Habari za Punde


A century long tradition of painting henna upon young girls during pre Idd days is gradually deteriorating. Mr Juma Muhsin and elder and father of four daughters laments, ‘It is our women and mothers attitude towards young girls’. Mr Muhsin explains that mothers today not interested at all in introducing henna although young girls are eager about it and normally question their parents.

Mr Muhsin is quite right in a way that the neglect will obviously lead to the complete eradication of this century’s long tradition. He finally said, ‘If mothers do not bother today, what do you expect when these young girls come of age and bear children too, they will of course not do it’

In contrast, Mama Mwanakhamis, a mother of five daughters and two sons, does not agree. ‘It is not true that we are to blame, it is the circumstances we are living’. She went on to explain that in the past our mothers were assured of their living, finding ample time dyeing their daughters with henna. Today, even mothers are also concerned in making ends meet. They have to go out and work all day long and once they get home they are totally exhausted and still household chores are waiting them. ‘Will it make sense to stay at home with your daughters all day long while they are hungry just for the sake of henna?’ laments Mama Mwanakhamis.

It has been observed that a child nowadays consumes much of her time in School or Madrasah (religious schools) whereby daughters could not find suitable time to dye henna like the case in the past. Schools and Madrasah tend to be temporarily closed approximately two weeks before idd to pave way for idd preparations

Henna is a lythraceous shrub when dried and ground, the powdered leaves are mixed with water and lemon we obtain a reddish brown pasted used as a cosmetic for women.

The henna tradition found its way in the coastal are of East Africa and islands as imported tradition from immigrant Muslim Arabs. The Muslims in the past, following the tradition of Prophet Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him, prescribed henna as one of he decorative cosmetics. It has been reported that he applied henna in his beard and prescribed it among the white haired elders.

Most of the coastal women’s preparation for wedding ceremonies is involved in makes up and henna is among the important element. Among the coastal traditions, if a husband presents henna to his wife as a gift it implies that he likes it.

A woman would go great length to stay put for four or five days and set aside all other activities to lie down and paint henna in the feets and forehands with various designs. As henna requires to dry and redyed for number of times to attain a stunning reddish brown colour, women have to exercise a degree of patience and face number of inconveniences just for the sake of looking good.

Henna, unlike the case with other modern cosmetics, is economical, harmless and above all free from any side effects and of course increases woman’s beauty. Henna is also a good herbal medicine for hair loss problem. The powdered shrubs boiled with coconut oil and applied daily on the scalps help grooming and lengthening hairs. And in Sri Lanka, there is a wide belief among Muslims that henna, apart from being decorative cosmetic, is also herbal medicine for relieving headache and stress.

Henna is rapidly losing touch with young daughters in contrast; elderly women attitude towards henna is still intact. Bibi Ashura, an elderly woman of 65 years still dyes henna whenever she is happy. ‘I will never stop dyeing henna throughout my life. It is the only way I express my sense of dignity and purely demonstrate a feminine character’ said Bibi Ashura and finally adds,’ Once I dye henna, I feel twenty years younger!’

According to Kiswahili tradition, unmarried women are not allowed to dye henna in their feets and forehands. It is only applied when they are very young and once they reach the age of puberty they had to stop to fully apply henna until they get married. But Ukhti Mwanakheir, a devout Muslim woman, explains, ‘I paint henna to follow the tradition of the Prophet’. To her there is nothing wrong in contradicting century’s long traditions and customs as long as does not conform to the religious injunctions.

Other young women and unmarried girls argue in the same context that henna can be simply regarded as ‘Sunnah’. And this Sunnah was prevalent since time immemorial and the customs managed to prevail over the Prophetic Sunnah, why this sudden change of attitude?

Mama Amina, a mother of three elderly daughters who are currently studying in secondary schools elaborates, ‘in the past, young girls were not open minded, they were so many things they were supposed to know as a mater of their right but they were no explained to them. Nowadays, education secular and religious, has far reaching effects in teaching them and opening up their eyes’

On the other hand, Mama Halima sees the cause as the total neglect of customary rites like the traditional Unyago, where girls are being taught the dos an do not’s and adds, ‘once you disregard the important tradition like Unyago, you should be ready to face the consequences’

Unmarried girls’ version of ‘Sunnah’, however, is not in line with the Prophetic tradition as they advocate. In fact it is a means to justify their unholy violation of one of the very important customary tradition restricting them from dyeing henna by using the loophole and breaking the barrier to the dismay of mothers and grandmothers. Elderly women have become powerless in the new wave of henna fever and they have no means to counter attack to the extent new imported tradition have been recently introduced – special henna day.

As the world is becoming a very small place to live and according to Arab culture, during wedding ceremony, unmarried girls and friends of the bride to be have their special day as a send off where they joined the wife to be in their final farewell. The function is normally done two to three days before the wedding and is strictly unmarried girls affair. Spinsters utilize this opportunity as a formal excuse to dye henna.

The tradition has become part and parcel of Swahili tradition as it is now accepted within every walk of life and has been dubbed as Hina ya Wari (Spinsters henna) in Kiswahili.

Henna among married, divorced and widowed women has taken a different perspective nowadays. It is the most sought out cosmetic and in great demand. Number of salons erupted in every nook and corner of the town have included henna as among its professional services, unlike the past where henna designers were elderly women practicing their profession in their homes. Nowadays, henna holds the charts and thus number of modifications in terms of style, design and of course the message behind it have emerged to the extent it cannot evade someone’s eyes in and around Zanzibar. Hardly have you passed three women without one being in henna. ‘Once I knew that my husband likes it, I never stopped’ says Maryam married for almost a year now and she discovered the secret when her husband used to shower her with gifts and henna was among them.

Another married woman, Halima applied henna whenever she attends a wedding ceremony. ‘ I think this is the best way to maintain our cultural identity as our elders demonstrated to us’ she says when she was seen with henna decorating her forehands and feet up to the ankles. ‘It is also dyed in my thighs and upon each breast, but that I cannot show it to you, it is especially for my husband’ Said Halima, with a smiling face.

Another working woman who prefers to remain anonymous explained that henna is really good for women but she prefers to dye it during vacations or long holidays. She does not like painting henna while in the workplace because of the sudden attention she might attract. ’Once you paint henna everyone along the street or at the office glanced at you for a while before carrying on with their activities’

Henna became accessible today due to number of factors but mainly the demonopolisation of the trade and the increasing demand of the service itself. Previously, throughout Zanzibar, they were very few professional designers who worked on a professional capacity. Majority were elderly women who have taken this task on part time basis and whenever there is a need. Today, with number of salons erupted in every nook and corner, the business has thrived as customers quadrupled.

Unlike in the past where a woman suffers four to five gruelling days in dyeing and painting, nowadays woman may enter Salon and in few hours come out fully dyed. A new brand of henna is in the market – Concocted henna (Hina ya kupika).

One type of this henna is the powdered dried henna leaves mixed up with lemon juice and petrol and then made concentrate by keeping the mixed paste overnight. Another form is the imported one where one mixes ordinary tea leaves with sugar and then boiled in a fully covered pot. An empty cup is then inserted so as once the steam appears is gathered inside the cup. Talcum powder or wheat flour is added to attain paste look like henna ready for dyeing. Concocted henna takes only three hours to attain the normal henna look. However it fades very quickly while the concentrated normal henna requires two days of dyeing to attain the look. Today henna is also imported from Indian subcontinent ready for instant use.

The styles have changed as well. Designs like barabara(road), msumeno (saw), machenza (clementines) which were very famous in the past, have been overcome by current trends of majani (leaves) mawardi (roses) tausi (peacock) and many emerging trends imported from Arabia and Asia.

Henna also becomes one of the tourist attractions for foreign tourists visiting the country. Foreign tourists can be seen in various salons having tattoo like designs painted in their forehands, arms and feets. In a fact it is one of the most do memoirs of many tourists visiting the islands. One of the tourist approached to air her opinion why she chose to paint henna she said, “It is not painful as tattoo and a client spent very little time in painting and above all can fade easily”

Sister Maryam, one of the rising henna designers in town explains that the business is at peak during the wedding seasons and also during the tourist seasons between months of June and September. And with recent introduction of peacock brand black dye to replace wanja ( the original paste like black ink used to decorate feets and forearms), ‘a woman comes here and after hardly two hours , she ‘s already changed painted with henna, added with peacock and looks stunning beauty’ says Maryam.

‘Henna is also used as hair cosmetic’, continues Maryam, ‘Artificial cosmetics are very expensive and many women cannot afford, but henna within easy reach and bearing in mind what little they have, young women dye their hair red and of course they look gorgeous’

In Pakistan and elsewhere in Southeast Asia and some Arab countries, not only brides dye henna in their wedding but also bridegrooms. In fact when once pronounced husband and wife both have a similar look in their forehands. In the traditional Arabic weddings, brides’ relatives present henna to the relatives of the bridegrooms and as a tradition, best friends and relatives of the bridegrooms dye henna on the forehands but nowadays it is not allowed to dry.

Surprisingly this tradition failed to interact in the islands where bridegrooms still maintain Kiswahili customs and traditions. Although number of men interviewed agrees that painting henna for male during the wedding is not only an Arabic tradition but also a Sunnah of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (Peace and blessings be upon him) but none among the Zanzibari Arabs and indigenous Africans are ready to break the ice for the revival of the forgotten Sunnah.

How do women regard this idea of painting henna among men? ‘It is not possible, because the Zanzibari natives with roots from Arab origins are not ready to do it’ said mama Mwanakhamis. Mama Amina explained further that the current society not ready to accept this new trend as it is dodged by dubious thoughts. If a man dyes henna, the people may think that he is homosexual. Thus it will require a lot of awareness campaign to be able to be accepted within different factions of the society.

And Bibi Ashura came up with very interesting point that women in general have prioritized henna traditions and become part and parcel of their everyday lives in spite of the introduction of various modern technology in cosmetics, whereas men do not care at all about up keeping their own traditions. ‘Women, not men, in spite of the modern trend, have managed to maintain number of traditions by passing it to another generations with ease’

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