Ongoing studies into the origins of African aromatherapy, tree medicines, use of oils in health and beauty...to be continued...
For a time in my life, my morning was not off to a proper start unless I watched my favorite programs. Like many women and men for that matter, Oprah was an important element of my morning ritual. When you watch talk shows day after day, at a certain point it is difficult to recall the idiosyncrasies of each show—we are awash in an experience. It is telling then, that I can recall the particular morning when Oprah announced that hair grease (pomades, balms, salves) was bad for black hair—this delivered poignantly, as usual, tossing her well-coifed hair, to and fro, to punctuate the statement. I had to scratch my own itchy cornrows in dismay wondering what to do, as oils traditionally eased the tough transitional days of this hairstyle.
Fragrant baths, floor washes, powders, bath crystals, incense, anointing and blessing oils, as well as fresh aromatic flowers have been employed in our folk medicines since the earliest records of our existence.
Unguents, which we now call pomades, were used approximately 5,000 years ago according to cave walls on the Tassili plateau in the Sahara and Algiers. Women, with what appears to be cornrowed hair, are having a substance (assumed to be unguent) applied to their braids and scalp. Women had their hair and bodies anointed with fragrant pomades and botanical oils, assured of the oils medicinal powers. Women perfumed themselves by sitting over or near burning pots of sandalwood or aromatic substances [similar to smudging or smoke bath]. Fragrant flowers, among other natural objects worn on the body, served as protection amulets (Yarbrough, C. 2002).
In Ancient Egypt, women are depicted wearing cone-shaped unguents on their heads. These cones were either representative of all of the pomade previously applied or actual cones that melted from body heat, perfuming and conditioning the hair (illustrated in stele, papyri and cave art from various civilizations) (Jeffries, R. 1988). Moreover, ancient Egyptian papyri list hundreds of curative properties of oils, so oils are not simply glop for the hair but are useful medicines (For medicinal benefits use pure botanical oils. Petroleum and other fossil fuel by-products should be strictly avoided).
Madame C. J. Walker became the first Black millionaire in the United States in the early twentieth century from sales of her miraculous, herbal hair growth pomades and other botanical products. Afro Sheen™, Dixie Peach™, Dax™, Bergamot ™ as well as the herbal blends of tallow and lanolin have been used for decades by African Americans to treat scalp disorders and encourage hair growth. Over the years, synthetic and petroleum products dominated the formulae and their use dwindled. Today, there is a virtual pomade renaissance. African Pride ™ and African Root Stimulator ™, prominently feature aromatic herbs like sage, rosemary, lemon verbena, neroli, patchouli, lemongrass and even kola nuts in a shea butter or olive oil base. Pomade has regained popularity, unrestricted by ethnicity or race.
As we return to our roots, many of us no longer wear our hair blow-dried or relaxed. We have gone back to the way of our ancestors to embrace braids, twists, knots and locks. Those who wear straight hairstyles realize that they too benefit from hot oil treatments, as hot oils are currently enjoying an overall surge in popularity at salons.
I would like to share the benefits of a few African oils and will follow up with suggestions for using them. As you read on you will notice that I have included other factors that make natural oils appealing; their sale helps generate income for rural African women, they are good for multiple health functions and they are good for the environment. Further, wildcrafted, organic, cold processed oils are commonly obtained from Africa, very different from the expensive proposition that occurs when buying wildcrafted oils elsewhere.
Shea butter and neem are currently enjoying the limelight so let’s begin with them.