returning to roots

Returning to Roots:

Braids Make a Comeback

Braids are a major part of many traditional hairstyles in Ethiopia. As a country with over eighty different ethnic groups, there are a variety of different hairstyles and adornments that go with each unique tradition, including gudula, zerantich, gutena, nazraw and shuruba. Lately, traditional hairstyles have been making a comeback in the streets of Addis, although they have not lost their popularity in more rural areas. EBR’s Kiya Ali looked into the newfound popularity of traditional hairstyles.

In addition to its rich geographic treasures like rivers, valleys, and mountains, many natural and human made historical heritages, more than eighty languages and unique clothing styles, Ethiopia is well known for its own unique hair styles. Many of them are based on braids and cornrows, including Gudula, Zerantich, Gutena, Nazraw and Shuruba and most of them have symbolic meanings used to identify a person’s religion, kingship, age, ethnicity, and social as well as marital status.

Among the different hairstyles, shuruba (traditional braids and cornrows) is a popular and ancient traditional method of hair styling. In fact, cornrows (shuruba) used to be a popular hairstyle both for women and men, as well as being a symbol of patriotism. Warriors and emperors such as Tewodros II and Yohannes IV were often depicted wearing shuruba.

Depending on the location and culture of a particular society, there are different shuruba styles and beautification techniques that go with it. In the state of Tigray, for instance, there are many styles of braiding that ranges from the very fine style of Gilbach to Albaso. It takes a long time to do the braids, which are often very fine and intricate, and is usually done by someone who has extensive knowledge and specialized skills. In this part of the country, jewelry of gold, silver or copper is used to decorate the finished shuruba.

Traditional braids have been dropping in popularity in urban areas over the last few years. However, they seem to be undergoing a resurgence among customers in urban hair salons. Almost every women’s beauty salon in the capital provides the braiding services in addition to their other offerings like set and presses, Morocco bath, body steam, body polish, scrub, massage, facial, and manicures, among others.

One of the more popular braiding styles is Albaso, which usually consists of seven large cornrows that flow back, extending at the end like a fur coat. “Most of the time, women prefer this style during holidays, or for special occasions and weddings,” Yabisira Araga, a hair stylist at Mesi Beauty Salon in Megenagna, tells EBR.

According to Yabisira, shuruba is a seasonal, and not daily, hairstyle in Addis Ababa. “During the rainy seasons and fasting seasons women have their hair braided more. However, during other seasons our customers choose other styles.” At Mesi Beauty Salon, the cost of shuruba using one’s own natural hair is ETB50. If hair extensions are used the cost rises to ETB 55 (usually a minimum of two sets of hair extensions are used).

Seble Molla is a 24 year old woman with short dark blond hair. She is a customer of Mesi and most of the time she gets her hair straightened, or chooses curly styles. However to protect her hair from damage, she chooses to have her hair braided occasionally. “It takes courage to follow your own tastes. But in the process, the chemicals used for your desired color and style can hurt your hair. To help your hair recover from damage, sometimes braids are the better style,” Seble explains.

It is not only the adults of Addis who are jumping on the braid bandwagon by visiting specialized salons. There are also salons that exclusively serve children like Martha Kids Salon in Bole, opened by Tomas Goa and his brother Michael Goa four years ago. Braids are very popular with children under 18 years old, according to the owners. The Salon itself is decorated to appeal to them, with yellow and pink wall colors, stickers and toys. During weekends on average 15 kids visit the salon, but on weekdays, they only have an average of three kids.

“Since our target customers are children, we get more customers during weekends. From Monday to Friday, almost all of our clients are at school. If they do come, it’s only after school,” says Tomas. The cost of braiding at the Salon ranges between ETB70 and ETB100 depending on the style.

As the peoples’ lifestyles change, disposable incomes increase, and services become more accessible, more parents are choosing to bring their kids to salons to take care of their hair. Meskerem Kebede, a mother of three, is one of them. “Most of the time I bring my two daughters here. I can only do a few hairstyles, but professionals can do many attractive styles,” she says.

Meskerem says the ETB 100 charge for braids is fair. Since she works part time at a private hospital, in addition to her full time job as a medical doctor at a government hospital, Meskerem doesn’t have much time to spend on her two daughters’ hair. “I love this place since the hair dressers are polite and the building is alongside a main road. It is also close to my workplace as well as my home,” she adds.

Tomas explains that he started the business with his brother with only one stool and one employee around the Haya Hulet area. Over time, they scaled up the business and rented a one room house around Bole for ETB10,000 a month. They currently they have three employees, who are paid a maximum of ETB3,000 each. Compared to other hair salons, Martha’s braiding services are a little more expensive.

On the other hands, despite the service being available at almost every salon in Addis Ababa, the shuruba business is not satisfying on its own, according to some salon owners. Mikiyas Belete, owner of Mike Beauty Salon, around Dembel City Center, says that braiding is not an attractive business. “In addition to being seasonal, young girls do not consider shuruba a fashionable and modern style,” Mikiyas argues. At Mike Beauty Salon the cost of braiding is ETB150 using one’s own hair, with increases for each set of hair extensions used. Mikiyas says that some people also think that it is not fair to pay for braids since most Ethiopian women can create shuruba styles at home.

For Mikiyas, in order to enhance the business, serious promotional work is needed, on top of introducing creative, diverse and attractive styles. “A big issue is that building rental costs are increasing over time, and the government levies higher taxation,” explains Mikiyas. “These things become major challenges that prevent the further scale up of the braiding business.”

8th Year • Apr.16 – May.15 2019 • No. 73

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