Our Lensu di Kabes (headscarf) is a fascinating African tradition nearly extinct due to modern hair straightening and relaxing techniques (who’d voluntarily cover up their expensive hairdos?!) But back in the 19th and 20th century, Lensu di Kabes would communicate a woman’s story, indicate her social class and marital status. Much like a beautiful new hairdo, a regally tied new Lensu would lift her spirits and self-esteem, elongate her neck and pep her step. Not to mention fuel numerous intimate conversations with her favorite, most trustworthy Lensu tying expert…
Nowadays the Lensu di Kabes are used to cover up hair curlers in public, worn in folklore groups, during our annual Séu (Harvest) Festival and Siman di Kultura. Tying Lensu is considered a specialized (if, dying) art form; Cenaida van Dinter alone ties as many as 700 (!) Lensu di Kabes every year during our Séu Festival. (Lisette Wellens, Radio Nederland Wereld Omroep, interviewed Cenaida van Dinter in 2011: Un obra di arte pa riba bo kabes (A piece of art to cover your head) But in the old days, “a woman who walked around in Punda / Otrobanda without headgear and without stockings was considered a streetwalker, a shishi di kaya” says Sonia Garmers.
Lensu would distinguish urban and country women as well as professions. Generally speaking, there were three types of Lensu di Kabes: one for Sundays, one for daily use, one for very special occasions. The Sunday Lensu tended to be the ‘Punta di Scharloo’, a square starched cloth of white linen or cotton folded into a triangle. The longest side folded into a hem, ends tied together behind the head and the end of the cloth rests exactly between the woman’s shoulder blades.
The daily Lensu 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 Lensu was tied just like the ‘Punta di Scharloo’. Expensive Madras linen was replaced by cotton, imported from England.
The ‘Pèchi’ would only come out on special occasions (weddings, christenings) as it was an expensive headgear of fine, white linen with laced insertions. 3 to 4 gold filigree pins hold the ends of the scarf together, and it was traditionally tied around the back of the head to the front. At the turn of the 20th century, the tying of a Pèchi cost 30 cents, nowadays it runs as much as 25 – 30 guilders [$15-$20], given the fine handy-work and time involved.
More modest women who lived in the kunuku (countryside) and worked the plantation would tie their plain white or blue cotton Lensu loosely around their head, exposing their ears, knotting behind their necks, ends dangling in the back, and they’d often keep small chotchkes (change, a cigarette, a half pipe) in their Lensu pleats. Whereas women who worked the plantation house kitchen would tie their Lensu firmly around their head, knotting in front, covering their ears.