Q: Sometimes walking around I’ll see a Somali man with a bright orange beard and hair. This can’t be natural, and was a little startling the first time I saw it. Do you know what the deal is with this?
Disclaimer: I have nothing against people with gray or white hair.
A: I get asked about this a lot, as it’s a very noticeable thing.
First of all, it’s artificial. There aren’t any natural redheads in Somalia, as far as I know.
The orange coloring that some older Somali men put in their hair is henna, the same stuff you see on the hands of newlywed women. It’s a plant that is dried, ground, made into a paste, and applied to either the skin or the hair.
It’s mostly a cosmetic thing. A lot of men see a red beard as preferable to a gray or white beard. It’s not exclusive to Somalis either. I’ve seen pictures from Pakistan and Afghanistan of men with beards the color of traffic cones, and of course women in India use it to decorate their hands and feet.
Back in Somalia it used to be a luxury thing, a way to show off how well you were doing, since henna was a little more expensive there and it took good amount of patience and time. You have to sit still for hours in order for the henna to dry and turn your hair orange.
It was and still is a custom for older Somali men to marry younger women (older men want trophy wives regardless of their culture), and who wants to marry a gray-haired man (except maybe if he’s Anderson Cooper)? So men used this technique to cut few years off their age, making themselves appear more attractive to younger women, just like a lot of American men do with hair coloring. Today, a tube of henna costs only a few dollars in the United States, so you see it a lot more often. It is less expensive than most coloring products and it is all natural, no chemicals involved.
Though I doubt if the part about appearing young and amusing to the young ladies still works here in the United States, you know how they say old habits die hard.
I should mention here that older Somali women also use it as a hair coloring, too. Somali women don’t like gray hair any more than American women. But they cover their hair so you can’t see it.