Conjure the African spirit with a cultural massage

Uzuri Spa within Leopard Beach Hotel
Uzuri Spa within Leopard Beach Hotel in Diani, Kwale County. Photos | Kevin Odit | NMG 

No two massages are alike and each offers a different historical and cultural experience.

Curious to explore an African massage, I recently paid a resort spa a visit, and left with a story to tell.

The technique is nothing like a Japanese Shiatsu, Swedish, Thai, Turkish bath or hot and cold stone massage or any other massage I've experienced.

The entrance of Uzuri Spa and Fitness Forest at the Leopard Beach Resort reads of wellness. Nature endowed with water and fish ponds, towering plants and fountains decking the entrance create a cool ambience.

Inside the spa, a pleasant citric fragrance engulfs my whole being. I later learn the welcoming scent, created with citrus room mists symbolises the lingering smell of fresh rains and new beginnings.


In the waiting area, my impatience is calmed by the soothing sounds of running water and the sight of blooming flowers. Swahili seats and dressed throws add to the decorative touch.

I pick the Theranaka signature massage. Mary Onduto, the masseuse briefs me on the procedure, which will last 90 minutes for Sh4700.

I am led to a sizeable room furnished with potted plants, wall decorations and lustrous artwork and ambient lighting. Soft piped music plays in the background.

The faint aura of the pink and white, plumeria flowers scattered on the massage table catches my eye as settle to begin my treatment. The procedure commences with a foot bath ceremony.

I lie on the massage table facing up, my feet inside warm water. The masseuse uses Teatree foot concentrate to cleanse, disinfect and refresh my feet.

“It helps to open up the nerves and invite the body to a deeper state of relaxation,” says Mary.

What follows is circular motions using African storm body oil on my stomach to aid in the digestion. The stretching, kneading and piling varying pressure releases tension.

“It is the purification ritual to release abdominal stress. We do all the stretches first just to relax the muscles before we start the African massage,” says the masseuse.

She switches from my tummy to the face. In wide circular strokes, her fingers smoothly massage along the sides of the jaw to the nostrils and cheekbones releasing all the grime.

Small blocks of warm tri scented shea butter oil are then sprinkled on my body.
The oily-palmed motions are replaced by wooden dumbbells with a blend of light stretching technique and tapotement.

The knobs on the dumbbells move mimicking rhythmical patterns of an African dance.
Stationary circles are a depiction of the circular formation during an African dance

At one point she strikes light blows on my back in a repeated percussion imitating drum beats.

With every knead tension leaves my body until I fall asleep only to be slowly woken up by sounds of rain drops falling.

The greeting ritual is performed using a rain stick with beads moving back and forth to awaken the client.

Mary says the movements during the massage are inspired by the Zulu culture of singing and dancing.

“We assume we are using the drums .When doing this massage you just roll with the rhythm. It comes from the way the Zulu beat their drums,” said Mary.

She says pressure on different points on the body is drawn from the stamping of feet during an African dance, wringing is from stick fighting while the drumming movement is from the beating of the drums during a dance.

Each body treatment is inspired and designed based on cultural traditions, rituals and beliefs.

The products used are made with inspiration from the Marula tree which is referred to as the marriage tree by the Zulu and the Tonga cultures.

A brew of the bark is administered as part of a cleansing ritual prior to marriage.

Around the world spa treatments have advanced over the years ranging from hot stone therapy, hydrotherapy treatments, body wraps, sea salt to papaya scrubs which are relaxing and have medicinal value.

However, locally, there are very specific and ancient massage techniques and even hot springs with thermal benefits that still sit attractive.

Africa has always had treatments for different ailments, including tissue therapy.
Traditional massages still exist with the African Rungu massage gaining prominence in both African and European spas.

The African rungu massage is a deep tissue massage using a wooden baton, the rungu. Its origin is traced in East Africa where in the Maasai culture the rungu is an important warrior symbol.

A special one is held by a designated speaker at important tribal gatherings.
The technique can also be employed using bamboo for the Swedish massage and calabash.

Calabash massage thrives on the use of variations in shape and sizes of the calabashes hence assist the masseuse to break tension zones, softens muscles, tendons and tissue on different parts of the body.

It reduces pains and aches, improves blood circulation, lymph drainage and muscle toning and provides immediate relaxation.

Others include Digui massage from West Africa, the Congo massage and the Vunkuwa massage of South Africa.