While more people are now discovering the many benefits of wearing belly beads, African belly beads made of natural materials such as clay, shell, stone and bauxite were found to have been worn as far back as 1450 B.C. With such a vibrant history, let's explore what African beads were once used for.
Trading With African Beads & Jewelry
Craftsmen and women would later include broken glass bought from European Traders around the 16th Century to make these beautiful body beads.
But the word ‘BEAD’ itself is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word Beade or Bede, meaning 'Prayer'. Yet these beads are an intricate part of African Culture and Heritage.
Beads are most often used as symbols of maturity, wealth, beauty, social status, power and authority and identity in all the stages of their lives from birth through puberty, marriage and death as well as other initiation ceremonies. They may have been used as a form of payment, or traded for goods such as spices, precious metals, gun powder, mirrors during the 16th century.
African Beads Used For Rites Of Passage
Many African countries use decorative beads to mark a special time or celebration such as a birth, wedding or rite of passage. Babies, whether boy or girl, are adorned with necklaces, bracelets and anklets when born. And baby girls in particular would also wear waist beads to celebrate their arrival into the world. For instance, a child may be given a set of special beads on their eighth day to mark their birth and when they are blessed with a name.
On the other hand, mothers would decorate their daughters with necklaces, bracelets, waist beads and anklets after their first menstruation as a ceremonial rite of passage into womanhood and adulthood.
Beads are also presented during marriage ceremonies as gifts for the bride from the groom.
Beads are also used during a funeral They are not placed around the neck or wrist but placed on the chest for decoration.
A Spiritual Object
According to the African Folklaw, whenever it rained and there was a rainbow, people would follow it and where it ended it was said that they would find beads on the ground. These types of beads are referred to as ‘old beads’. The MεTε and Lε Beads are examples of these types of beads, and therefore are considered intrinsically powerful because they are believed to be given to us by Nature/God so they possess special powers.
Beads inherited by our ancestors are used during the death of a member of the family. If a married woman dies, a single piece of the old beads such as MεTε or Lε is removed and added to the locally manufactured ones and strung together and put on the left wrist of the deceased. It is believed that when she reaches the ancestral land our ancestors from her family would recognize her by the old bead on her wrist. The ancestors would then give her a befitting welcome. Such beads are passed on from one generation to another.
Traditional priests and priestesses wear these type of special beads (La). It differentiates them from the rest of the members of the society. The beads are believed to make them powerful to carry out their duties as Priests and Priestesses. And every spirit has its own bead. All the Gods and Spirits that our ancestors worshiped have their own Beads.
Celebrations & Festivals
Queen Mothers wear big beads whiles their subordinates wear smaller beads. It is disrespectful for a lesser ranked Queen Mother to wear the same type of beads with the Paramount Queen Mother.
Men and women wear beads to compliment the colors of their costumes to grace festivals, wedding ceremonies, naming ceremonies and grand durbars. The same type of beads worn around the neck must be worn around the wrist to bring harmony.
Women are mostly involved in the production of beads. In fact most bead manufacturers are women, as well as those who sell them.