From traditional Zanzibari henna painting on the body to henna painting on canvas

28 Oct

Henna has been around for centuries, from as far back as the Bronze Age across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It’s used to decorate the body and hair and even as a dye for silk, leather and wool. Traditionally, henna is worn at times of celebration, for weddings and religious festivals such as Eid.



Henna is made from the leaves of a flowering shrub, which thrives in tropical regions and can be found across Zanzibar and Tanzania. To make the dye, branches are cut down and
left to dry in the sun, until the leaves fall off. The leaves are then collected and ground into a powder, then sifted to remove any impurities. The powder is mixed into a paste with lemon juice and sometimes essential oils like lavender, tea tree or eucalyptus are added to the mixture to strengthen the colour, making the dye last longer. When the paste is ready, it’s applied to the skin, usually piped through a cellophane cone although sometimes toothpick is used to trace out the designs. The paste is left to dry and flakes off to reveal the reddish brown patterns underneath. The dye darkens after the first couple of days and can last for up to a fortnight. Henna can also be used as a hair dye, fresh leaves are covered with coconut oil and left to infuse over a stove for 30 minutes, and then the coloured oil is applied to the hair, giving a red tint and leaving the hair healthy and shiny.

Black henna, known as wanja in Swahili, has become increasingly popular in henna designs. Wanja used to be made using seeds which were burnt and then cooked with coconut oil to make a paste, similar to red henna, but nowadays, black hair dye has been increasingly substituted for the organic paste.

For a Swahili wedding, the bride is decorated with henna for luck and to bless the marriage. A bride can sit for hours, as the henna artist paint flowers across the her skin, flowers blooming over her arms, decorating both sides of her hands and over her feet and legs. Her finger nails and toe nails are stained orange with the dye and some brides choose to have their backs and shoulders decorated. Henna patterns in Zanzibar are a fusion of Arab and Indian designs, combining the intricate fine floral and paisley patterns found in Indian mehindi with the larger flowers found in Arab henna. Both red henna and black henna can be used and it’s a Zanzibari tradition that the bride does not have to do any housework in her new home until her bridal henna has faded.

Designs and patterns change over time, falling in and out of fashion. Western influence can clearly be seen, with mamas at the beaches offering henna along with massage and hair braiding to tourists, as part of the beach beauty package. Chinese symbols, Celtic tattoos and pictures of dolphins are increasingly found in pattern books but henna traditions remains strong.

The powdered leaves of Lawsonia inermis crushed and painted onto the skin represent a Zanzibar woman’s ascension into adulthood. Her henna is so seductive that the decoration is mostly reserved for married women; the bride is adorned for her wedding and every other joyful occasion after the wedding night. Unmarried girls are forbidden to decorate themselves with henna as married women do. There are distinct ‘childish’ designs that distinguish, in the crowded marketplaces, maids looking to attract a husband mark from wives.

The famous Makunduchi-born poet, mwalimu Hija Saleh wrote about the language of henna: ‘Zinanishangaza hina zipakwazo mikononi, Utaona lako jina limekoza kiganjani, kiyachungua sana silako utabaini, Napindi uulizapo jina hili ni la nani? Utaapiwa kiapo lazima utaamini!’

(Hennas surprise me those painted on hands, You will notice your name in bold on someone’s palm, If you investigate deeply it’s not yours you’ll realize, And when you ask whose name is this? It will be affirmed as yours and believe it, you will!)

Women of Zanzibar wear henna for the end-of-Ramadan (Siku Kuu) celebrations. They stain the soles of their feet for relief after a hard day working in the village, using its cooling
properties to heal sun-burned skin and fatigue. The birth of children and the circumcision of boys are all marked by the wearing of henna. Henna is the glory of a Swahili woman. It’s difficult to say just how long the Swahili have been using the plant, since the first people to begin cultivating henna were Egyptians, and the caravans that traded there 9000 years ago carried it all the way to the Far East. So while not exclusive to Zanzibar, the Swahili have created a unique eclectic style.

And it’s not only on skins – the Swahili have merged body art and canvas to produce permanent artwork that attests to the beauty of their henna. The Hurumzi Gallery in Stone Town is the home of ‘henna art’ in Zanzibar. It displays some of the most beautiful designs created by local artists. A new spectrum of colour has revolutionised henna culture on the islands and the designs – once doomed to fade after a week or so – are now tattooed on canvas. Henna art is now embraced – alongside the more iconic and mainland tinga tinga painting, and pieces are joining private collections of African art. For a large canvas by an accomplished artist you can expect to pay around 300 USD.

Check:  and Zayaa Art Gallery

Back on the body, the artwork is far less pricey, though no less work to create. If you want to have authentic henna done in Zanzibar, it’s worth searching for an artist that works with locally produced, organic henna. Some painters use a tint called pico, a synthetic dye that produces a much darker tint in about a fifth of the time henna takes to produce its sensual colour. Pico can produce allergic reactions and it’s definitely not organic. ‘Real henna’ is natural, deliciously fragrant and takes time to stain the skin; sometimes several hours are required to allow the paste to set before a woman can move. The practice has created a henna culture that celebrates pleasure and relaxation to create beauty. Women sip spiced tea while the artist adorns them, leaving plenty of time for gossip while they’re at it. When the artist is finished, she’ll slip home to her husband and reveal her secrets to him. Enjoy henna painting while sipping pepper, cinnamon and clove tea and listening to taarab music at



Medicinal Usage

Apart from its traditional and ceremonial uses, henna is known for its medicinal properties of healing and relaxation. It is used to heal skin diseases, cure headaches and cool the skin
to reduce swelling in hot seasons. Mehndi oil is used by therapists to treat a number of ailments, such as scalp treament for hair fall, hair growth and nail conditioning.

  • Soak mehndi leaves in water all night and drink the decanted water in the morning for 40 days—this is an effective remedy for jaundice, leprosy and healing wounds.
  • Gargle with mehndi water for relief from stomatitis and ulcers of tongue, cheeks and lips.
  • Henna paste is applied on the soles of patients suffering from small pox and chicken pox, as it is believed that this prevents the eyes from damage associated with these diseases.
  • Henna paste mixed with vinegar is applied to nails that get disfigured after fungal infection.
  • Mehndi also acts as a blood purifier.
  • Headaches caused by heat strokes can be treated by smelling henna flowers.
  • Olive oil mixed with mehndi leaves is very effective for easing muscular pains and rigidity.
  • As mentioned earlier, henna has always been used to cool the body, particularly feet.

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