Henna Tattoos / Zanzibar Traditional Henna
In this week’s post the Seyyida’s Blog will make you discover Zanzibar traditional henna tattoos. Who knows, maybe during your journey to Zanzibar you will not hesitate to wear one of these traditional tattoos!
So it started…
We had a lovely private appointment a while back whose client wanted some henna tattoos. We warned her that black henna is extremely prevalent in that area. But unfortunately we couldn’t tell her much more about the history of henna there. So… you guessed it, it was time to do some research!
We 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!
Cloves and Kohl: Henna Traditions on the Swahili Coast of East Africa
We imagine that many Zanzibar traditional henna artists, might associate Zanzibar simply with ‘black henna’ and the dangers it poses.
Therefore we want to emphasize that while this post will discuss and portray the use of various ‘black henna’ chemical substances. We do not condone the use of ‘black henna’ and urge readers to use and support natural henna only!
Zanzibar Traditional Henna History
First of all, a little history. Zanzibar has been a centre of trade and culture for over a thousand years. Known as Zenj to medieval Arab traders. East Africa had strong mercantile ties with the:
- Arabian Peninsula
- India and even
The Kilwa Sultanate controlled the Swahili coast throughout the middle ages. 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 Zanzibar Archipelago, 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, as well as
- Some Parsis.
While it is not clear when henna was introduced in Zanzibar. 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. But we 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.
Origins of the Word Henna
Today 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).
By the 19th century, Zanzibar traditional henna was an essential part of the culture of Zanzibar. Practiced by all the various ethnic groups living there:
- Afro-Arabs, etc…
Wedding Festivities and Henna
For example, Edward Steere, an 19th-century English missionary, records how Zanzibar traditional henna appeared as a part of the wedding festivities for African families in Zanzibar.
“It is a rule to spend seven days after marriage in the bride’s house without going out. During which time the bride’s father sends provisions daily, and the bridegroom is scented. His hands and feet stained with henna, as is usually done by women. This period of seven days is called ‘fungate siku saba’.”
We believe that Steere’s description, of having the wedding Zanzibar traditional henna on display for the seven days after the wedding, is related to a Swahili custom known as “ntazanyao” which we will discuss below.
Men and Henna
Zanzibar traditional henna was used not only for wedding ceremonies. But as regular cosmetics for men, women, and even for animals. William Ruschenberger, an American navy surgeon, describes a Zanzibari captain originally from Muscat with hennaed nails:
“The toenails, as well as those of the fingers, are stained with henna of a reddish yellow color.”
Hina, “henna” (a loanword from Arabic) is defined in Steere’s Swahili dictionary.
- Hina: henna, a very favourite red dye, used by women to dye the palms of their hands and the soles of their feet. Often used to dye white donkeys a pale red brown.
- Kutona hina: to lay and bind on a plaster of henna until the part is dyed red.
Donkeys Wearing Henna?
Zanzibar was apparently known for its hennaed donkeys well into the 20th century. An Anglican nurse/missionary, Ada Sharpe, wrote in the Christian journal African Tidings:
“There are countless donkeys in Pemba, many of them very beautiful Muscat donkeys of a light cream color. If they belong to well-to-do Arabs, they are generally dyed with henna. Which makes them a soft terra-cotta color. This is being said to keep off the insects. But I believe it is really done for the sake of appearance more than anything else.”
In 1952, Robert Moore reported for National Geographic that “the custom of tinting donkeys with henna had once been fairly popular on Zanzibar. Funnily nobody knew just why, but was now dying out”. Although we wouldn’t be surprised if you could still see it today.
Zanzibar Traditional Henna in the 19th and 20th Centuries
So, how was Zanzibar traditional henna done (for people) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? An excellent description is given in the memoirs of Sayyida Salama Bint Said (1844–1924). A daughter of the Sultan of Zanzibar who eloped with her German husband to Europe (and took the name Emily Ruete). She recalls how in her youth the palms and soles were hennaed and wrapped up with leaves.
“An important part in the oriental gala toilette is played by henna, derived from the leaves of a shrub. After drying and pulverization they are mixed with lemon juice and a little water, then kneaded into a dough, which is set out in the sun. And finally treated again with lemon juice to prevent hardening. The recipient lies rigid at full length on her back. First the dough is applied to the feet. Their surface remains untouched, but each toe is covered, and the soles and sides. Next a layer of soft leaves is put on, and tightly bandaged down. Then the hands are proceeded with in the same manner exactly. The back of the hand is left free, the edge of the palm and each finger to the first joint being plastered with dough and enswathed.”
Inconveniences of Applying Henna
Motionless does the vain beauty lie on her bed all night, that she be not disfigured through the shifting of the dough. For, mark, only the parts I have specified may be tinted. If henna should appear on the back of the hand, or above the first finger joint, that would be thought hideous. That night the torture begins anew, and the following night once more, since three applications are necessary to produce a rich, dark red, which will keep a month, despite all washing.
We can certainly identify with the desperate attempts to sleep with henna on, without smudging it! Although We’re glad we don’t have to pulverize the leaves ourselves anymore.
Slaves Henna Duties for Masters
In the early 20th century, slave women were responsible for preparing and applying the kohl and henna for their masters. For both weddings and regular use, and they were also allowed to use henna themselves. Sayyida Salama had noted that after the henna was applied, slave women were responsible for taking care of their helpless masters:
“No defense is possible against mosquitoes and flies. Though the wealthy can have them fanned away by slaves until morning, when the dough is carefully removed.”
We can also see in Sayyida Salama’s account that henna was applied multiple times to obtain the deepest possible color. In later accounts, we see the use of another cosmetic to add a black colour: wanja, or kohl, used on both face and hands. William Harold Ingrams writes:
“Their faces are painted with soot in circles and other figures. Generally the outline of the cheek pattern is made by putting wanja (antimony) round the edge of a coffee-cup and pressing it on. Fingers and the nails are dyed with henna, and the palm of the hand is treated like the cheek.”
Black and Red Henna Patterns
So, historically it appears that palms were adorned with patterns in black and red, with a combination of wanja for the outlines, and the centers filled in with henna. This would seem to be the origin of the aesthetic of black outline / red filling, used in contemporary henna work in Zanzibar. Today, wanja also refers to the black hair dye used by contemporary artists in place of the traditional kohl.
Zanzibar Traditional Henna for Marriage Ceremonies
For marriage, the bride had her hands and feet hennaed. Unmarried girls were allowed only to henna their hands, since hennaed feet were seen as provocative and inappropriate for young girls.
The henna artist was known as mpambaji [lit. ‘decorator’]. An older woman responsible for “the ritual care of the house (which she ‘adorns’) and for ensuring the proper and continued physical and moral purity of its women”. The mpamaji also prepared bodies for funerals. Sometimes Zanzibar traditional henna was done by the somo [lit. ‘instructor’] women who instructs girls, in sexual matters and led the initiation rites into womanhood.
Zanzibar Traditional Henna Pattern
The artist used a thin twig to apply Zanzibar traditional henna designs, which were for the most part drawn from the local environment, designs included:
- Msumeno = saw (i.e., zigzag)
- Barabara = road
- Majani na Maua = leaves and flowers
- Makorosho = cashew nuts
- Koche = dwarf-palm fruit
- Makuti ya mtende = date leaves
- Yungi-yungi = lotus
- Machenza = mandarin orange
Henna in Zanzibar, the seventies
Françoise Le Guennec-Coppens describes how henna was applied in Zanzibar in the late 1970s. With the soles being hennaed solidly and designs painted on the palms and fingers:
“The bottoms of the feet are dyed up to the toe nails. As the edge of the henna comes above the sole, it resembles a brown sole wrapped around the foot. The borders can be decorated with different designs but the soles of the feet are covered completely with the dye. Much more imagination is used to decorate the hands. The designs, different on each hand, can be geometrical or represent flowers and arabesques. They are drawn on the palm and on each finger. Five or six successive layers are applied to ensure that the henna will not fade for at least a month. Putting on one layer and letting it dry takes two or three hours. So, a minimum of twelve hours is necessary for six layers.”
During weddings, while the Zanzibar traditional henna was applied, women sang a type of oral poetry called vugo [‘buffalo horns,’ from the instruments used]. Spontaneous rhymed songs that could reinforce traditional values or serve as pointed jabs at various members of the bridal party. Other songs prepared the bride for her new social role and offered advice from older family members.
Bi Kidude Henna Artist
Interestingly, the most famous of Zanzibari traditional singers, the legendary Bi Kidude, was also a Zanzibar traditional henna/wanja artist herself.
Born to a coconut seller sometime in the early 20th century, Bi Kidude was a pioneering Zanzibari singer of taarab. [a genre of Arabic music inspiring emotional responses from the audience, famously associated with Umm Kulthum]. Bi Kidude, who performed around the world for decades and passed away in 2013 at an unknown age, likely well over 100.
Bi Kidude was an icon of Zanzibari style and culture, and an activist for women’s rights. She was also famous for having never worn shoes, saying that “as soon as you start to wear shoes you become weak.” Check out her music and interviews!
In the early 20th century, the bride’s henna was traditionally shown off after the wedding in a ritual known as ntazanyao [“tips of her toes”]. Which began the fungate [seven-day honeymoon]. Traditionally, at the ntazanyao the bride’s beauty was ‘displayed’ with all her henna, including the soles of her feet. She had to sit motionless, with her eyes closed, to her guests’ admiration. This is an interesting parallel to a Libyan Jewish henna ritual. Today the ntazanyao, if celebrated at all, has become a big party.
Circumcision Ceremonies and Henna
Henna was also used in East Africa for circumcisions, which usually took place between 18 months to five years, but sometimes past six and even into a child’s teens.
The child was given their new circumcision name [jina la kutahirawa], and was dressed in new clothes. Painted with wanja, and had their hands and feet hennaed. They were then seated on the veranda to greet relatives and friends and receive gifts.
Henna and Genders
Zanzibar traditional henna is also used by wahanithi, gender-non-conforming individuals who might identify as homosexual men, others as trans women, and others as simply hanithi (the word comes from the Arabic mukhannath, about whom we have written before).
Many wear male clothes, restricting their feminine ornamentation to kohled eyes and hennaed nails. But others live almost fully as women: Larsen describes one hanithi named Sabri who “partly dresses in women’s clothes, puts on make-up, colours his nails with henna and decorates his hands with both henna and wanja”. Most men in Zanzibar today, even grooms, avoid henna for fear of appearing to be hanithi.
Use of Henna During Celebrations
And of course, henna appears at holidays and celebrations. Especially the Prophet’s birthday, known as Maulidi.
In fact, since the late 1990s the Lamu Museum has held an annual Maulidi Henna Competition. Although we are not sure how exactly one wins (or even competes, for that matter, although we bet many readers would love to try). But it is a popular event, well-attended by both locals and tourists.
Zanzibar Traditional Henna and the Tourism Industry
Zanzibar traditional henna is an important part of the tourism industry in Unguja and Pemba islands. Many local hotels and spas include henna art in their services. In addition to the many women who attempt to hawk henna to tourists in high-traffic areas.
Zanzibar Traditional Henna Design in Zanzibar
So, let’s talk a little about the style of Zanzibar traditional henna designs in Zanzibar today.
In the historical sources, we saw the repeated layering of henna to achieve a dark stain, and the use of natural henna decorated with outlines in black kohl, known as wanja.
In the late 80s this began to be replaced with black hair dye, known colloquially as nyeusi [Swahili for ‘peacock’] or pico [from the English ‘peacock’] after the most common brand, Peacock.
Of course, the black PPD in those hair dyes is a dangerous toxin, and its use causes many injuries and health problems for both locals and tourists.
When looking at the Zanzibar traditional henna that’s done today in Zanzibar. The vast majority of it is ‘two-tone’ black and red. Natural henna is still used, of course, but it seems like most often it is paired with black chemical dye. Although occasionally all-natural henna is seen.
The most popular designs seem to be strips of stylized flowers with big open petals and leaves, outlined in black and filled in red, arranged in a flowing layout reminiscent of some Gulf-style work…
Of course, this is no surprise given the continued cultural and commercial ties between the Swahili coast and the Arabian peninsula.
Bibi Harusi Henna
For brides it usually extends past the elbow and sometimes even up to the shoulder and across the chest as well. This style is known as “bibi harusi” henna.
Some of the contemporary work is artistically quite fine. Although we must say that a lot of the pictures we see online. Especially of henna done for tourists, looks fairly sloppy to us.
There is certainly potential for amazing work! But unfortunately the use of dangerous ‘black henna’. Combined with high numbers of (generally ignorant) tourists demanding ‘quick and dirty’ designs is hurting the future of these beautiful traditions.
Give it a try
If you love the bold look of these Swahili designs, we encourage you to give Zanzibar traditional henna a try.
Of course using old Zanzibar traditional henna methods: fresh, natural henna, using time, heat, and even multiple applications to get deep, dark stains. Then fill in the design with fresh paste for just five minutes to get the brilliant orange two-tone.
It’s true that you may not be able to get as striking a contrast between the ‘black’ and the ‘red’. Especially on the upper arm. But we think the benefits of using traditional natural henna. Such as avoiding the scars, burns, and lifelong PPD sensitivity acquired by using black henna, are more than worth it!
Here’s an example, inspired by two photos of black and red henna:
So, in conclusion we hope you enjoyed this post. Also we would like to take this opportunity to give a big thank you and credit Noam Sienna. A graduate student at the University of Minnesota in the Department of History, who studied extensively henna traditions, and based this post on.
Finally, we are telling you to “mix up your very favorite red dye and get hennaing” with Zanzibar Traditional Henna at the Seyyida’s Oasis Spa… See you soon!