, you’d be surprised to see that it’s much longer than it appears.

Type 4 hair has two subtypes: 4a and 4b. The first one, 4A, is a lot like curly hair. It’s tightly coiled hair that has an “S” pattern (much more definite compared to 4b), and usually has more moisture. 4b has a “Z’ pattern,” and the strands bend at sharp angles. This subtype is drier than 4a and has a cotton-like texture.

Curly Hair – Type 3

Compared to kinky hair, curly hair has a more defined loopy “S” pattern. There’s also more volume on this hair type so you can style it much easier and even straighten it with a blow-dryer. The curls in Type 3 hair are springy and have well-defined shapes. Moreover, despite what people might believe, curly hair is very soft and fine, not at all coarse.

Type 3 hair also comes in two subtypes though it’s quite common to find a combination of the two. The first subtype, 3a, has curls that are loose, big, and the hair itself is usually shiny. 3b hair has a medium amount of curl. You can have tight corkscrews or bouncy ringlets.

Wavy Hair – Type 2

Of all the hair types common to African and African-American hair, wavy hair is the type that sticks the closest to the head. There is no bounce with wavy hair even if you layer it. The curls are “S” shaped and are much more easy to manage than curly or kinky hair curls.

Type 2 hair is divided into three subtypes: 2a, 2b, and 2c. 2a is the easiest to straighten or curl since the hair strands are fine and thin. The second subtype is a little bit more textured. 2b isn’t as easy to style, and it tends to frizz. 2c hair is the most resistant to styling with thick and coarse strands. This last subtype also is the quickest to frizz.

Functions of African Hair Braiding

There’s a long list of functions of African hair braiding. So many, in fact that for brevity’s sake we won’t mention all of them. There are, after all, a lot of countries (each with different tribes) in Africa and each of them have their own traditions and customs.

Here are just a few common functions of African hair braiding. It’s a visible indicator of whether a person is married, single, or even at the right age for courtship. You can also tell if someone is mourning a recent death with the way they have braided their hair. Basically, a braid can give you a lot of information about the individual.

Moreover, braids were one of the means of social stratification. In certain areas, this practice still continues. Certain tribes or nations have their own distinct hairstyles so you can tell where a person is from just by glancing at their hair. There are also styles of braids that indicate a person’s societal status, religious belief, and wealth.

Lastly and one of the most important functions of African hair braiding, it’s a traditional social art that forms a bond between the younger generation to their elders. Elder women are the ones that teach their girls how to braid. Older girls learn from their elders and eventually practice on their younger peers. It takes time and patience to finish a braid, so younger women end up spending quality time with their elders.

Advantages of African Hair Braiding

There a wide variety of braid styles that can give you an entirely new look. Besides that, braiding your hair is a great way of protecting it from unnecessary stress and damage. With your hair tied in a neat braid, you won’t have to wash it every day. Daily washing can actually severely harm your hair, especially if your hair falls under type 3 and type 4.

There’s a ton of advantages to having your hair braided. For instance, there are a lot of long-term braid styles (braids that can last for almost as long as two months) that can be really practical if you’ve got a fast-paced lifestyle. Plus you have the option of having your braids redone around the edges to remain to look fresh and new.

African hair braiding is also great for protecting your fragile locks. Because your hair is tucked away tightly, there’s a better chance of retaining length because it’s hidden from the elements. However, this can be a double-edged sword so you best not keep your hair braided in for more than two months.

Additionally, African hair braiding decreases the amount of maintenance you have to observe for your hair. While braids won’t totally eliminate the need for hair care, they do make it easier for you to keep your curls clean and nice. No more hours spent in front of the mirror, blow dryer in one hand, comb in the other, trying to tame your wild and unruly curls. We’ll talk about braid care and maintenance (especially concerning your scalp) in a later section.

And to top it all off, there are so many braiding styles that the list is endless. You have the freedom to be as creative and as unique as you want. That’s the real beauty of it.

Hair Braiding Essentials

At this point, you’re probably buzzing with excitement to get your own hair braided. Who wouldn’t be? You probably have a rough plan in your head on what braids you want and maybe even where to get it done. Before you speed off to your nearest salon, you still need to have the essentials ready.

To make sure that you’ll get the braid of your dreams, you need to be equipped with the right products. We’ve listed the products that your salon might not have but will be extremely useful to you, especially if your scalp is more sensitive than others.

Prepping the Scalp and Roots

You can’t actually just walk in a salon and get your hair done without first prepping yourself properly. If you want an African braid style that will look great and last long, you need to ensure your hair will be able to hold on to the braids. For that, you’ll need a hair product that can keep your hair sleek without making it stiff. A highly recommended product is Oyin Handmade’s Burnt Sugar Pomade which is a hair ointment that has a nice waxy texture and is formulated with oils, butter, and veggie waxes. This product will nourish your scalp with essential fatty acids. Best of all, it’s non-greasy and long-lasting.

Oyin Handmade’s Burnt Sugar Pomade isn’t going to be enough prep, as great a product as it is. You’ll have to protect your roots too. An oil-based hair product is a good idea since it will not only lock in much-needed moisture but will also provide new growth elasticity to your roots as time goes on and your hair starts growing longer. Cantu Tea Tree & Jojoba Hair & Scalp is a good example since it’s made with pure shea butter, tea tree, and jojoba oil. This product will replace any vital oils your scalp needs so your hair will be stronger, healthier, and even shinier. It promotes healthy growth while soothing your scalp as your braid tugs at the roots.

Lastly, once your hair is braided, there will be several hair partings that leave your scalp open and vulnerable to the elements. If you’re not careful, you’ll damage your scalp. A decent scalp balm should do the trick. Sulfur 8 Medicated Hair and Scalp Conditioner can help fight flaking and dandruff plus improves hair texture.

Hair Prepping

Before getting your braids done, you should also prep your hair so that it’ll be nice and manageable. You don’t want dry or limp hair braided. That’s just a disaster waiting to happen.

If you’re into organic products, anything with shea butter, beeswax, or coconut oil is a good bet. Shea Moisture Jamaican Black Castor Oil Strengthen & Grow Loc and Braid Butter is a product that comes highly recommended. It gives your scalp that extra boost and repairs damaged hair.

Staying Fresh and Healthy

Once you’ve got your braids, don’t think that you can just leave them be until the next time you have to get them done. Braided and twisted hairstyles can start to smell after some time. The right hair tonic can keep your lovely braids fresh. Bumble and Bumble Tonic Lotion Hair Primer can do wonders for you braids with its rich mix of vitamins and herbs, even a dash of tea tree oil for its antibacterial properties. If you’re not the type to use conditioner in the shower, this product is made for you.

Speaking of conditioning, are you tired of those pesky baby hair poking out of your braids every morning? Let’s Jam Conditioning Gel by Sheen N Carson can keep them down and revive your hair’s vitality. Shu Uemura Art of Hair Shape Paste is also a good option for pushing hair back.

You should also remember to keep your braids looking naturally shiny. Oil sheen sprays can add much-needed shine to your hairstyle. Drybar’s Sparkling Soda Shine Mist can touch up your braids with just a few quick spritzes. This hair mist relaxes frizz and static on your hair without actually weighing down your braids. Plus it has UV absorbers to keep your beautiful dark hair color from fading.

If you have a tendency to scratch and pick at your braids, there’s a high chance that fuzziness and friction will occur so you’ll need Carol’s Daughter’s Mimosa Hair Honey Calming Tension Spray to soothe your scalp. It’s got peppermint and orange oil so your scalp will be refreshed and relaxed. The smell is heavenly too!

Another great product that you can use to smoothen the ends of your braids is OGX Coconut Milk Anti-Breakage Serum. It can strengthen, condition, and protect your braided hair. And if you’re looking to add more moisture to your hair without the frizz, this weightless leave-on conditioning spray, Macademia Professional Moisture Conditioning Mist, should be your go-to product. It’s infused with the pro-oil complex of macademia and the hair strengthening and repairing qualities of argan oils.

As a bonus, researchers have said that caramel is actually great for softening naturally curly hair. If you’re interested in that, you can read our article about caramel hair treatment here.

Protecting Your Braids While You Sleep

One thing you have to always remember about having braids is that you need to be careful about exposing them to possible damage or putting too much stress on them. Even while you’re sleeping, you have to take note of your braids.

Tightly wrapping your braids with a scarf or a head wrap at night is the advised method of avoiding damage to your braids. With the scarf or head wrap in place, your braids won’t get rubbed on as you sleep. You’ll wake up flawless and fresh.

If you don’t have one already, you can get a Paisley Cotton Bandana online. It works great as a head wrap.

Disadvantages of African Hair Braiding

We’ve talked a lot about the pros of African hair braids in the previous section, but no matter how gorgeous and wonderful braids can be, like with everything great, it also comes with some disadvantages. It’s vital that you’re at least aware of what you’re in for before you commit to getting braids. Your hair is precious, and you should know the cons and risks of hair braiding in order to make an informed decision.

While it’s true that braiding protects your curly hair, it also risks breakage, especially around the edges. Remember that when you install braids on tight curls or weak hair – which is common for certain African hair types – hair will tend to break off. Of course, this depends on the size of the braid you’ll get. If you get braids that are too big and heavy or also really small braids, you’re more likely to promote breakage to your natural hair. Mid-sized braids are preferable.

Moreover, getting your hair braided in a salon can be quite pricey since it’s such a time-consuming and intricate process. The prices will depend on where you go. Also, the length and volume of your hair are considered. If your hair is longer and thicker, it’s expected that you’ll be paying more.

To top it all off, getting braids done – or removed – takes a long time. You can’t just pop in an out of the salon as you please. You need to schedule your appointment properly, making sure you have ample time on your hands. If you’ve got a full-time job or if you’re a parent, you’ll need a lot of preparation before you can go to the salon.

Conclusion

African hair braids are incredibly beautiful and wonderfully diverse. Braids may not carry the same meaning and significance as it used to centuries ago, but the craft of braiding is alive and well even today. And with good reason. Braids can suit anyone’s individual style and preference. So whatever style of braid you choose, rock it and flaunt it.

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