Today was an exciting day for Banou, because it would mark a great occasion for her. In a matter of hours, she would have lit another candle in her young life.
It’s my birthday!the excited thought came. She was grinning from ear to ear, and finding it very hard not to laugh. It was such a wonderful day to her not because she was growing older, but because she could finally take a very special of her heritage and embrace it, then make it a part of her.
In Banou’s hands was a string of beautiful and colored waist beads made of clay, cowrie shells, amber and other stones she could arguably identify. The waist beads were a gift from her grandmother back in South Africa, and it was unlike anything she had ever owned.
Banou had learnt a long time ago that waist beads in Africa were not just your average fashion accessories, no. They were mediums that marked a girl’s passage into womanhood; talismans that enhanced fertility; charms that healed ailments modern medicine could not;and watchkeeper’s over physical beauty.
Beauty… That word means so much to Banou. She had never been the kind of person to draw eyes or make heads turn, but that didn’t matter anymore. Beads could paint her with beauty cosmetics never could, and beads could fill her with the confidence and self-love she so yearns for.
With those beads around her waist, would she feel beautiful? Definitely. Would other people consider her beautiful? Probably not, but it mattered little, because the beads would make her happy and content with herself.That’s all I’ve ever wanted.
That last thought kept Banou smiling for the rest of the day, just as it had done for countless girls from Africa and women the world over.
African waist beads might not be the most synonymous and tangible of African artifacts and creations, but they have persisted for so long and remained unsullied by the passage of time and the modernization of cultures.
Waist beads have, for centuries, held on to their purpose and remained unchanged even after being adopted by other cultures.
To the uninitiated, waist beads are only aesthetic objects that enhance the wearer’s appeal, and while this is certainly true, it is by no means their only purpose.
African women of the past wore beads for more than just allure, because there were certain cultures who regarded beads as objects more functional than they are appealing.
And yet, call it a natural reaction of the senses to a sight that’s very pleasing, waist beads have always made women more appealing.
A woman with a multitude of beads slung over her hips stood out from the rest. Even if such beads were concealed beneath clothes, as most of them were, and onlookers only ever caught glimpses of them on the rarest situations, waist beads were undeniably enticing to the opposite sex, despite such a reaction veering away from the primary effects beads were intended to exert.
Indeed, waist beads were never meant to enhance the wearer’s beauty for anyone else but the wearer, which is why they were mostly hidden.Few African cultures permit their women to openly display waist beads-particular festivities or ceremonies were most often the exceptions.
As great as-one can even say they were once revered-beads are, it is doubtful if they have as much a significant influence now as they did centuries earlier. In the days of yore, many a girl was eager to attain the age of maturity where she could proudly tie colorful beads around her waist.
In today’s world, very few women wear waist beads for their cultural significance, but that’s not to say beads don’t hold any sort of significance at all. Look around the world and you will still understand these ornaments are an integral part of many peoples, each of them giving the beads unique names in their mother tongues or otherwise.
From the Hausa/Fulani women of Nigeria who wear them beneath their loose hijabs and veils to the Zulus of South Africa with their hidden meanings of why they wear them and the Krobo ethnic group of Ghana who use beads as staple of many ceremonies, Africa is a land which still holds waist beads in high regard.
Much needs to be said to truly understand and appreciate this. Perhaps it won’t be amiss to give a brief history of waist beads and when they first revealed themselves to the world.
Although waist beads are often associated with African countries, their origin dates back to antiquity; as far back as 40,000 years ago, long before many civilizations saw birth. Evidence suggests that even the earliest humans made beads.
Egypt is a land that is often referred to as the Cradle of Civilization, and this also be connoted as the place where beads saw birth, because history tells us Egypt was one of the first civilizations to make and use beads for adornment just as we do.
Egyptians have always been known to champion all things beautiful and even in ancient Egypt, bead-making was no exception.By 1365 B.C., Egypt was already making glass beads.And many of the tombs within its pyramids that still stand to this day were sites where brass and glass beads were found.
Ancient Egyptians made use of the abundant natural materials in their land to make all these beads. Things like shells, bones, plant branches and stones were utilized to create beautiful ornaments. These materials were often strung with durable threads fashioned from plants like flax. Sometimes, animal fur like that of a cow was used as a thread too.
Certain beads were not for everyone though, because they signified status and power much as they accentuated beauty. Women with royal blood often wore them more than common folk.And beads were as much a quantitative measure for beauty as they were objects imbibed with the power to protect one from harm.
Clearly much of the belief ancient civilizations held about beads has transcended time to settle on the people of the modern world.
Moving on to West Africa, waist beads were most often attributed to the Yoruba tribe-currently, they occupy the southern part of Nigeria the most.
History has proven that the Senegalese and Ghanaians were also forerunners in bead-making and wearing as it heavily influenced their traditions. The Krobos, Ashantis, Ewes and Ga-Adangbes in particular were notable for having traditions intertwined with bead usage, be it for desires of prosperity, luck, fertility or protection; or as objects that denote aristocracy, power, affluence and of course, femininity.
In Nigeria, we see evidence of bead usage more than a millennium ago-about 500 B.C, with Igb Ukwu arts and Nok terracotta figures and figurines clearly showing bead decoration.
Meaning & Significance
These are many; too numerous for each culture to write in detail here. However, there are certain significances for beads that are more or less similar for many African cultures. The waist beads hold much the same meaning for these cultures, but there are many peculiarities too.
When you talk about the significance of beads to the people, or more specifically, the women of Africa, the first thing to consider is the color of the beads. This holds more significance than material value, for each color denotes a particular quality. Colors themselves are normally used to represent a particular quality or emotion and beads borrow from these.
Cultures in Africa number into thousands, so naturally, the cultures that assign particular qualities to beads based on color will differ in their individual interpretations, but some of the most common and uniform of them are:
- Beads colored gold could be likened to the sun, delineating riches and power.
- Beads colored green are attuned with nature; inducing prosperity and fertility.
- Beads colored brown reflect the Earth, holding the wearer down and making her stable.
- Beads colored yellow enriches a woman with energy; bliss and joy are always with her.
- Beads colored black are shields against harm, they protect and give strength and power.
- Beads colored red fills a woman with confidence; she will have the energy to attempt all tasks.
- Beads colored blue speak of loyalty, honor and truth.
- Beads colored pink are shades of beauty, love, compassion and kindness.
- Beads colored purple are all about royal power and great wisdom.
- Beads colored orange are the driving force behind confidence and charisma.
More than color, beads are referred to in as many names as the cultures they saturate. The Hausa/Fulani or Northern Nigeria call it ‘Jigida’ while the Igbo of the southeastern part of the same country call it ‘Mgbaji’, while theYoruba to the southwest refer to it as ‘Bebedi’ or ‘Lagidigba.’
These names are by no means limited to Nigeria, as the countries scattered across the African continent all label and designate waist beads in their own ways. Ileke Idi, Djalay Djalay, Giri-Giri, Yomba, Bin Bin and Jel-Jelli are all names waist beads are known by.
Again, each African culture holds varying uses for waist beads that are peculiar to another culture’s, but there are some that do tally. These are the ones found in every culture. Regardless how each tradition decides to interpret its use, they all bear similarities to each other.
- Adornment & Accentuation of Feminism
The women of almost all African cultures use beads to beautify their bodies. To reiterate, the irony is few people are allowed to see the manner these beads make the women beautiful, so it’s more a personal matter than anything else; the women are supposed to see and appreciate this beauty for themselves first and foremost. It accentuates their feminism.
- Sexual Appeal
This is not an arguable point. Waist beads do have sex appeal. They have the unique power or evoking strong emotions in the opposite sex. When women wear waist beads, even slight glimpses of the beads can cause such a reaction from men. Feelings of desire and lust abound. When bells are attached to the beads, it can be something akin to a mating call; to show the opposite sex she is ready to engage in intercourse.
- Protection & Healing
Beads are believed to have the power of protection. African women believe waist beads can protect from harm and-with the right type and color of stones-heal and rejuvenate them too.
- Weight Control
This is something which has as much to do with the beads as how disciplined the woman wearing them is. When a woman is on diet and trying to maintain her weight, beads act as signs that she’s keeping on the diet or veering away from it.
Tying the beads around the stomach is the first step in doing this, then a woman can exercise her stomach muscles by contracting and expanding them.
The real way to know whether a woman’s weight is being kept in check is dependent on how the waist beads feel around her: The tighter they get simply means the woman is gaining more weight, so she would do well to watch what she ate some more.
Having said that, wearing waist beads should not be an excuse for any woman to not eat; as long she eats healthy, everything will turn out great in the end.
- Birth Control
Yes, it may sound strange but certain cultures do use it as a means of birth control. Charms are laced over and intertwined with the beads to prevent conception. The Yoruba tribe of Nigeria in particular practice this.
It wouldn’t be exaggeration to say the Yoruba probably have the most peculiar uses for waist beads in Nigeria-or maybe the whole of West Africa even. This stands to reason, since history ascribes the utilization of waist beads to them more than many other cultures. For them, bead usage entails and involves the spiritual and material aspects of their lives. Deification, body ornaments, decoration and royal power are just some of the purposes beads are intended for.
Though there is substantial evidence that Yoruba men do wear beads, its mostly as necklaces or bracelets. Women were known to adorn their waists with beads, most often to symbolize feminism-for men, exceptions could come in the form of ceremonies.
The Yoruba, as expected, give waist beads a name that’s peculiar to their language. They call it Lagidigba, and when translated, means ‘large’ or ‘thick’ or even ‘massive’. More often than not, these odd but lovely beads are made from palm nut shells.
It’s debatable if what one woman considers a benefit is the same as what another deems a benefit, but that notwithstanding, the majority of women agree waist beads exert positive effects on their psyche and bodies.
- Waist beads make women more beautiful.
- Waist beads give the illusion of a slimmer waist.
- Waist beads can actually shrink the waist by way of helping the woman watch her weight.
- Waist beads gives a woman confidence she prior didn’t have.
- Waist beads make women more appealing to the opposite sex.
- Waist beads make clicking sounds that, frankly speaking, can sound quite enticing.
- Waist beads are utterly lovely. It’s a simple as that.
How to Make Your Own Waist Beads
It’s really not a difficult thing to do. As complicated as the process might look, you don’t need to be dexterous to make lovely beads of your own. The materials and what you desire to see are more important than the process. Remember, the colors of the beads all hold a special quality, so choose the ones that harbor the ones you seek.
- Utilizing upholstery in bead-making is a must, and you can find many with numerous designs. One is sure to catch your fancy.
- Make sure you place the bead on a surface which will reveal any missing or loose beads.
- It’s imperative you measure the beads around your waist before completion, to ascertain whether it will need tightening or loosening; leave extra thread for reinforcing too.
- Clasps are not a necessity. The choice is up to you. If you do decide to use one, it should be fixed before you start making the waist bead, then make use of glue or a strong adhesive to reinforce the beads after you’re done.
- Stringing beads can seem like a cumbersome and time-consuming process, but there are faster and smarter ways you can go about doing it. Don’t strand bead-by-bead; instead, string them from your hand. This is considerably more efficient.
- Tiny beads necessitate the use of equally tiny needles.
- It’s a good idea to reinforce the beads with double thread looping too, just to make sure they stay where you want them to.
- It’s possible to infuse your beads with ‘energy’ too. Simply leave your completed work to be cleaned by spring water overnight It will do nothing to damage your beads; on the contrary, it will make them look and feel even better.
There you have it. African waist beads were here long before any of us walked this world. Every day, more women from all corners of the globe approach it, either out of curiosity or sheer interest. One can say a day may come when African waist beads supplant any other beauty product out there.
These African waist beads possess an intrinsic value few other ornaments have. They cast aside all unrealistic notions of beauty and prove to a woman she has an innate, natural beauty; they tell her and make her believe she is special in her own way. And as Banou said, that is the only thing she ever wanted, and that is the only thing any woman would ever need.
Origin, Meaning & Significance, Uses, Benefits, How to Make Your Own Beads