African communities have been known to have elaborate hairstyles which are made possible by their wooly, curly hair that makes it easy to design intricate patterns.
Each African community had a style that was synonymous with their unique culture and most importantly identity. This meant there was little room to change the styles or be experimental with the hairstyles. Most hairstyles had a meaning and were only worn by people at various stages in their life - otherwise, if they experimented too much, a sense of identity would be lost.
Similarly, the Agīkūyū people donned distinct hairstyles based on the various stages they were in life or the nature of their occupation. The most common hairstyles were a clean shave for elderly men and women, short hair with an all-round side trimming for young boys, clean shave with a round patch of hair at the back of the head for young women and of course sister-locks for warriors. Children's hair was only left to grow for a short period before it was cut
There were children who were born with signs that portrayed them as future seers or leaders (ago na athamaki) and for these children, a small circular patch of hair was left at the back of the head, signifying their special abilities and the need for the community to respect and protect them. The deeper meaning behind the circular patch of hair being to symbolically protect the pineal gland which was associated with esoteric knowledge. This small patch of hair that was left at the back of the head can also be seen among major spiritual and cultural leaders of the modern world such as the Chinese Shaolin tonsure, the Jewish kippah, and the Christian zucchetto among others. They all signify religious devotion and humility within each culture.
Teenage girls were commonly shaved but left with a bigger circular patch of hair at the back of the head while young men adorned themselves with long sister-locks that were known as mĩndĩga (from the root word īndīga meaning to twist). Therefore, the Gīkūyū word for sister-locks, dreadlocks, or rastas is mĩndĩga.
Although young boys and girls would let their round patches of hair grow into tiny sister-locks, long dreads were reserved for warriors. Infact, to be allowed to grow long sister-locks and apply red ochre, known as thĩrĩga, one had to pay a fee of a goat known as mbũri ya ndaka, also known as mbũri ya mĩndĩga or mbũri ya thĩrĩga in other parts of Gīkūyūland - loosely meaning ‘the dreadlocks goat fee’. This fee was paid to the senior regiment of the age-set which allowed a young man to grow the dreads and apply red ochre. However, they were not allowed to dance with young maidens or take them for intimate non-sexual romance known as nguĩko, until they paid the extra fee known as mbũri ya nyondo, or mbũri ya njaga and mbũri ya gĩcukia. If one dared to grow the dreads and apply red ochre to their hair without paying the goat fees, they would incur severe punishment and/or a fine from their age-mates. Since young men did not have their own goats, this fee was paid by their fathers.During normal days, it was common to see young men twisting each other’s dreads, which was a favorite pastime activity for most warriors. It was known as kũramana njuĩrĩ.
Warriors were only allowed to keep their dreads up to the end of their tenure as warriors. Once they got married, they had to cut the dreads since it was now said that, '...nĩ oona mũmwenji' meaning, 'he has now found someone to shave him'. And hence the saying, 'kĩhĩĩ gĩteyaga ūhĩĩ wakĩo na ikoonde, naake mwanake ateaga waanake waake na mĩndĩga' meaning, 'a boy loses his boyhood by losing his foreskin, while a young man loses his youthfulness by losing his dreads'.
The origin of the hairstyle that warriors donned is not clearly known. However, it's important to note the similarity between the Agīkūyū warriors hairstyle and some of the ancient Egyptian hairstyles.
The few men who were allowed to wear sister-locks, even after marrying, were artists (aturi), medicine-men (ago), salt miners (eenji a magata), and Agĩkũyũ griots (aini a icaandĩ) - that's if they wanted. This was due to the nature of the occupation, which required them to be away from home for a while, meaning they had to be away from their wives who were mandated to cut their hair.The common hairstyle for married and elderly women was known as turū or kwenjwo turū, meaning evenly cutting all hair. This was the same with the men, who were generally not allowed to shave their heads - they were shaved by their wives. For their beards, men pulled them out one by one with a nail-cutter-like metallic tool known as ngũũri - to avoid them touching the shaving razor known as rwenji, which was reserved for women.
A young man was shaved by his mother and a married man was shaved by his first wife. The first wife was shaved by the second wife, the second by the third wife, and so on. It was not uncommon to find wives shaving each other, or their husbands and ‘accidentally’ cutting or scratching them with the razor if they had unresolved domestic issues between each other!
Cutting of dreadlocks was always done by older women and it involved a ritual. The day of hair-cutting was known as mũthenya wa meenjo, meaning ‘the day of the shave.’ The hair that was cut was carefully wrapped on a banana leaf and then placed at the base of a banana tree, where it would slowly disintegrate.
One main reason why the Agĩkũyũ wore short hair was due to the numerous ceremonies that would happen which required people to shave their hair after the ceremony. (More on this in a later post)
During the Mau Mau resistance, Agīkūyū men and women went to the forest and since they did not have their mothers or wives to cut their hair, their hair grew into thick, long dreadlocks that are synonymous with the freedom fighters.
In Dec, 7th 1952, a picture of the Mau Mau warriors featured on the cover of the New York Times newspaper terming them as terrorists. When the black people and especially Jamaicans that were in New York saw the images of the Mau Mau fighters, they were inspired by the efforts of their fellow African men who were calling for freedom in their motherland. When the Jamaicans went back home, they introduced that deadlock movement as a symbol of defiance and search for freedom. Dreadlocks were also incorporated into the religious subcultures that used African chant music as a spiritual tool. This was this music that was later turned into ska which later became the now popular music known as reggae - which is now synonymous with dreadlocks commonly known as rastas. Otherwise, before 1952, it was hard to see black Jamaicans donning dreadlocks - other than the old Indian monks, who also introduced marijuana smoking in Jamaica.
Among the Agīkūyū, long hair was considered an extension of the mental power which enhanced one’s telepathic abilities. Until now, dreadlocks among the Agīkūyū have been associated with knowledge of self-identity , freedom of expression, respect for nature, and revolution.
You can find more info on Agĩkũyũ hair culture and the Mau Mau resistance movement from the books below which are available at mathaga.com
THE SOUTHERN KIKUYU BEFORE 1903 by L.S.B Leakey
HISTORY OF RESISTANCE IN KENYA By Maina wa Kinyatti
A PEOPLE CALLED THE AGIKUYU By Paul Ngigi
THE CENTRAL KIKUYU BEFORE 1970 By Samuel Mwituria
AGIKUYU 1890 - 1965 By Maina wa KinyattiMAU MAU AND THE KIKUYU By L.S.B Leakey