Henna tree is known as Mkokowa in Kiswahili and Muhanunu in Arabic. The Swahili community believes that the tree is indigenous tree which is found in their forest. The discovery of henna leaves was found when the Swahili women went to collect firewood, they took the leaves and pounded and found out that the leaves produce orange colour. The Swahili women took the young trees from the forest and plant in their gardens and near their homes for easy accessible to get the leaves to decorate themselves. At first the henna leaves were pounded and mixed with water only to apply. After some years, they used tamarind, tea leaves, lemon and lime for more colouring to be darker. The henna painting stays for five days. At present, they used painting thina and mahalabiya oil to produce more colour and last longer between seven to ten days. In Swahili it is known as “hina” symbolize the world of beauty, joy and happiness.
The Giriama community thinks that the henna tree originated from India when the Indian traders came to do business at the Coast and some of them had an intention to remain and bring the tree with them. The Arab community thinks the henna tree originated from Yemen where they came as traders too.
henna decoration on hands
The Muslims believe that the henna tree originated from Yemen when our Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) told his second wife Bi Aisha on their wedding day to apply henna and the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) pointed the tree which was near their house and told the wife to take the leaves and pound them and apply on the hands and feet as decoration. This influenced all the Muslims in the world to use it as a good intention to please the husband, be more attractive and to follow the footstep of our Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.)


Henna’s traditional decorating purposes vary from culture to culture. The most popular traditional use is tied closely with weddings and bridal preparations.
It is recommended in Islam to apply henna to the bride. The women apply henna on both hand and feet as decoration and good intention. It is an acknowledged as a local decoration which is said to change a woman to look more attractive. Henna is obtained after the driedleaves of Mhina plant, which is then mixed with water to form a paste. Lemon juice, if wished can be an additional ingredient to make the dye more reddish and suitable for use. It is decorated on the soles of the feet, ankles, palm and nails. Once the first layer is applied, one has to wait for it to dry before a new layer is applied. In one narration by Prophet Muhammad, he encouraged Muslims women to dye their nails with henna so the hands can be distinguished as feminine and from the hands of a male. The more complex the design is, the more attractive the woman becomes. According to Swahili customs, unmarried girls are forbidden to decorate themselves with henna as married women do. Some men who are jealous forbid their wives to apply henna as it is also a source of mischief and not to attract other men. Some women are forced to wear gloves when they applied henna.

henna decoration on feetHenna flowers have been used to create perfume and fitina (henna cream for hair) for the women to use.
Henna has been used a cosmetic hair dye for many years. The men also apply henna to their hair and beard as dye when the hair and the beard turn grey.
Muslims also use, henna as a dye for their hair and for the beads of males, following the tradition of their Prophet Muhammad, who used to dye his beard with henna. It’s considered a “sunnah” and akin to something fortunate and good. The Arabs apply henna to the bridegroom one day before the wedding as part of the celebration .The henna paste is sent by the ladies of the bride and the bridegroom’s friends apply the henna to the bridegroom on the hands and body. The young boys apply henna on their feet before and after circumcision as a sign of cleanliness.

The henna leaves are pounded and applied to women on their hair to grow fast, make them stronger and also as a dye.
The henna is applied to the bride and their family members, the bridegroom members and friends. Women use henna to express their happiness and to mark religious or traditional occasions. The Swahili women apply henna as decoration to welcome their spouses who have been away for days. Men compliment their spouses by buying them new pairs of khanga, shoes or jewelry as an appreciation. When the lady delivers stays for forty days before mating with the husband. After forty days the women apply henna as decoration .The Muslim women apply henna when sighting the moon to start the fasting and to welcome the Holy Month of Ramadan. A Muslim woman and their children apply henna during the two Islamic Idd celebrations in a year.

The henna paste can be applied with many traditional and innovative tools, a cone, syringe, finger, small sticks etc. The designs which is applied to women by the women artists in the olden days are as follows: - Msumeno, Mapeni ,Majani, Makorosho, Matirisi, Kochi etc .At present,  the women artists have  been more creative by painting different flowers especially roses and peacock which is commonly used and is more attractive. They apply paint oil to make it more colorful and take less time to paint and dry between five to six hours compared to the older days which took two to three days to make it  reddish and darker When the henna is dried, it is remove and apply rob or paraffin before washing with water.




The henna tree is used for medicine and it is highly recommended by the Swahili community. When the women deliver and the uterus is paining and falls down, the local midwife uses henna oil for messaging to replace it in its correct place.
The henna leaves when pounded and mixes with water, helps to heal the legs which have cracks. The mixture of henna assists to slow down the pressure and a serious headache. The application of the henna oil is very useful to heal the paining of the backbone and waist.
The henna leaves are used to prepare the henna oil and henna repels some insects’ pests and mildew.
The henna leaves are pounded and mix with nutmeg, cardamom, skin of almond and tie in the piece of material to make a knot then boil it with sim sim oil for some time, leave it to cool and put in the bottle. This is used for the hair to grow and be stronger and also change the colour.
The henna leaves are pounded and mix with egg yolk, tea leaves, water and sim sim oil to boil and let it cool and put in the bottle. This is used on the medicinal part.


The henna branches which are big are cut down and dry them to be used as firewood by the women.

Mwanabwana AhmedCONCLUSION
The henna tree is very useful to the Swahili community and in Islam religion they believe that it is their indigenous tree and very useful .The henna leaves are used for decoration and medicinal. Henna is commonly used in India, the Middle East and Africa.
We should collect more stories, organize, document and preserve them for future use by using new technology of digitization and social media before the elders dies who have valuable information as it  is not recorded  anywhere.  The saying says that when one resource person dies, the whole library dies. The Swahili community is proud to create awareness on “ELIMU ASILIA”, conserve and preserve their indigenous tree and knowledge.

The stories were collected by three children aged between 8-15 years.

Mwanabwana Ahmed
Javo Ayub
Somoe Ali

Prepared by
Khadija Shariff and Fatma Mansoor.
20th June 2012.

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