The Africa woman head-wrap (popularly called the 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 various names like ‘head rag’, ‘head-tie’, ‘head handkerchief’, ‘turban’, and ‘head-wrap’.
The head-wrap usually 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.
A badge of enslavement
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.
How the African women wear the head wrap
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.
The different ways of wearing the head-wrap
Tying a piece of cloth around the head is not specific to any one cultural group. 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. 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. 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.