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An Inside Look at African Bead Work

In Africa, beads are of great cultural and social significance. Beads are more than just fancy accessories for adornment and decoration, they are symbolic relics with prominent roles in society, spirituality and even sexuality of individuals.

It will interest you to know that the origin of beads in Africa date as far back as the 11th century. Although there are different tribes and ethnic groups in Africa, it is obvious to see that there are similarities in production, significance and use of beads.

African Bead Work

How are Beads Made

In South Africa, archaeologists discovered beads made from ostrich eggs. These beads are said to date as far back as 45,000 years ago. Similar ostrich egg beads have also been found in Sudan, Kenya and Libya.

Before colonization came to Africa, almost all beads were made from organic materials like egg shells, bone, nuts, horn, cowries, corals, ivory, stone and pearls. When white colonialists came to Africa, they came with glass beads which were used as gifts and for trade. In the 1700’s Venice became the prime supplier of glass beads which were later named “slave beads,” as these beads were traded for slaves.

In the 12th century countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Ethiopia became known producers of glass beads and continue to produce glass beads even till today.

Certain tribes in Africa are identified for the type of bead they produce. For example the Ashanti and Krobo people of Ghana are known for producing beads made from ground glass. The Benin Kingdom in Nigeria are masters of coral beads while in Zaire, use of stone beads is the norm.

Cowries are popular beads used in the Southern and Eastern part of Nigeria and they are commonly used as a form of currency.

The Yorubas are also known for the Lagidigba, which is made from palm nut shells. Ethiopia is particularly known for their metal beads made from copper, brass and white metal.

African Bead Work

What are Beads used for?

African beads serve diverse functions, depending on the tribe and ethnic group. However, most cultural functions tend to overlap. Some include:

Adornment

Beads are colourful and used to decorate and adorn the body for festivities and occasions.  African bead works vary from necklaces, anklets, bracelets, waist beads, crowns, head bands and hand fans to more intricate complicated styles like purses, bags, and sewn into dresses.

Identity

Beads are also worn to display rank, status and power. For example, in Nigeria, the Benin Kingdom are known for coral beads which are worn by royalty and the wealthy. Corals are hard to get and this makes the bead expensive.

In South Africa, the Zulu people of South Africa developed a system of identity using size and color of beads. Large and colorful beads signify wealth.

The Yorubas give waist beads to women as a means of rite of passage. Palm nut shell beads are given to women who gave birth to twins.

Currencies

Cowries were used  to trade livestock, crops and  slaves gotten from tribal wars. During the 11th century, white colonialists came with glass beads which were later dubbed slave  beads. These beads were used in exchange for people sold off as slaves.

Charms

Beads are also used as charms to ward off evil spirits. Most tribes in Africa believe in the potency of waist bead charms that are worn to attract the attention of the opposite sex, prevent miscarriage and encourage conception and pregnancy in marriage.

Beads are also worn on the arms and on ankles as protection from poison that is gotten through contact.

Spiritual Worship

Beads are commonly used for divination and prayer. Beads are also used in ritual practices and in recitation  of incantations and chants. Beads are collected in gourds which are shaken to ward off evil spirits. These gourds are used in ceremonial dances.

Sexuality

Waist beads are probably one of the most prominent uses of beads in Africa. Waist beads are worn by African women for multiple reasons. First, waist beads are worn for feminine beauty and attractiveness.

Yoruba Beads Waist beads

Waist beads are worn as rite of passage into womanhood, worn as adornments to increase sexual attraction of the opposite sex, worn  to depict acceptance of a marriage proposal from a man and also worn as fertility charms.

Waist beads are worn as contraceptive charms to prevent unwanted pregnancy and as amulets to ward off evil spirits that cause infertility, miscarriage and turbulent delivery.

The Yorubas have a special waist bead, called the Lagidigba which is made of palm nut shells. The Lagidigba is worn by women who have had twin pregnancies. The number of palm nut shells in the bead denotes the number of twin pregnancies.

In Africa, beads will continue to have prominent roles in our identity, sexuality and spirituality. This is because beads are more than just decorative pieces. Beads are symbolic and expressive, and their uses date as far back as time itself.

African beads are gaining global recognition and this greatly helps to display our diverse culture and ethnicities to the world.