Headscarf, a fascinating African heritage

Series Cultural Heritage

Since Antillean women with curly hair have their curls removed at the hairdresser’s, they hardly wear any headscarves any more. Any woman who has just spent a lot of money to have her hair straightened, will of course not cover it with a piece of cloth. She wants to show her hairstyle, Sandra Leonora observes during the seminar on Latin-American and Caribbean Folklore. Women wearing a lensu have consequently disappeared from the street scene. You do see them, though, in folkloric groups  and during Seú Festivals.

That used to be different. Sonia Garmers still remembers how the kòki and the yaya from Scharloo used to go to market in the morning. Their hair was covered with an ingeniously tied scarf of Brabant fur, a material with red and white checks. That is the way it was supposed to be: “As soon as a woman got married, she would wear long skirts. A public woman could be recognized by a red headscarf with a bow in front. A woman who walked around in town without head gear and without stockings was a streetwalker, a shishi di kaya. Sandra Leonora distinguishes three types of head gear in Curaçao: one for Sundays, one for very special occasions and one for daily use. For the Sunday lensu, the Punta di Scharloo, a square starched cloth of white linen or cotton is folded into a triangle. The longest side is folded into a hem, the ends are tied together behind the head and the end of the cloth rests exactly between the woman’s shoulder blades. Or with one end up and the other one down, as Sonia Garmers can remember.

Only on very special occasions, such as a wedding or christening, was the Pèchi taken out of the closet. An expensive head gear of fine, white linen with laced insertions. From behind the little holes between the embroidery is shiny silvery paper. Three to four gold pins hold the ends of the scarf together, which is tied around the back of the head to the front. The pins are masterpieces of goldsmith’s craft, made of fine filigree with a broach in the middle. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the tying of a Pèchi is assumed to have cost thirty cents, but nowadays a person who ties scarves would charge minimally twenty-five to thirty guilders.

But the scarf that you saw daily was the Madras, named after the city in India where the linen with diamond-shaped red and yellow colors came from at the time. The headscarf was tied in the same manner as the Punta di Scharloo. The Madras linen is replaced by material of an inferior quality, no longer woven in India from colored threads, but printed in England on cotton. And nowadays, women tie their madras  from material with all kinds of prints: flowers, stripes or simply uniform.

Headscarf tier Cornellie Schoonhoven says in an interview with Nel Casimiri: “The women who worked on the land tied a scarf backwards around their head with a knot in their neck and they allowed the ends to hang. Usually, a firm blue cotton was used for this, but also white… Women who work in the kitchen have the scarf tied firmly around their head. Their ears are covered and the ends are tied in front. Those who work on the land do not have the scarf tied so firmly. Their ears are free, so that air can get to them. Besides the scarf is also first folded into a pleat. In the this pleat, the woman can keep little things, such as small change, a cigarette or a half pipe.”

The headscarf culture is not so deeply-rooted as in Surinam. There, not only the way of tying gets a name, but also the scarf, or kotomisie, itself and the material. A beautiful headscarf gave the woman a certain status. Schoonhoven: “The more scarves a woman had, the richer she was.” Actually, something for a rainy day. Irene Schenker during the seminar on Latin-American and Caribbean Folklore: “If a Surinam woman became old and sick, the whole collection of headscarves, Anjisas, was an insurance to be able to pay the funeral home… And the Anjisa collection formed the most important part of the woman’s legacy.”
The Surinam women give the most striking names to the various ways of tying the headscarves, such as: ‘wait for me at the corner’, ‘let it rip’, life is pleasant’ and ‘still a virgin’. That is an African tradition. Also the Ashanti in Ghana and tribes in Western Nigeria give names to the way in which they tie their headscarves. And the African woman also tells with her headscarf to what class she belongs and what her marital status is. Whatever it is called, lensu or anjisa, the headscarf is a fascinating African heritage.

Picture caption:
Headscarf for special occasions: Pèchi di yaya
(Cenaida van Dinter)


Paul Brenneker, Sambubu, nr. 10, Curaçao
Sandra Leonora, Head Scarves, in: N. Ayubi (editor), ‘Latin-American and Caribbean Folklore, Papers of the third seminar’, Curaçao, AAINA1996.
Irene Schenker, Surinamese Headties, idem,
Nel Casimiri, ‘Lensu di kabes, De ontwikkeling van de Curaçaose hoofddoek’, In: Veranderend Curaçao, onder redactie van Henny E. Coomans e.a., Stichting Libri Antilliani, 1999.
With thanks to drs. Rose Mary Allen

Text Eva Breukink, Picture: Prince Victor.