Me-go: Around-the-World

A Hairy Predicament


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I have a problem, a souvenir from Zanzibar that’s lasted longer than I’d anticipated. Two months after the end of my trip I still have zebra-striped arm hair.

One of my favorite traditions in Swahili culture is henna. On my bus from Arusha to Dar Es Salaam I saw women with henna-covered feet and hands and immediately decided I was going to get some henna of my own. Most people think of henna designs as an Indian tradition, but I soon realized that East Africa, especially Zanzibar, was a frequent stop of travelers from all cultures, including India. The henna I had applied in Ahmedabad was beautiful but a different, Indian influenced, design. Zanzibari henna designs are more detailed and often mixed with black dye. And that was the problem, not only did the henna show up excellently on my skin but it also showed up excellently on my arm hair.

As far as I could tell most people in East Africa don’t have any arm hair at all so this wouldn’t be a concern of 99% of people using the “special” henna. With the detailed design I didn’t initially notice anything amiss but two weeks later, as the henna crumbled off my arms in the shower I noticed my new ⅓rd white, ⅓rd black and ⅓rd striped arm hair design.

Zanzibari henna design on a tan Megan Zanzibari henna design on a tan Megan Interesting arm hair

How could I go out in public all patched and striped? I considered shaving it off but thought I’d give bleaching a try. Now I have ⅓rd really white arm hair, ⅓rd black and ⅓rd extra contrasty striped arm hair. The bleach had no effect whatsoever on black hairs and turned my remaining natural hair glistening white. I’m finally starting to get used to it but I’m wondering what you would do… there’s a poll on the right.

17 responses to “A Hairy Predicament”

  1. Meiya Avatar

    The henna design looks really cool. Hmmmm, about the hair — it doesn’t look too bad from the pictures, but I’d maybe Nair it if it really bothered me.

  2. Laundro Avatar

    So how long did the henna stay on your skin? That’s supposed to go away, right?

  3. Megan Avatar

    It stayed on perfectly for one week, then faded a bit but overall lasted about three weeks. Keep in mind I wasn’t showering at Western levels and when I did I didn’t wash my arms or legs unless there was visible dirt on them!

    It is supposed to go away after two weeks, but with the black dye added it lasts longer. It was the dye that messed with my hair, not the henna itself because I didn’t have this problem in India.

  4. Eva Avatar

    Hey Megan!! Get it all waxed off!! It should hopefully grow back normal! I read about “black henna” a while back on snopes. Check it out:

    Seems like the problem was maybe with Americanized black henna, but worth researching!!!

  5. Megan Avatar

    I did read some warnings about the black henna because the dyes they add sometimes cause allergic reactions. I had originally meant to ask the woman to use the natural ingredients instead of cheap dye but in my rush to get to the salon after bargaining for souvenirs all day I totally forgot.

    I was fine, but it did get brown spots on a lot of my clothes which never came out. Most tourists get it done on the beach in Zanzibar and I think the sun would aggravate it. The people I saw getting a 4″ long design on the beach payed the same as I did for my entire legs and arms in a nondescript salon in Stone Town. You have to bargain!

  6. Kimberley Avatar

    When Everett and I went to Cancun we had “henna” done on a street corner/back alley. I had a lizard put on my ankle and he had something put on his shoulder (I forget what.) Well obviously we were out at the beach a lot and his skin got burnt, so the henna peeled off with his skin. Mine lasted a bit.

    I actually shave my forearms anyways because the hair grows in either blonde or brown and I used to find it distracting so I started shaving them.

  7. Claudia Cavazos Avatar
    Claudia Cavazos

    The designs were freaking awesome. Now as for the funky hair aftermath…let’s see how long it’ll take for it to grow out? Just leave it: it might be a good conversation starter. Well, good luck.
    Pura Vida,
    Claudia Cavazos

  8. Julie Avatar

    be careful with shaving- you don’t want to get all prickly. i would say cut it off. sounds crazy but when i was in high school – and cared what people thought (as if they were thinking about my arm hair! anyways)- i used to just give it a trim now and them. it’s not dark today and i did it quite a lot. so i would say trim it with scissors. that’s my poll answer.

  9. Megan Avatar

    I love that everyone has an opinion on arm hair. I didn’t know it was such an issue!

  10. sarah Avatar

    I was poking around on the ‘net to see what’s out there on henna, and found your entry. I’ve been to Zanzibar several times, and getting henna is my favorite souvenir! Last time I went, I let my friends get me all tattooed up, and I had the same problem as you–it dyed my hair, and it permanently stained the shirt, pants, and bra (I had my friend do some designs on my torso too) I was wearing. It’s true that they use black hair dye in the designs; I went to the store with my friend and bought the box. Right on the box, in English, it says “May irritate skin.” I thought that was rather ironic, but as my friend only spoke Swahili…It didn’t irritate my skin, though it did really burn for another “mzungu” friend of mine. If you’re interested, you can see my Zanzibar henna here:

    Good luck with the hair! I think I just let mine grown out.

  11. Megan Avatar

    I was very careful with the clothes I was wearing but my clothes were stained too. The big problem was needing to keep it on even after it was dry. I had to walk around and go out to dinner after it was applied and it got on my scarf, shirt and pants and never came out.

    Your henna is absolutely gorgeous! How long did it take for your toenails to grow out though?

  12. Sarah Avatar

    Yes, I had to take a daladala home after my applications, so my clothes got a lot of henna on them. I also accidentally wiped my wet hands on my trousers after washing my hands, and got permanent stains on my backside/thighs. Woops. I just threw those trousers out.

    My henna lasted about a month (more in some spots), and my toenails took forever to grow out. I got the tattoos in the end of August, and if I remember right, it was December by the time I had normal toenails. Mine grow slowly, though. For that reason, I refused to get my fingernails done. I really didn’t want half-orange fingernails for months (I did that in ’99, and didn’t like it).

    If you were in Zanzibar in July, as I gather from your Tanzania posts, did you go to the film festival?

  13. Megan Avatar

    I envisioned the toenail problem and just said no to henna-ed nails. When I took a shower later I got henna all over the bathroom, even the toilet seat. Hotels must have that problem all the time since the shower is just a head poking out over the sink and toilet.

    I was in Zanzibar in July but missed the Dhow Festival by a day or two. Still, hotels were super full the entire two weeks I was there.

  14. Sarah Avatar

    It’s too bad you missed the festival; it’s a pretty exciting time in Zanzibar, both for locals and tourists. It does fill the hotels, though, and drive up the prices for everything (even for Zanzibaris, unfortunately).

    I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of great stuff in your RTW travels, though, despite missing Zanzibar’s big seasonal attraction. I’ve met several RTW travelers in Zanzibar, and always loved to chat with them, hear their stories, and admire the drive and courage it takes to do that! Kudos!

  15. Cheeky Avatar

    What did you decide to do about your arm hair situation?

  16. Megan Avatar

    I let my hair be. At this point there’s only a few dyed hairs left.

  17. Cheeky Avatar

    Still quite a hairy arm though..