Henna: Reclaiming our cultural tradition


Henna parlours provide income, empowerment for Kenyan women

By Bosire Boniface in Wajir

November 28, 2012

Leila Hassan Abdille, 33, was designing henna in her parents’ home in Kenya’s Mandera District in October 2010 when her cousin told her she should turn her art into a business.  Abdille recalls her cousin saying, “Why not utilise your artistic talent to economically empower yourself and your family?” Abdille had been regarded as the finest henna artist in her Bulla Mzuri neighbourhood, but she said the idea of turning it into a business seemed strange.

“At first I found the proposal weird because many people I knew in my neighbourhood were doing it for fun. I wondered how can someone pay for this simple art,” she told Sabahi. “After mulling over the challenge, I developed a keen interest in developing the skills into a business venture.”

Two years after she started charging for the services, Abdille has transformed her work from a small home business into a larger business venture in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighbourhood.

Because many people were unaccustomed to paying for henna decorations, Abdille said she had to make her designs unique and act in a professional manner.

With the move from Mandera to Nairobi, Abdille said her client base has surged from an average of 25 per week to more than 100.

She also charges more in the city. “In Mandera, which is more of a rural setup, the charges range between 300 shillings ($4) to 1,000 shillings ($12) per person,” she said. “In Nairobi the charges range between 2,000 and 4,000 shillings.”

Henna businesses transform women’s lives

Rukia Subow, national chairwoman of the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation, a women’s-rights foundation, told Sabahi the emergence of henna parlours in Kenya over the past two years indicates that women are utilising their unique skills.

Subow said henna painting has special relevance to women in conservative communities who want financial independence while maintaining their family lives.

“Women are increasingly discovering their options,” she said. “They are creative and becoming entrepreneurs, as they feel that they have a lot to give to generate income.”

“You will find the same parlours in remote villages. It is no longer a pastime, as henna painting is feeding families and educating their children,” Subow said.

Habiba Hussein Yussuf, a 29-year-old who runs a henna business in Garissa with five employees, told Sabahi that her customers have significantly increased, translating into good revenue for the artists. Her parlour also trains at least three apprentices at any given moment, and they often go on to open their own businesses.

Henna painting is traditionally done for a bride and her maids before the wedding, and is a common practice among Muslims. But Yussuf said the increase in her customers is also due to non-Muslim women embracing the art.

Henna expands beyond traditional customs

Teresa Ontiri, a 25-year-old henna artist and hairdresser in Kitale, said the business is also attractive to women because it does not require much capital.

“Besides unique skills, it requires an eye for the best quality henna and maybe rent for the business premises,” Ontiri told Sabahi. “In most instances, one can work from her living room, back yard or front yard.”

Ontiri, a Christian, said she learned the trade from her Muslim friend. In exchange, the friend learned the art of plaiting hair from her, she said.

Mwanahamadi Mzee, a 25-year-old who runs a henna parlour in Lamu, told Sabahi that the art requires special skills that are not difficult to learn.

An artist starts by drawing with crayons before she gradually advances to decorating with henna, she said, adding that most of the designs are related to plants or flowers, but sometimes a client may want something different like an animal.

“Most of the art work is done on the legs and hands,” Mzee said. “There are others who also want painting on other parts of the body, such as the torso and neck.”

Lulu Hassan, a news anchor and reporter with Kenya Television Network, said she often gets henna paintings for special occasions.

“It is painless and it looks beautiful on the skin,” she told Sabahi. “I am often invited to be one of the bridesmaids in weddings and I feel something is missing without the painting. It is glamorous.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdrCZ-2r7-U        A Kenyan woman talks about her journey as a henna artist

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6VMqlr5OoE     Book on North African henna

P.S. – So next time henna comes to mind think of  Kemet (where it originated). Give thanks to folks in Somalia, Gambia, Kenya, Ghana kwk for maintaining  the art form. Diaspora sistahs, let’s keep it going. It’s great for puberty rites, weddings, pregnancy or just for fun.


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