Have you ever asked yourself why some African women wear head wraps? In Ghana, you will witness many local women wearing one. Is it for religious purposes? Is it for fashion purposes? Or is there a completely different reason behind it? Let’s take a look at the history behind the use of the African head wrap.

A brief introduction to the African head wrap

The head wrap is commonly worn in many parts of West Africa and Southern Africa. Its use and meaning can vary depending on which African country we refer to. Even the local names for the head wrap vary from country to country; in Nigeria they are known as gele, duku in Ghana or Malawi, dhuku in Zimbabwe, tukwi in Botswana, doek in South African and Namibia and tignon in the United States.

The head wraps have been worn as early as the 1700s, originating in sub-Saharan Africa as a symbol that indicated age, marital status and prosperity. They were mainly worn by women in royalty; Egyptian royalty, Nigerian queens and Nubian queens.

Apart from being seen as an exquisite accessory, they were also used for practical reasons such as protecting themselves from the hot sun and keeping cool. Not only that, but they were also a representation of a woman’s spirituality, wealth and social status within a community.

So if you would see a woman walking down the street, by looking at the head wrap you could know if the woman was married, single, a widow, or a grandmother. All of this information just by looking at the colour, style and design of a head wrap!

Nowadays, the African head wraps are much more than a simple fabric covering the head. They have become an iconic fashion statement, widely used in fashion shows and events, with many celebrities worldwide regularly seen wearing it as a way to express style and identity.

Head wraps and slavery

Later on in the 1700s, the head wrap reached the Americas. In 1735, the Negro act was passed in response to the slave revolt, and mentioned what materials were suitable for slave clothing (which where only the cheapest fabrics).

Head wraps were forced on African women as symbols of slavery, so black and bi-racial women weren’t allowed to be in public without something covering their hair – a law that did not apply to white women. It was mostly applied to shame black hair.

All of these slowly developed terms such as “mammies”, which referred to the enslaved women who were catering to the needs of the white men and women. Their main purpose was to look after the children of white families.

With the beginning of the 20th century, the first chemical relaxers for black hair were introduced. The purpose of these was to straighten and grow natural black hair.

It became very popular among Afro-American ladies and the head wrap started to shift its use into a more functional use, which was to protect the hair from sweat, dirt, and water which could affect the effect of the chemical on the hair. With this movement we see the head wrap shifting into a statement of fashion.

Thanks to these head wraps, many black women started to free themselves and embrace their culture away from the suppression they were suffering. And this was the start of head wraps being a huge fashion symbol that represents identity and cultural significance and an important part of the Ghanaian lifestyle.

The use of the African head wrap in Ghana

In Ghana, ‘duku’ is the Akan name given to head wrap. It is mostly tied around the head with a knot at the back, front or the side. It is worn for church and funerals in a moderate style, but for events such as engagements, weddings, traditional ceremonies or other social events such as birthdays or firewall parties, the head wrap can be worn in a grand style.

But did you know that the “duku” has many other different styles it can be worn in with different meanings attached to it? Here are some of the “duku” styles you can encounter (next time watch out and see if you can spot which style it is!):

Akosombo special

Named after the Volta River project, the scarf is tied in such a way were a part of it falls on the side of the face down to the chin level.

Nkuumisee baa don

Literally meaning, “I won’t come back anymore”. This is the most popular style in Ghana, with most market women wearing it because it’s simple and easy to tie.

Money swine or Keemo mi fee

Meaning “tell me everything”. This style is the most favorite of the youth because it adds a touch of beauty to their hairdo.

Hyia me wo nkwa nta

Meaning, “meet me at the crossroad”. This style is very similar to the money swine. It is a style of love communication. It used to communicate the message to their partners – meet me at the crossroad.

Baakwe ni oya ta

A statement in Ga which means “come and watch and go back to gossip”. This style is used specially by the older women, to go to funerals, religious activities and other events.

Odo fa me tu

A style which means “Love, take me in the plane or YOU TOO CAN FLY”.

Onye otsu, onye oye

In Ga means “you can spend if you work” as a reminder and encouragement for people to work harder.