Waist beads and their cultural significance across the globe.
Some questions I’ve had to answer numerous times since starting Cultured Waist.
- What are waist beads?
- Where do waist beads come from?
- What are waist beads for?
- Who is allowed to wear waist beads?
Now admittedly, when I first formed the concept of “Cultured Waist” my understanding of waist beads was limited, to say the least. I knew that young girls were gifted beads by their mothers as they transitioned into womanhood, identified by either the beginning of puberty or the menstrual cycle. I had no idea that waist beads had many different meanings and uses across the different tribes of Africa.
It is important I mention that the traditions and cultures of specific countries are almost impossible to speak of generally due to their diversity, therefore all my research focuses more on tribes, rather than the geophysical landscape.
1 What are waist beads?
Waist beads are a physical expression of self in the form of beads neatly threaded along stringing material to be wrapped between the waist and hips. Positioning of waist beads is dependent on the use and sizing, for example beads for confidence may be worn around the waist, visible, but beads for spirituality may be hidden near the hips as they are sacred.
Waist beads come in a diverse range of colours, types of beads, designs and more. The Krobo tribe of Ghana believed the Bodon bead was a living entity as it was grown from the ground and had the ability to breathe, reproduce and bark at the approach of danger. Beads grown from the ground quickly became a trade with Benin, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Timbuktu, India, and more leading to integration and adaptation of their styles and meanings. Nowadays there are a range of materials which waist beads are made of.
2 Where do waist beads come from?
Waist beads can be found in the history of almost all African tribes, used at rites of passage which are simply transitions between one stage of life to the next, usually consisting of pregnancy, birth, puberty, marriage, and death. Each tribe will have it’s own traditions, customs and uses of waist beads, or at least its own variety, so it’s hard to say exactly where they come from, but a common characteristic across the contact linked waist beads to spirituality.
Figure 1: Examples of Bodom beads from the Krobo tribe of Ghana
To discuss the origin of waist beads in terms of the first users would cause a discussion that would last years. Our ancestors were free spirited and lived in the moment, rather than documenting every occurrence which is why a lot of people have disrespectfully described Africa as “having no history”. Queen Afua briefly touches on the use of waist beads in Ancient Egypt, formally known as Khamit.
3 What are waist beads for?
The beauty in waist beads comes from there individuality. Each waist bead tells a different story, or rather tells you that the woman they guard has a story. Only she can tell this story, but for various reasons she may choose to represent herself through her waist beads.
For some women, waist beads bear spiritual importance in their life as they use them in prayer and sometimes manifestation. By simply praying over her beads and wearing them she is spiritually protected at all times. This spiritual protection was for her ideas, business, relationships, family, fertility, or whatever she may be praying for against negative energy, spirits, and thoughts.
In almost every tribe, waist beads represent fertility and the gift of life from God. They guard the womb where not only babies are created, but also aspirations, ideas, and experiences. This is where the idea of “putting life into an idea” stemmed from as woman are creators.
We are all aware of the fact that when a girl starts her menstrual cycle, she is able to get pregnant, hence why she is then gifted waist beads for adornments by her mother and elders and taught the secrets of marriage and womanhood. This is where “the talk” came from. Young African men were also taught about marriage and responsibilities of manhood at similar ages. Beads are significant in the puberty ritual of traditional Ndembu society of Zambia.
In the Zulu tribe of South Africa, white beads were gifted to young girls to represent a positive message of love, purity, goodness, happiness, and virginity. When she chooses a suitor she would present these beads to him, who then wraps them around his neck to signify their union. He then gifts her a black kilt on their wedding day. The black kilt is a symbol of strength and togetherness.
A common use of waist beads is as an aphrodisiac. African men loved the look and sound of his wife’s waist beads. Often, a woman would rattle her waist beads to indicate her desire for love making. It was, if you like, a love language. It’s common for women to discard of waist beads touched by past lovers to signify healing and new beginnings.
The Zulu tribe have a beadwork language in which a young girl will send a message through the colours and patterns on her waist beads and the young man would consult his relatives to create a response as beadwork was women’s work. Beads have much significance in the courting process, often lasting 2 years.
Through the development of research on colour therapy, women are now able to choose colours for their waist beads to provoke feelings and emotions of positivity, love, strength, and more. They are often used as an aid during healing and can signify a promise to self or new beginnings in her life. The Fante tribe of Ghana use the word “ahondze” for beads which breaks down to “ho” meaning self/body and “ndze” meaning things. Waist beads are an item of self.
[“ho” meaning self/body and “ndze” meaning things] – waist beads are an item of self]
Waist beads aging back hundreds, even thousands of years have been passed down as family heirlooms. It was often the responsibility of the eldest woman or daughter to safeguard the family beads.
Waist beads are a charm of protection from our ancestors. They guide and protect us through the major transitions in life and on a day-to-day basis. Wearing waist beads (especially during menstruation) can bring us closer to our ancestors and heritage. I am so grateful for my gift of beading that allows me to bring so many people closer to home.
I could go on forever about the historic background of waist beads in different tribes, but it’ll be a whole book. African culture is so expansive and varied that I’ll never be able to cover it all, but it’s important that I share what I do learn with the world. Not just the children of Africa, but the whole world, so that when they think of our home, they may see abundance and not poverty.
Here are some more uses of waist beads, both historic and modern:
- A symbol of self-love
- Express confidence and character
- Track weight loss/gain
- Shape their waist
- Ceremonial (weddings, naming ceremonies, funerals, etc.)’
- A gift from husband to wife (before and after wedding)
- Empowerment, healing, and meditation
If you would like to know more about my research into the history of waist beads, please email email@example.com.
4 Who is allowed to wear waist beads?
I would like to point out that throughout history African people have been big sharers of their culture. We are proud and welcome everyone to wear waist beads. We share this culture with the world and also with it we educate them on the richness of Africa… not in money, but in natural resources, natural beauty, culture, and love.
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Be confident. Be beautiful. Be Cultured.