How to use your head


Turning their colorful kangas and kikois into packs, every day women in the Kenyan countryside walk distances of over 20 kilometers to collect water, food and firewood. They can carry more than half their bodyweight on their heads, and, as they push themselves to the limit, they keep a tradition alive in which their gender defines the burdens they bear.

81_head_loading_illus1The XX chromosome has determined that you are a woman, and given you a narrow waist, broad hips and a wide pelvic cavity – essential features for creating new life and carrying it for nine months. These chromosomes determine much more than reproduction, however. In your village, Garsen in northern Kenya, as in many other small Kenyan communities, your fate will be to serve your father, your husband, and your children, by carrying food, water and firewood for them.

Since early childhood, playing innocent games will have taught you the necessary skills for this role. As a child you held pots and other objects on your head, practicing the upright, neutral posture that optimizes your balance, keeps your joints young, and saves effort on long walks. Of course, it is you, not your husband, who has to walk more than 12 kilometers each day looking for the basic materials for life.

In an average lifetime someone in the US will walk a distance equal to four times the Earth’s circumference.
The American Podiatric Medical Association

But it’s time to focus on your load: 40 kilograms of firewood wrapped in colorful cloth and braced against your forehead. Keep your neck stiff and your body leaning forward. It’s this position, and the supposed efficiency of your body over long distances with little food that has amazed foreign scientists like Norman Heglund, an American physiologist at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. Heglund concluded that, “African women can carry 20 percent of their own bodyweight on their heads without using any additional energy.” Others aren’t so sure. Ray Lloyd, a sports scientist at the University of Abertay Dundee, UK, says that, “head loading is not more efficient than other methods ... and is very painful for the women.”

Whether the weight you’re carrying on your head is making your gait more efficient or is simply damaging your neck, help might be at hand. The world donkey population is growing, and according to a 1998 report by ENERGIA, the International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy, it is growing fastest in Sub-Saharan Africa, where “in some countries donkey numbers have increased ten-fold in the past 30 years.” Pack animals might now assist people in places with little tradition of using them for domestic purposes, and animal-energy-based transport systems would have several benefits for you, most notably by freeing up time for other things. At least it would be better than the current situation: a transport system powered only by you.

Ways to carry 40 kilograms:
81_head_loading_illus2On the back

Carrying a bag to school with four volumes of encyclopedia, lunch and sports clothes can cause posture problems, lower-back pain, deformity of the spine and mobility problems in adulthood, according to Steve August, a physiotherapist in Dunedin, New Zealand.

81_head_loading_illus3over the shoulder

This ancient technique for carrying water is still used in parts of rural China. The key is to level the weight in the two containers. Fitness fanatics use the same basic principle as an exercise to tone their obliques.

81_head_loading_illus4With the arms

This well-known action is for carrying 29-inch TVs when moving house. According to the US Army Center for Health Promotion, the best way to lift is to “shift your center of gravity forward and push your buttocks out to compensate.”

81_head_loading_illus5On the head

According to Dr. Kweli Tutashinda, owner of Imhotep Chiropractic Center in California, USA, the spines of East African women are particularly strong, with good bone density, as carrying loads on their heads encourages the spinal bones to strengthen themselves with calcium.


From the pages of COLORS #82 - Shit.