Since the nineteenth century, decorating the feet and hands with djabi, or henna art, has been a common practice among women in North Africa, especially for naming ceremonies, weddings and other special occasions. For weddings, only the close relatives of the bride and groom decorate their hands and feet.
In Mali, I met a woman named Walama, a single mother of three children who supports her family with her talents as a henna specialist. Walama has been working with djabi since she was 11 years old. She applies adhesive strings in intricate designs on her costumers’ feet and hands and then applies the henna dye in the open spaces.
The djabi dye is purchased in the market. This material is a soluble powder that is mixed into a paste with an acidic liquid called poloni. After applying her beautiful string designs, Walama uses her fingers to rub the djabi onto women’s feet, palms and fingertips. Then she covers them with plastic bags to let them dry slowly. Djabi art looks fantastic when it is finished, and it lasts for more than a week before beginning to fade.
Besides the decorative purpose of djabi, Malians believe that if you die while wearing it, you will go to heaven. The tree whose leaves are used to make djabi is called “the tree of heaven.”
As the women of North Africa sit patiently while their feet and hands are decorated, let us pray that they will someday open their hearts to be beautified by the Master Designer.