African women and the significance of a head-wrap (Dhuku)


THE Africa woman head-wrap (dhuku) holds a distinctive position in the history of African dress both for its longevity and for its potent significations.
It endured the travail of colonialism and never passed out of fashion.
The dhuku represents far more than a piece of fabric wound around the head.
This distinct cloth head covering has been called variously ‘head rag’, ‘head-tie’, ‘head handkerchief’, ‘turban’, or ‘head-wrap’.
The head-wrap usually completely covers the hair, being held in place by tying the ends into knots close to the skull.
As a form of apparel in Zimbabwe, the head-wrap has been exclusive to women of African descent.
The head-wrap originated in sub-Saharan Africa, and serves similar functions for both African and African-American women.
In style, the African-American woman’s head-wrap exhibits the features of sub-Saharan aesthetics and worldview.
In the United States, however, the head-wrap acquired a paradox of meaning not customary on the ancestral continent.
During slavery, white overlords imposed its wear as a badge of enslavement!
Later it evolved into the stereotype that whites held of the ‘Black Nammy’ servant.
The enslaved and their descendants, however, have regarded the head-wrap as a helmet of courage that evoked an image of true homeland – be that of ancient Africa or the ‘newer homeland’of America.
The simple head rag worn by millions of enslaved women and their descendants has served as a uniform of communal identity; but at its most elaborate, the African American woman’s head-wrap has functioned as a ‘uniform of rebellion’ signifying absolute resistance to loss of self-definition.
Tying a piece of cloth around the head is not specific to any one cultural group.
Men and women have worn and continue to wear some type of fabric head covering in many societies.
What does appear to be culturally specific, however, is the way the fabric is worn.
In other words, the style in which the fabric is worn is the ultimate cultural marker.
To wrap her head, a European or white-American woman simply folds a square piece of fabric into a triangular shape and covers her hair by tying the fabric under her chin; or, less often, by tying it at the nape of the neck.
In either case, the untied points of fabric are left to fall down over the back of the head.
The Euro-American style results in a head covering which flattens against the head and encloses the face, and thus visually seems to pull the head down.
The terms ‘scarf’ or ‘kerchief’ usually denote this type of head covering.
Scarves are not particularly popular items of white-American women’s fashion today, but when they are worn, they consistently are arranged in the manner I just described above.
By contrast, a woman of African ancestry folds the fabric into a rectilinear shape rather than into a triangle.
The most significant difference between the Euro-American and Afro-centric manner of styling the cloth is that rather than tying the knot under her chin, the African American woman usually ties the knots somewhere on the crown of her head, either at the top or on the sides, often tucking the ends into the wrap.
Although the African-American woman sometimes ties the fabric at the nape of the neck, her form of styling always leaves her forehead and neck exposed; and, by leaving her face open, the head-wrap visually enhances the facial features.
The African head-wrap thus works as a regal coronet, drawing the onlooker’s gaze up, rather than down.
In effect, African women wear the head-wrap as a queen might wear a crown.
In this way, the head-wrap corresponds to African and women’s manner of hair styling, wherein the hair is pulled so as to expose the forehead and is often drawn to a heightened mass on top of the head.
In striking comparison, the scarf worn by white women emulates the way in which the hair of people of European ancestry naturally grows: falling downward and often arranged to cover the forehead.
Another outstanding difference between the two ways of wearing the head-wrap is that, in contrast to the singular manner by which white women wrap their hair in fabric, African women exhibit a seemingly endless repertoire of elaborations on the basic mode.
A head-wrap is a common women’s cloth head scarf in many parts of southern and western Africa.
In South Africa and Namibia, the Afrikaans word ‘doek’ (meaning ‘cloth’) is used for the traditional head covering used among most rural elderly African women.
In other parts of the continent, terms like ‘duku’ (Malawi, Ghana), ‘dhuku’ (Zimbabwe), ‘tukwi’ (Botswana), and ‘gele’ (Nigeria) are used.
Among the BaTonga women, the head scarf is used as an ornamental head covering or fashion accessory, or for functionality in different settings.
Its uses or meaning can vary depending on the country and/or religion of those who wear it.
For the BaTonga women, the opportunity to wear a ‘dhuku’ usually falls on a religious day of Friday, Saturday or Sunday, or other ceremonial functions such as the Lwiindi Gonde, Kuomboka and other initiation rituals.
BaTonga head-ties are usually small and conservative compared to the styles form other countries such as Nigeria and Ghana.
They are worn downwards at weddings and at funerals, but at celebrations like weddings, ceremonies, and formal parties, they are worn upwards.
In addition, they are worn during sleep to protect the hair.
In church services women may wear ‘dhukus’ to cover their heads.
At the International Pentecostal churches in South Africa, married women wear white ‘dhukus’.
The BaTonga women in Zimbabwe and Zambia wear ‘dhukus’ as accessories.
At other social gatherings in Zimbabwe, women may wear a dhuku.
In Nigeria they are known as ‘gele’, and can be rather large and elaborate.
Although ‘gele’ can be worn for day-to-day activities, the elaborate ceremonial ones (usually made of a material that is firmer than regular cloth) are worn to weddings, special events, and church activities.
Resurgence in African pride, especially among the youth, has led to its usage in many Western nations outside of Africa.
When worn, especially for more elaborate events, the ‘gele’ typically covers a woman’s entire hair as well as her ears.
The only part exposed is her face and earrings on the lower part of her earlobes.
The ‘gele’ is accompanied by traditional African attire that may or may not have the same pattern as the head tie itself.


  1. What about Arab and Jewish women
    E.g. Hijab styles and Tichel.

    Many Jewish ‘white women’ style their tichel scalves imaginatively to show off their beauty too.

  2. Good job for spotting this Danette and indeed for pointing this out to the writer. We have to be proud to be who we are and this means doing things right. I am impressed that the editor has allowed this to remain in print as it shows transparency thus credibility for a paper which should champion our pride. I follow the paper quite closely and do think that some of the article are not factual especially those written about what is taking place in the diaspora. Why not engage us in a healthier discussion about such matters. Those of us who live away from home but remain patriotic nonetheless are keen to champion facts

  3. Some very good observations and reflections indeed which engender pride in African identity. Nevertheless, if, as pointed out by Dannette Sharpley, there is rife plagiarism in the article, Elliott Siamonga needs to respond and acknowledge what he owes to someone else’s research (in this case Helen Bradley Griebel as claimed) as distinct from what is his own. There is no harm in apologising, eating humble pie and moving on. It actually makes us bigger. Plagiarism or not, personally, thank you for making this material available to the likes of myself.

  4. I find it strange that when the pioneers arrived in Rhodesia in 1890,the locals did not know what cloth was.
    How then?is it a cultural tradition handed down.
    I would like some sort of historical evidence of this.
    Also there was no written language,to provide historical backup.

    • While there was no cloth, the tribes used hide. Oral history is an important part of the culture but if you give no credence to it then you can still find support of the information through historic pictures and writings by the invaders/settlers


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