Henna’s sensual charm

By Patrick Beja

Henna is mainly a culture of the Coastal communities. Girls up to the age of nine are decorated with simple patterns on the hands but not the legs.

Those beyond this age have to wait until their marriage. Forty days after giving birth, women can be decorated with henna as they rejoin their husbands for ‘honeymoon’, experts say.

Different intricate henna designs painted on arms, legs, fingers and other parts of the body.  

On occasions like weddings, a certain henna design for the bride’s family members (karose) enhances the celebration mood and is used for identification. To ensure the plant achieves maximum romance, decorations on other parts of the body besides the usual arms and legs have been adopted.

The revered henna paintings are usually done in secluded places preferably in private houses rather than in hair salons and beauty parlours.

Eisha Mohamed Famau has been a henna artist in Mombasa for the last ten years and says it is rewarding to possess such skills.

"I tried henna painting and fell in love with the art," she says.

Gaining popularity

She spoke during a recent henna competition at the inaugural Malindi Cultural Festival. She had just decorated Patience Ray, a Swahili culture student from Virginia in the US.

Ray has now set her sights on henna art after attending a similar competition at the Lamu Maulid Festival in March. Her teacher, Salma Ali, scooped the best award and earned Sh4,000 as the prize.

"In November last year, I attended another henna competition in Zanzibar and it has been a thrilling experience for me," she says.

Ray says she will strive to be part of celebrations associated with the plant of passion that is gaining popularity across the world.

Another enthusiast and organiser of the Malindi Cultural Festival henna competitions, Hayaty Abdulhakim Amir, says henna paintings are a symbol of joy and hence popular among coastal women. She admits the henna designs have been a bait for husbands as they are believed to strengthen marriages.

Hayaty, who is also a member of the Malindi Museum Society, says it is common for Coast women to decorate the waistline with henna patterns instead of the common band of beads.

The breasts and the back are other body areas that are also decorated with symbols like hearts, flowers, leaves, jugs, cups, scorpions and butterflies to entice the husband.


Experts say husbands are so glued to the patterns on the women’s inner body areas that this is one of the secrets of henna enthusiasts at the Coast.

"It is important to always seduce your husband by enhancing your beauty.

Henna is mainly meant for married women and patterns come in many designs. It is part of the Coastal culture," explains Hayaty.

Common henna decorations done on arms and legs come in varying designs depending on taste and one’s ability to pay the painters, who are usually women.

The khaleej design originated from the United Arab Emirates and it leaves sizeable space between the flowery patterns. The Indian style is complex while the Swahili design comes with big roses. The Arabian style is said to be popular among brides, although it depends on one’s taste.

US student Patience Ray shows off her painted patterns. Photos: Maarufu Mohamed/Standard

Painting intricate patterns requires skill and endurance as it takes between six to eight hours to create good decorations.

Hayaty says painters earn between Sh4,000 and Sh10,000 although other artists charge less.

Henna patterns come in brown and black depending on the client’s taste.

On the East Coast, the art is considered sacred and comes handy during traditional or religious occasions like Maulid.

In Malindi, heena is sourced from the ancient settlement of Mambrui although much of it is imported from Yemen. In Zanzibar, women are reported to have taken the henna art a notch higher by also decorating canvas in addition to bodies.

Symbol of beauty

The dried leaves of heena plant are pounded, filtered, blended then mixed with water to form a paste, which is then used to decorate feet soles, palms, ankles and fingernails.

Apart from being revered as a symbol of beauty and joy, henna is also believed to contain medicinal properties.

Experts and lovers say henna has the ability to cool down the human body and refresh the soul as well.

Henna’s botanical name is Lawsonia Inermis. It is believed to have helped the desert residents of Rajasthan, Punjab, and Gujarat to cool their bodies.

Reports indicate the people would dip their hands and feet in a mud or paste made of crushed henna leaves and their body temperatures would lower when the mud was scraped off, as long as the henna colour remained visible.

The Standard
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