African tribal make-up: What’s behind the face paint?

Africa is a continent rich in different cultures, traditions, languages and perceptions of beauty

Najla Kaddour
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Africa is a continent rich in different cultures, traditions, languages and perceptions of beauty. With many different tribes across the continent, beauty trends and ideals vary.

Tribal make-up plays a key role in many of the various groups. The make-up, often in the form of face paint, is used for many different reasons and can signify many different things such as hunting, religious and traditional reasons, military purposes or to scare an enemy. It also functions as social markers, distinguishing boys from men, men from older men, men from women and members of the tribe from outsiders. Face painting indicates status and they convey a strong cultural meaning.


Africa has an estimated total of 3000 tribes, all of which vary incredibly in terms of language, culture and traditions.

Some of the most well-known tribes across Africa include the Zulu tribe, members of which live in South Africa, Lesotho & Zimbabwe, the Maasai, who can be found in Tanzania and Kenya, the San Bushmen, who live in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa and the Yoruba, who live in Nigeria, Benin, Ghana and Togo.

Additional tribes include the Xhosa, who reside in South Africa, the Hausa, found in Niger, Gabon, Burkina Faso and Cameroon, the Himba, who live in Angola and Namibia, the Borana Oromo, who reside in Ethiopia and Kenya, the Kalenjin of Kenya, the Chaga of Tanzania and the Fulani of Nigera, Guinea, Sudan and Senegal.

Face paint is usually made out of clay with different hues using dried plants and flowers. Each color and each symbol has a certain meaning.

Black is usually used to denote power, evil, death, and mystery while grey is commonly used to mean security, authority, maturity and stability. Purple commonly means royalty, luxury, wisdom, and passion and yellow is used for joy, energy and warmth. Red is used for danger, daring, urgency and energy and blue denotes peace, calmness, confidence and affection. Greens is usually used for life, growth, freshness and healing while white signifies hope, purity and light.

Symbols are visual keys that have meaning to people with a common heritage around a given symbol. In Africa, where record of the oldest human communities lie, there are many tribal families that use symbols to tell stories and provide information, reminders and lessons. These symbols are considered sacred, and were primarily used in ceremonial and religious contexts.

In West Africa, many symbols are used to convey messages and values within a community. The Akan and the Asante tribes of West Africa both use “Adinkra” symbols. The symbols are found frequently in the West African country of Ghana. The symbols are incorporated into face painting, fabrics, on interior wall designs and on pottery.

Tribal art differs depending on a person’s rank in society. The higher you rank, the more elaborate and complicated your face paint/make-up will be. Many start with basic tribal face paint (or tattoos) and as they rise through the ranks, more symbols are added to match with their rank and achievements.


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