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Tribal Headdresses

Artful images on Namibian stamps depict the country’s colourful plant and animal life, traditional cultures, history and landmark events. Many people are unfamiliar with Namibia—until they visit on our motorcycle safaris and fall in love with it.

These stamps depict traditions valuing the importance of women’s hair through elaborate and intricate women’s tribal headdresses.

stamp mbukushu hairstyle 12-01 web Tribal HeaddressesCreation of traditional headdresses worn by women of the HaMbukushu tribes living along the Okavango River, began at childhood when mothers would start preparing their daughters’ hair by braiding and decorating it, and applying oil to soften it.

Thin strands from tree fibres or bark were woven into the hair, eventually extending below the waist. White porcelain beads were attached to the ends. Another thick fibre plait, also decorated with a variation of multicoloured beads, ostrich eggshell beads, and cowrie shells was worn at the back of the head, doubling as a pillow while sleeping.

When a woman married, she’d receive a mixture of fat, rukara (red powder of finely crushed bark of an old uguva tree), and munde (sweet smelling grass, finely crushed wood, and castor bean oil) from her mother. Munde was rubbed onto the head until a doughy mixture formed. Rukara was then mixed with butter or castor bean oil and applied to the hair.

The materials and with which the hair was decorated and how it was arranged depicted status and fertility.

One can only imagine the horror expressed by Roman Catholic Missionaries to the ‘oily, unhygienic, coiffures’ and their smell, when women sought medical treatment.

stamp ngandjera webFurther west, women of the OvaWambo groups used ox sinews to lengthen their hair. Here too, preparation of the headdress began at an early age. At 12, they covered their head with paste of finely ground bark and oil. It was soon removed, to make way for fruit pips attached with ox sinews to straighten the hair.

By age 16, the fruit pips were removed, the existing sinews lengthened and then just prior to an initiation ceremony, the strands were converted into at least four arched, hornlike structures, wrapped with red-coloured palm leaf strips.

A special hairpiece consisting of a thick bushel of hair, contained by red palm leaves was fastened to the back of their heads. So adorned, they were ready for a grueling initiation ceremony lasting up to four days, rendering them marriageable. Not all survived. Over time, the ceremonies became shorter and less harsh and have since all but disappeared.

As with many ancient traditions, the traditional coiffures and elaborate ornamentations are now found only in museum collections. There has however, been a strong resurgence in interest and experts are recreating them. Palm leaves have been replaced by shiny red bands.