Before Africa embraced the use of soft pillows for sleeping, the wooden headrests served the same purpose and even more.
While the common soft pillows used today are mostly for supporting the head while sleeping, the original wooden headrests used in Africa were used to preserve the hairstyles of the men folk particularly.
Africa’s wooden headrests are iconic objects which have served for thousands of years in history.
It could be traced to the Nubian/Egyptian empire, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique (used by the Shona tribe). It is also found in the history of countries like Libya, Mali and the East African region.
In the Ethiopian Oromo culture, the wooden headrests are only owned by young men who have undergone the ritual passages.
Hairstyles were noticeable traits in the lifestyles of African people, men and women alike. Knowing the typical African system, it is not clear if the women at that time were allowed to use the wooden headrests.
African men back then, and perhaps now, sported elaborate hairstyles, adorned with cowries, beads, metal ornaments and styled in rolls or patterns. Sometimes the hairdos are styled with clay. In order to preserve and keep these hairstyles intact, the wooden headrests are used. They elevate the head, keeping the hair from coming in contact with the ground or the bed.
In areas like Kenya and Uganda, hairstyles are often indicators of social status, especially among pastoralists.
A typical African headrest is made of wood and has about 2-3 stands attached to a flat base which could be used to sharpen a knife. On top of the stand lies an attached curved and rectangular saddled tray.
The headrests also served as seats and were a sign of social status. As such were even carried about by the men anywhere they went.
Recent reports has revealed that as much as an estimated £29,000 was paid by a French tribal art specialist during an auction for the wooden headrests.