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.
The origin of beads in Africa dates back to the 11th century. Although there are different tribes and ethnic groups in Africa, there are similarities in production, significance and use of beads.
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 1700s, Venice became the prime supplier of glass beads which were later named “slave beads,” as these beads were traded for slaves.
Nigeria, Ghana and Ethiopia were also 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
In South Africa, the Zulu people developed a system of identity using size and color of beads. Large and colorful beads signify wealth.
Cowries were used to trade livestock, crops and slaves from tribal wars.
Beads are also used as charms to ward off evil spirits. Many 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 acquired through contact.
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.
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.
Waist beads are worn as a 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 recorded history
African beads are gaining global recognition and this helps to display the diverse culture and ethnicities to the world.