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

Cultures & Communities

Rukariro Katsande


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

Significance of Beads in African Culture

Part 3 – More Uses of Beads

Significance of Beads in African Culture

In South Africa, Zulu 'love letters', where the colours reflect the ardour and nature of one’s feelings, are still largely popular. The beadwork tradition continues as living art. Elaborate beadwork costumes and body ornaments continue to be created for daily use, in traditional ceremonies, or to celebrate matrimony and the rites of passage from infancy to adulthood. Their use also provides an income and livelihood for hundreds of street salesmen and craftswomen who create beaded dolls, necklaces, anklets, collars and belts so dazzling they are simply irresistable.

Waist beads have a long history in Africa and are worn for various reasons and purposes. They are a symbol and celebration of womanhood, sexuality, femininity, fertility, healing, spirituality, body shaping, first menses, protection, seduction, and wealth, amongst other things.

Significance of Beads in African Culture

The meaning of the colours and different shapes of beads varies with every community and they can be thought of as visual dialects. Each bead, colour, and shape relays a different message depending on the giver/receiver.

Traditionally, mothers adorned their daughters with waist beads during their first menstruation as a rite of passage into womanhood. The beads symbolised a young lady’s fertility, developing body, and her sexuality. A young lady’s beads were adorned with bells to let possible suitors know that she was at the right stage for reproduction. In many cultures the waist beads symbolised a young woman’s purity and were only to be taken off by her husband on their wedding night. Most waist beads are worn under clothing and are a private affair.

• Waist beads were and still are worn for seduction. For some, the beads possess intimate appeal and can provoke desire. Some women are said to lace their beads with charms and fragrances that are recommended to be irresistible to the opposite sex. Some women wear different shapes of beads during intimacy as a means of enhancing the sexual experience of her and her partner. The beads to some women resemble what lingerie is to Western women. Wives would often lure their husbands with the rattle of the beads or use them as a means to communicate their fertility during the month.

• When stones are added, waist beads take on healing qualities. Depending on the ailment or what needs to be enhanced (i.e. love, psychic powers, balancing), various semi-precious stones can be included in the design of waist beads.

• Most importantly, waist beads are also an instrument of body shaping. The strung beads alert women of their weight gain or if they are pregnant. Unlike clothing, the strings do not stretch; they break or roll up the waist with increased girth. So in an absence of scales as a means of weight measurement, the beads are used by women to shape their bodies and monitor weight.

Universally, the appeal of beads and beadwork will continue to thrive as both a cultural expression and tourist attraction.

Significance of Beads in African Culture

Significance of Beads in African Culture

Significance of Beads in African Culture

Read Part 1 (Materials and Origin) here, and Part 2 (Uses of beads) here.

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