Jewelry in Africa is seldom just ornamental; rituals, religion and ceremonies play a large part. The use of African beads and the art of bead making in Ghana, were originated by the Krobo people, and they are traditionally considered a status symbol representing wealth and financial success.
Waist beads on the other hand, are predominantly worn by women and symbolize sensuality, spiritual welfare, fertility and femininity. Today we’ll take a look at the history of waist beads in Ghana and their purpose.
History of waist beads in Ghana
Also called and known as “The African Lingerie”, waist beads come as single or multiple strands of beads made from various kinds of glass, metal, crystal, bone and wooden beads that are worn around the waist and stomach.
You may have seen them being sold in local markets or even by local people walking around the streets with long straps of different colorful beads hanging from their arms. Yes, these are the waist beads! The use of beads has changed from how it was used in the past to modern days.
The Origin of African Waist Beads
We can date back the origin of waist beads as early as the 15th century used by the Egyptian women who would wear the waist beads, or “girdle” as it was known back then, as a symbol of status. As shown in the picture below, hieroglyphs depict dancers adorned with braids and waist beads.
They are also known to be made popular by the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria and extended to other parts of West Africa. The Yoruba women are known to have once laced beads with charms and fragrances that would be considered irresistible to the opposite sex.
This may be one of the reasons why waist beads are still considered as a symbol of sensuality and femininity. However, it is not the primary reason. Some women in Ghana do wear it to seduce their man, as we may use lingerie for seduction. Waist beads are like the traditional “African Lingerie”.
What is the purpose of waist beads?
There are various reasons as to why a woman may wear waist beads. The reasons may also different from one African country to another. As fashionable as it appears, in some parts of Africa, waist beads have specific histories, meanings, and symbols attached to them.
While the present-day might refer to some as myths or superstitious, there are several reasons why waist beads are part of the African tradition.
Symbol of transiting from childhood to adulthood
In some African societies, female children are given waist beads by their moms once they get their first period as a symbol of reaching another stage of life, or in other words, symbolizing the transition from childhood to adulthood, like in the traditional Dipo rites for Krobo girls.
Waist beads are fitted to the size of the woman’s abdomen and slight change in the usual position of the waist beads symbolizes a difference in weight. if you’re reducing size or weight, the beads on your waist will roll lower, and if you’re gaining weight, then they will become tighter.
It is also believed that wearing these beads from a younger age improves the fine curves African women are known for.
Women use waist beads during intimate setups to enchant their lovers. Some believe that having them improves their chances of conceiving during intimate relations. The Krobo and Ashanti communities of Ghana add bells and larger beads on waists to ensure that a woman notifies nearby suitors that she is fertile.
Normally waist beads are worn under the clothes so that they can be seen only during intimate moments with your lover. In some cultures, these waist beads signify purity and are only to be taken off by her husband on their wedding night.
Symbolise femininity and sensuality
Apart from being a beautiful, colorful fashion accessory nowadays, they can be worn by women from all age groups, body sizes and body types. In Ghana it allows women to symbolize their femininity, show off their wealth, and for practical reasons such as anchoring clothes used during their monthly cycle.
The meanings by color
The African waist beads come in all kinds of shapes and colors. Every color has a meaning and this meaning varies with every tribe – it’s kind of like visual dialects. Let’s have a look at some of the meanings by color.
- Brown: Earth & Stability
- Purple: Royalty, spirituality and wisdom
- Black: Power & protection
- Gold: Good health, power and wealth
- Blue: Loyalty & truth
- White: Light, truth & purity
- Yellow: Energy, joy & happiness
- Green: Abundance, fertility, nature & prosperity
- Orange: Courage, self-confidence & vitality
- Red: Confidence & vitality
- Pink: Care, beauty, love & kindness.
- Turquoise: Communication & self-awareness
How are African waist beads worn according to different African regions?
Interesting to mention that in Nigeria different tribes used to call the waist beads different names. For instance, Yoruba people called it Ibebe-Idi or Ileke-Idi, Igbo people called it Mgbaji, while the Hausas called it Jigida.
Ghanaians adapted the waist bead culture very quickly, as it was passed down by the Yoruba women. Beads in general are so important to the Ghanaian people to the extent that they put beads on toddlers, whether a boy or a girl, when they are born.
If it’s placed on a boy, then he will remove them after a while but a girl will have to stay with them forever. Nowadays, it has become such a fashionable accessory that some women do not know about the traditional aspect of wearing them.
It is said that waist beads were introduced in East Africa between the 16th-18th century by the Arabs and Portuguese traders. Just as in west African culture, wearing waist beads is also very popular in east African culture.
Women can add essential oils to their bead strings in order to promote healing properties and utilize them to promote fertility, puberty or class.
Waist beads reached South Africa in smaller quantities through internal trade by the Arabs and Portuguese. Notably, women in Zambia and Malawi use their beads while pregnant or in order to seduce their husbands.
Beads is an important part of Ghanaian culture and one of the most essential gifts you can get in Ghana. You can visit the Accra Arts Center in order to buy beads, sculptures, kente clothes and much more.