Ancestral hair-paste ritual gains new life in Chad

Each strand of hair, from the root to the end, is slathered in a traditional mixture of cherry seeds, cloves and the most important ingredient of all: Chebe seeds. Users say the recipe makes their hair grow longer and more lustrous.

Local and natural hair products are gaining popularity across Africa as people turn away from chemical cosmetics that are widely feared to cause cancer.

Moussa applies the mixture and shapes the client’s locks into a Gourone — a traditional hairstyle consisting of several large thick plaits and thinner braids. The ritual has been passed down from generation to generation for aeons.

“We inherited the skill from our mothers, who also learned it from our grandmothers,” Moussa said at her stall in the Al-Hafia Market. “In the village our mothers braid our hair exclusively with Chebe powder.”

Ancestral haircare recipe

Moussa’s recipe is simple: she roasts and crushes the seeds of the Chebe tree (croton gratissimus) — a shrub found in abundance in the mountainous Guera region in central Chad. She adds cherry seeds and cloves, also ground into powder, “for the fragrance”, a heady spicy scent that “stays even after washing”.

Moussa earns 2,000 Central African francs ($3.20) for each hair treatment. It is a service that only some can afford in a country ranked as the second least developed in the world by the United Nations.

Time-consuming routine

A hair appointment for a Chebe treatment lasts hours.

“The fact that Chadian women who use Chebe have such long hair is not because Chebe is a miracle product,” said Nsibentum, a self-described “hair specialist” from Congo-Brazzaville. “They have a raw material that is almost non-existent in Africa but especially in Europe, and that is time.”

Nsibentum has gained popularity on social media across the continent for his videos and lectures on traditional African hair rituals. He says the Chebe ritual has a bad image among many people as a long ordeal that a customer has to “endure”. But he advised: “It’s the time you spend on regular care that will make your hair grow.”

’Natural’ hair look

Manoubia Abdel-Nasser Kadergueli, who makes her own brand of Chebe hair products, says Chadian women “are trying to go more natural” in their hair-care habits. Named Mandé Balla Cosmétic, the brand offers hair care products made from Chébé seeds.

The trend towards a more natural look emerged in the United States in the 2000s under the name “nappy”, a contraction of “natural” and “happy”. The trend is now spreading across the African continent.

Kadergueli makes hair products in the courtyard of her family home with the help of her cousins. Together they clean the seeds and grind them into powder and oils. Once a week, she sets up shop in the lobby of a hotel in central N’Djamena, where most of her customers come from abroad.

Among them is 50-year-old Aloys de Gonzague Niyoyita. He lives in Canada and buys from her stand every time he visits Chad. The length and healthiness of his dreadlocks “is thanks to these products that I apply,” he said. “People ask me if it’s my real hair, and I say: Yes.”

For hair specialist Nsibentum, “this product has almost become a source of national pride.”

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