How Africans have overcome the problem of carrying loads?

African woman carrying fire wood on the head.

What do people carry on their heads?

If you asked some schoolchildren that question, in many parts of the world they might answer: “Their hats.”

And that would likely be the end of the list.

However, if you put that question to some African youngsters, they would reply:

People tote buckets of water, bananas, books, salt bags, firewood, television sets, fish, bags of cement, sacks of rice, refrigerators, baskets of vegetables, stones, crates of soft drinks . . . ”

Their list would go on and on.

Throughout the continent of Africa, toting loads on the head is commonplace.

It has been for a very long time.

Egyptian bakers carried bread on their heads.

And that was over 3,700 years ago!

Can you head tote?

Have you ever watched people who were skilled at head-toting?

For them it is no more difficult than carrying something by hand.

But you try it.

For example, put a book on your head and attempt to walk.

(We might suggest a book that you do not mind getting knocked about a bit.)

If you’re a beginner, you will probably move slowly, stiffly, very carefully, so as not to upset the precarious balance.

One step . . . two . . . Quick!

Catch the book before it falls to the ground!

“But,” you may protest, “my head’s not flat.

How can you expect me to balance a flat book on a round head?”

One answer is: Practice!

Another answer is: Use a kata.

A kata is a cloth or palm leaf that is folded and twisted to form a ring.

It is placed between the load and the head to serve as a cushion and to help balance hard loads, such as wood.

For softer things, such as a bag of flour, a kata is seldom necessary because the bag will settle on the head.

Whether you use a kata or not, it is important to carry things centrally on your head.

Edward, a Sierra Leonean, recalls his early days:

When I first started to tote, I carried wood with my head cocked to one side. As the loads got heavier, my neck would ache with the strain. But the real trouble came when I began to tote buckets of water. Since you can’t balance water properly unless your head is straight, the water would spill out, and my clothes would get soaked. I hated that. It was the soakings, more than anything else, that made me straighten up.”

Yet, there’s more to the art than comfortably and centrally situating the item to be carried.

An experienced head-toter will keep things in place on his head by numerous, slight corrective movements of his neck.

It’s like trying to balance an upright stick on your finger.

You don’t just put it there and hope it doesn’t fall.

Rather, you must constantly adjust the position of your finger to suit the movement of the stick.

And just as a heavier stick is easier to balance than a light one, so a weighty load is often easier to balance on the head.

Most Africans learn the skill early in life by imitating older children and grown-ups.

Emmanual is one-and-a-half years old and still a little unsteady on his feet.

When he was given a small can of water to tote, he held it on his head with both hands.

It slid about, and some of the water sloshed out, but it was clear that he had grasped the idea.

By the time he is five, the water will not spill.

At seven he will be an expert.

A practical and beneficial skill of head-toting

A vector image of a man carrying a load on the head.

Far from being merely a novel way to carry things, head-toting is a practical skill for African life.

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Africa states:

Human porterage . . . is undoubtedly still one of Africa’s principal means of moving goods at the local level.”

And for those who are used to it, loads are carried most easily on the head.

Apart from carrying things more comfortably, putting things on the head leaves your hands free.

You can even be shaded from the sun or sheltered from the rain.

Add to this the physical benefits: grace, balance, and strength.

The book Tropical Surgery states:

The country people [in the tropics], who are often accustomed to walking with head loads, have well-developed back muscles and good posture. They seldom suffer from back strain.”
Clearly, head-toting is not a skill to belittle.

But unless you’re an expert, don’t try it!

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