Many people wear beads for various reasons and in different ways. For the pure African, beads are not just colourful accessories but a sense of cultural relish. The origin of beads can be traced thousands of years back in history. Beads and bead making has therefore been a relevant aspect of the cultural heritage of the indigenous African. Its popularity cuts across the length and breadth of the continent in various ethnicities thus the Yorubas of Nigeria call it ‘Ileke’, The Hausas in various parts of West Africa call it ‘Jigida’, and inside Ghana, the Akans call it ‘Ahwenie’etc. Though beads were highly patronized by native Africans, it is becoming more versatile in its use and design now.
Historically, there is evidence of its prevalence among the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Indians at the time they established trading bases in East Africa. Eventually, the Arabs invaded the place in the 8th century and took over the trade routes with the wealthy Ghana Empire of the present day Mauritania. During that time, the Arabs brought glass beads as a means of exchange to trade for gold and slaves at the Niger Delta.
The earliest powder glass beads were discovered in South African during archeological excarvations precisely at Mapungubwe and it dates back from 970 to 1000 AD.
Though bead making is currently a booming business all over Africa, Ghana is the center of powder glass bead production in Africa; where bead making was first documented by John Barbot in 1746. The great majority of beads were produced by Ashanti and Krobo craftsmen and women.
The Krobos of Ghana make powder glass beads in vertical clay moulds, each with a number of depressions designed to hold one bead. The mould is filled with crushed glass in colour layers, so as to obtain sequences of patterns or shapes. Some versions are created with a piece of cassava leaf stem to leave perforations after it’s baked. Other forms are pierced while hot with a pointed iron tool.
The notable types of beads include, Chevron Beads, Powder Glass Beads or Sand Cast Beads, Stone beads etc. There are also Copper drawn and brass hammered beads collected in the Congo – DRC, Brass beads made by the lost wax method were once a common store of wealth throughout West Africa. The large Nigerian Nupe bronze bead also once served as the centerpiece of a necklace.
Lustrous African beads play an important role in the African society as they were principally used for rites of passage; rituals of birth or naming ceremony, puberty, marriage and death rites thus highly cherished in cultural events. There are however some kinds of beads that are specifically made for royals. These ones are beaded with gold pieces to enrich the royal regalia but basically, people wear beads for every ceremony mostly the joyful ones.
There are a variety of beads which come in countless textures, sizes and shapes. Hence, different ethnicities string them in creative ways and wear them as accessories based on their own style and purpose. The Kenyans and South Africans for instance weave theirs into accessories that virtually look like clothing!
Beads are worn by both gender and for various purposes. There are beads used to adorn babies during naming ceremonies and there are those worn by young adults to portray femininity during puberty rites amongst the Akans and Krobos. There are also variants interspersed with gold pieces for royal regalia. Beads are also worn as talismans by traditionalists.
Contemporary beads are also very fashionable and can be worn to any function. For that matter, most Ghanaians and other Africans alike, pride themselves in wearing beautiful beads as a rich and cherished cultural heritage.
So if you haven’t had the opportunity to wear beads before, do not hesitate to try on bead jewelry pieces in your fashion experience. I’m sure you’ll enjoy wearing them.