Head wraps or head ties originated in Sub-Saharan Africa and have survived, in multiple cultures, through colonial and post-colonial times. They go by different names in different cultures. For instance, in Nigeria, they’re commonly known as ‘Gele.’ In Ghana and Malawi, a ‘Duku.’ Just like our numerous traditional hairstyles, head wraps are used to symbolize culture, social status, spirituality, marital status or even age. They come in different styles and are made with a wide range of colors and fabrics, each with their own significances. It is often said that a head wrap can tell you a lot about the woman wearing it.
One of the major reasons African women wear head wraps are ceremonies. In Nigeria, Geles are worn at weddings, naming ceremonies, traditional parties and even church events! As a matter of fact, the art of tying the Gele is a huge business because of its importance in our ceremonies. They are usually brightly colored, elaborate structures made of firm material (called Aso-oke or Damask) that go as high as the fabric will allow, usually blocking the view of anyone sitting directly behind the wearer. Literally a way African women take their looks to new heights!
Head wraps are also worn for regular day to day activities, to add a little spice to your outfit or cover up a bad hair day. Casual head wraps used are made of softer fabrics than those used for ceremonies. Usually, traditional fabrics such as Ankara or Kente are used. In areas north of Nigeria for example, where there are predominantly Muslim Hausas and Fulanis, the Hijab is worn. The Hijab is also very common in a lot of West and East African countries with a significant Muslim population.
Let’s put this info into action, shall we? To tie a Gele for instance:
1. Start by preparing your hair. Usually, you would put your hair in a bun or in flat cornrows.
2. Depending on the width of your fabric, you can fold it in half or make a fold at one end, throughout its length. Make sure you make the fold really crisp by pressing it down with your fingers.
3. Drape the bent edge of the fabric over your forehead, making sure one end is longer than the other. The longer end should be long enough to wrap around your head at least twice and the shorter end should be long enough to go down your nape. Make sure the fabric covers your forehead and the two ends cover your ears.
4. As the fabric sits tight on your forehead, cross the two ends at your nape by taking both ends and pulling them back behind your neck. Fasten the shorter end using the longer one by placing the longer end on top of it. Pull the ends tight so the fabric remains taut across your head.
5. Then, take the longer end and wrap it once around your head, making folds or pleats in the fabric as your wrap it. The beauty of the Gele is in the pleats so take your time to do this part very well.
6. Wrap it a second time around your head, making more pleats. Create the pleats using small movements of your fingers and press the edges down to your head. Move all the way down to your nape and wrap it up.
7. Finally, tie the two remaining edges of the fabric together with a firm, secure knot and make any adjustments to the headwrap till it looks perfect on you.
This make take a few re-reads and much practice, but the gift of a Gele is the pride in the end result! All head wraps are a form of expression and no two head wraps are exactly the same. In whatever elaborate or conservative way you choose to style yours, just have fun with it!