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Braids. They are an easy, go-to style to up chicness, comfort, and convenience. However, for some escaped slaves in South America, braids were a survival mechanism and led to freedom.


Slaves may have been prevented from reading, writing, and communicating with one another; however, because we are a crafty people we found another way to communicate and find liberation.

With our hair.

Ethiopia, Omo Delta. A Dassanech girl braids her sister's hair at her village in the Omo Delta

Source: John Warburton-Lee / Getty

San Basilio de Palenque is a village in Northern Colombia that was founded by Benkos Biho. It is known as the first freed slave city of the Americas.


It was rumored that Benkos was a king in Africa; however, was sold into slavery and would be sold several more times before escaping to start this village that in turn, would serve as refuge and safety for other escaped slaves.


Today, the village has about 3,500 inhabitants and is the only city founded by escaped slaves, that is still standing in Colombia. Most of the population are Afro-Colombians, with African heritage that can be traced back to the slave trade.


Benkos Biho was pretty much the Harriet Tubman of South America. Not only did he found San Basilio de Palenque and then develop a language for the village, but according to the Bearded Gringo, a travel blog,

“Benkos Biho also formed an army and an intelligence network to help organize the escape of other slaves and to guide them to liberated areas.”


He then took his intelligence network and stealth to the next level by utilizing women and capitalizing on the fact they were not often checked upon and allowed to wander more freely than men, to his advantage. While the women slaves were “wandering,” in fact, they were mapping out escape routes. Writing (if they even possessed that skill) or drawing out the map could lead to them being discovered and then most likely sold again, or killed out of anger from their master. How could they move and plan covertly with minimal risk of being discovered?

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The women would weave the maps in their hair, carving out paths with their cornrows. Some patterns were even utilized to deliver secret messages.


These cornrow styles are still done today and tourists visiting the small village can have authentic styles recreated by women living in the town. San Basilio de Palenque is about 50 miles from Cartegena.

What a way to adapt, overcome, and escape a hairy situation.


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Mapping Out Freedom: Escaped Slaves Used Braids For Direction  was originally published on