Why do African People Use Headrests?
It’s easy to generalise but most cattle-herding traditions of Africa use headrests. The reason is not hard to find. Owning cattle means you have to move with your herd to find new pastures and that means being highly mobile. That’s not all. In traditional African tribal culture cows and goats equate to wealth and having wealth means you have to protect your assets. The consequence is that most cattle-herding cultures also have a warrior caste- young men who protect their livestock. So why use headrests? Well, being nomadic doesn't just mean being mobile and being capable of carrying your possessions, there’s a degree of status and even vanity involved too…
Authentic tribal art and African wooden headrests and neck rests are often important status symbols. Used mostly by men but also by women in some cultures, they are hand carved and used to keep the head lifted up while sleeping. Each African head rest is specially made for its owner and the size is determined by the distance of the shoulder to the neck. Since neckrests are mostly favoured by pastoralist people they tend to light, durable and easy to carry. While head rests are used like pillows and tend to have a flatter surface to rest on, neck-rests tend to have a crescent shaped curve to hold and provide support for the neck.
Most nomadic people of Africa go to great lengths to adorn themselves. Young men will spend idle hours keeping watch over their cattle while braiding each others hair. Often red ochre mixed with animal fat will be applied to achieve elaborate hairstyles. The resulting hairdos are impressive but also attract dust and, since water is often in short supply, keeping one's head off the ground makes perfect sense.
Of course there is another sensible reason for using a headerest. Sleep with your head on the floor and there’s a good chance some nasty creepy-crawly will find its way into your mouth or ear!
One typically sleeps on a headrest by lying on one's side. This promote proper alignment of the spine. Couple that with the risk of insects and needing to keep your fancy coiffure in good order and you start to see why these wonderful items of minimalist art are so popular.
The earlier recorded head rests come from Egypt. The Tellem people of Mali, who live in the 12th century and later also favoured headrest and ancient example have been found in their burial caves.
Headrests: Not just practical
The head is home to the human consciousness and so headrests are associated with the spirit of their owners. In certain cultures from the Democratic Republic of Congo a person's headrest is buried instead of them if the deceased body is not available.
Pillows Doubling as Art
It’s not just the semi-nomadic people from the horn of Africa who use headrests. The Baule people of Ivory Coast are mostly farmers and traders and while they live a non-nomadic life they favoured the use of headrests right up until the 1970s. Since forests abound in West Africa and with them the cultural associations of ancestor veneration as well as masking and statues to commemorate their ancestors, the people of this region favour headrests with African sculpture built into the design. Although styles differ this kind of sculptural headrest is common in central Africa too.
Southern African Head Rests
The Shona of Zimbabwe and Zulu cultures of South Africa also favour headrests. While the origin of these cultures can cen found in pastorilst tradition from where they migrated south from east and central africa hundreds of years ago. As they move south the started living more settled lives. As a consequence Shona headrests (as opposed to neck rests) are vaguely like those you might find in Ethiopia or Somalia. Travel further South and the Zulu favour broad blocks of wood which are clearly not intended for easy transport.