The earliest powder glass beads were found in present day Zimbabwe dating back to 970 – 1000 CE; but from colonial times to the present day, the main area of powder glass bead manufacture is West Africa-particularly the Yoruba tribes of Africa – a population now settled within Nigeria. Conversely, the tradition also extends to Ghana, which is regarded as the Bead Production Capital of the World, where women perceive African waist beads and have held a long fascination with them, as ornamental and symbolic adornment; and as well as signs of wealth, aristocracy, and of femininity. There are beads used to adorn babies during naming ceremonies, while others are worn by young adults to portray femininity during puberty rites. Beads are said to possess the power to attract and evoke deep emotional responses. In addition, they are believed to be signs of success and affluence as well as spiritual well being.
"…all over the continent of Africa, beads were used once as a currency to trade purchase gold, ivory and palm oil, spices and weapons…"
Traditionally, a successful suitor would commission a set of beads for the wrists, neck, ankles, arms and waist of his bride, which formed part of her dowry and the foundation of her personal wealth. In West Africa particularly, the tradition became such that women wear multiple strings of beads around her waist; and in some cultures, the only person allowed to remove them was her husband on her wedding night. Some strings of beads were adorned with bells, which was a signal to let a partner know that the woman was clean- meaning she is at the proper stage where sexual intercourse is allowed. In traditional Ghanaian culture, the many strings of beads around the bikini-line were used as an anchor about which the menstrual cloth was strapped. Folklore also attributes the wearing of a bunch of waist beads to the definition of the waist-- meaning that it helped women to hold their figures.
"…it is only now in these modern times that waist beads are becoming a visible fashion statement…"
Hidden from view underneath women's clothing is that waist beads increase body-consciousness in a way that lingerie does – they are provocative. The wearer can take pleasure in knowing that they're wearing something special and beautiful which will please their lover. Strings of waist beads also force the wearer to be aware of their size. Gain five pounds and the beads will be the first to tell you. Since they don't stretch, like clothes do, they simply roll up the waist until they find a place to sit comfortably. Beads higher up the body equal weight gain and beads lower the body mean weight loss. This means that waist beads are a simple method of monitoring weight without the aid scales.
It is only now in these modern times that waist beads are becoming a visible fashion statement. The wearing of waist beads among the Asante tribe is still popular and even fashionable today. Waist-lines on clothes are getting lower and lower and women are showing more skin than ever, meaning that occasionally waist beads are on show and turning a few heads.
But what is clear is that our ancestors also saw beads as a fashion statement - and so do we!