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).