The Importance of Beads and Beadwork in African Culture, Part II

Cultures & Communities

Rukariro Katsande


Group Culture Coordinator and Researcher Rukariro Katsande weighs in on the significance of beads in African culture...

Part 2 – Uses of Beads

The significance of beads in African culture

Beads are among the most intriguing and important symbols in African culture, past and present. The uses of beads and beadwork differ widely across the continent, and include…

The significance of beads in African culture

Anti-tension devices – worry beads are used in Greek (Cretian) culture for relaxation (komboloi), enjoyment, and generally passing the time, as an amulet, to guard against bad luck, by people who wish to limit addictive habits (smoking), or as a mark of power and social status. This is especially true in the case of expensive worry beads made of silver or amber. Other devices include various massage therapies.

Currencyaggri beads from Ghana were used for exchange and as a way of payment during early trade in Africa. Europeans first collected aggri beads from the West Coast of Africa in the 15th Century. Beads were also used in the slave trade. (Here too, beads could determine one’s fortune!)

Medicinal purposes – aggri beads, dzi beads, echinacea beans and amber beads are examples which are either consumed or adorned. Some medicines are prepared into an amulet which is beaded around the outside. This is an old form of traditional medicine that is worn. Some beads and beans/seeds are dietary supplements. In many African communities, a bracelet with beads is the first thing a new born baby wears for spiritual and physical protection and one of the last adornments used to bury the dead. Animals have been known to be adorned with beads for ritual practices aimed at appeasing spirits or causing ill-health in families.

The significance of beads in African culture

Gaming – some examples are owari beads for mankala/mancala (an old African game), the Bead Trade Game, Hama beads and the Bead Maze Roller Coaster among numerous others.

Adornment – historically, beadwork was the insignia of tribal royalty. This practice has decentralised gradually and developed broader meaning in society. In contemporary southern Africa, beads and seeds have experienced a revival in popularity and are easily visible in everyday dress patterns which incorporate cultural as well and individual expressions. Culture is dynamic, and is just as much individual as it is a societal or communal expression. New styles and uses are being incorporated and fused with traditional representations, which still offer authentic African origin and expression.

The significance of beads in African culture

Used for souvenirs and to raise awareness – contemporary uses now include beaded souvenirs made of wire or fishing twine, such as domesticated and wildlife creatures, decorative and awareness bangles and bracelets, toys and figurines, the list continues to grow with the artists’ imaginations. Our very own “Romy” the rhino is one such example of unique creativity from the continent used for corporate cultural representations. It took an approximate one and a half million beads to raise and underline a very crucial conservation issue. Although “Romy” is the second such creation after the elephant at OR Tambo airport, our rhino is very well-travelled.

The significance of beads in African culture

Read Part 1 (Materials and Origins) here and Part 3 (More Uses of Beads) here.

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