Lalle, Anella, and Fudden

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.

Henna was apparently also grown in the medieval city of Marandet in central Niger, which was another important centre of trade, especially copper. According to the Nigerien archaeologist Djibo Hamani, henna is still found growing in the ruins, although it is not found anywhere else in the immediate vicinity. Throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period, henna was grown in Hausaland (today comprising southern Niger, northern Nigeria, and parts of Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Benin) with indigo, tobacco, onions, cotton, millet, sorghum, maize, and peanuts. Henna was also one of the commodities imported from North Africa by trade caravans, along with dates, salt, paper, camels, and horses.

Kent MacElwee via Flickr

Kent MacElwee via Flickr

The first European mention of henna in the region comes from Michel Adanson, a French naturalist who was stationed in present-day Senegal from 1746-1754. He sent a specimen of local henna back to his academic colleague Bernard de Jussieu in 1751 (only a few years after Linnaeus had given henna its Latin name of Lawsonia inermis!) writing:

I am attaching in a separate envelope some leaves of a species of Lawsonia which the Black Wolofs call foudenn; the powder of these leaves is used by women of the Country to dye their nails. The Powder, when mixed with water to the consistency of paste, and left on for 4-6 hours on the nails, gives them without any pain a beautiful colour of deep red which lasts about six months. I myself tried this on my Fingernails and Toenails and found that the colour lasted for five months, during which time the nails stood out from the fingers by their adornment.

It is very amusing to imagine this dignified French botanist having hennaed fingernails for months — all for the sake of science! In June of 1753, Adanson also recorded seeing henna growing in the marshes at the mouth of the Senegal river.

The Wolof language still uses the word fudden today, and the related word puddi in Fulfulde, to refer to henna. A linguistic analysis actually suggests that the use of henna had originally spread in West Africa via the Amazigh and Tuareg communities of the Sahara, since the word used for henna in the 17th-century Bornu Empire (today northeastern Nigeria) was nalle, borrowed from the Tamasheq (Tuareg) anella. This was later borrowed into Hausa and Yoruba as lalle, which is how it is still known in West Africa today.

In the early 20th century, the British historian Sidney John Hogben recorded an amusing folktale about the origins of henna in Nigeria, which connected the introduction of henna to the conquest of Nigeria by North African Tuareg nomads: claiming to use leather straps to create reverse patterns, the Tuareg tied up the locals and gained control! As Hogben writes:

There is a story that has come down from the past and is still told in several parts of the country which illustrates how the nomad immigrants cunningly gained domination over the local Sudanese people. First they got permission from the chief to live peacefully alongside them. Then after years of increasing familiarity with the newcomers the local inhabitants began to admire the way in which the foreigners painted their nails with henna, and they asked to be shown how it was done. The process was duly explained by which the hands were stained with henna and then wrapped in strips of leather. Allowing themselves in this way to become tightly bound, they fell easy victims to the treacherous Berber nomads, who then had no difficulty in establishing their rule.

Roland Fletcher, a British military officer stationed in Nigeria from 1904-1914, records another fascinating story about the origin of henna use, attributing it to Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet:


Nana Fazumatu [Fatima], a daughter of Mahomet, married one Saidi or Sidi Ali. One day she was lying beside her husband, who had fallen asleep on her right arm, when the Prophet arrived at the house. She had then to choose between two unseemly actions, namely, to waken her husband, or to keep her father waiting at the door. From this dilemma she freed herself by taking a knife and cutting off her right arm. The blood flowed out on to a henna shrub growing near, which has ever since provided the blood-red stain in common use. On greeting her father she discovered that a new and more comely arm had miraculously grown in place of the one she had sacrificed.

No matter how it was introduced, by the 19th century henna was a widespread practice throughout West Africa. The Scottish commander Hugh Clapperton was sent on expedition in West Africa in the 1820s, through the Bornu Empire to Sokoto, the capital of the Fulani Empire (today in north Nigeria), and noted in several places the use of henna to dye men’s beards and women’s hands and feet.

While visiting Bida, in central Nigeria (which he calls Nyffee), Clapperton saw henna as part of the celebrations of Eid al-Fitr: “The new moon, having been seen last night, put an end to the fast of the Rhamadan… The women were dressed and painted to the height of Nyffee perfection: [their hair] dressed, plaited, and dyed with indigo; their eyebrows painted with indigo, the eyelashes with khol, the lips stained yellow, the teeth red, and their feet and hands stained with henna; their finest and gayest clothes on; [and] all their finest beads on their necks.”

Of course, like in North Africa, henna was also an important part of wedding ceremonies. Traditionally, as part of the preparations for the wedding, the groom sent the bride a series of presents, known as lefe baskets, containing henna, indigo (for her hair), kohl, clothes and headscarves, jewelry (especially cowrie shells), and shoes.

In the remarkable life story of Baba of Karo (a Hausa woman from northern Nigeria, 1877-1951, whose autobiography was recorded by anthropologist Mary Smith and published in 1954), she described many details of Hausa wedding henna traditions in the early 20th century — the trope of the ‘reluctant bride’ who tries to escape the marriage is common throughout North Africa as well, as we saw in this Moroccan henna song (and in fact is common across the world):

Seven days before the marriage-day, the bride’s kinswomen catch her and rub her skin with henna; when they come to do this she runs away, and when they get her she cries and wails, she throws herself to the ground again and again crying because the time for marriage has come… Her friends lead the bride to her mother’s sister’s hut, she is hermawankiya, the ‘mother’ who will wash her for marriage. She talks to the bride and lectures her about behaving properly…

The henna is brought from the compound of the bride’s father and the grandmother comes again to put it on. Outside mawankiya’s hut the girls are preparing the henna-leaves, and the drummers and singers are busy at the front of the compound. When mawankiya leads the bride out from her hut, her friends seize her arms and legs and hold her while she struggles. The girls begin to sing again, while the grandmother is putting on the bride’s henna they sing this song:

Save my life, hankaka, save my life, Save my life, hankaka, save my life,
On the day of marriage;
Save my life, hankaka, save my life,
Bazara has come,
Hankaka with the white breast,
White-breasted one, marriage has come.

The bride wants hankaka, the pied crow, to rescue her, so that they shall not give her in marriage…

Some of the girls go over to the bridegroom’s compound, if it is his first marriage too they will be putting henna on him… The bride stays in her mawankiya’s compound for four nights; mawankiya puts henna on the bride’s arms and legs every day, and ties them up in leaves, but she doesn’t put the long henna-gourd on her hand and arm, so the girl just unties the leaves and pulls them off and runs off to play.

As Baba of Karo mentioned, grooms also receive henna, if it is their first marriage. This is especially important among the Tuareg, for whom the groom’s henna ceremony, called eghumi, is a community-wide time of songs and stories. The henna is applied by smith women known as tchinadan, who also serve the community as leatherworkers, griots, magicians, musicians, and ritual specialists.

Henna is commonly done not only for weddings, but also for the end of Ramadan, to celebrate the birth of a child, and as a general cosmetic any time women want to look beautiful. It is also used medicinally, as in other areas, to treat burns and blisters (Muhammad and Muhammad 2005).

Unfortunately the dangerous ‘black henna’ is sometimes seen, especially in places with high volumes of tourists. But thankfully it seems that most henna in West Africa is still natural, and the thick application of the resist technique ensures a beautiful deep stain. Some of these patterns could be replicated with a cone by very carefully laying down parallel lines for the resist areas and then filling in the rest… But it would be easier to use either a flour-based resist paste or tape.

Adapted from a post on Eshkol haKofer.