For many African women, wearing beads is a way of life and a culture passed on to them from their mothers. They grow up to find them on their waist even before they begin to question its significance.
The waist bead is like a band worn around the belly. In most cultures, they are a symbol of a woman’s confidence in her body and sexuality. For me, they are precious African Jewels. In West Africa, waist beads have several names; Jel-Jelli, Jigeda, Giri-Giri, Djalay Djalay, Toma or Yomba and they are always worn under clothing.
Beads found in Ghana include glass beads, stone beads, crystal beads, ceramic beads, Adinkra beads, and the “Ahoofe” (beauty) beads. The tradition of wearing of beads on the waist in West Africa was made popular by the Yorubas in Nigeria. Women are the main users of these beads.
But do you know the mysterious role they play in the lives of females? Well, West African women in particular are given waist beads as children to wear throughout life to help shape their figures. It remains a mystery how the beads shape them, but somehow, curvy African women attribute their voluptuous shape to the waist beads. It is also used to measure the growth rate of children (girls). When the beads become too small around the waist, then the child is seen as growing.
After reading that, I took the liberty to investigate more about waist beads. My search took me to Ghana’s Art Centre in Accra, the number one shop for the sale of African artifacts including beads.
I met one Aunty Monica who has been selling beads for over a decade. According to her, some waist beads, which she could only describe as “red”, are put on the waist and the legs of children who are bow-legged to straighten their legs.
“When they are on your waist, they shape your body by keeping the waist small, so the hips are more accentuated,” another bead seller named Linda told me. She added also that waist beads were traditionally used to show the difference between a male and a female.
“To show our identity as Ghanaians, we women put on waist beads.” In modern times however, gay men also buy waist beads from her and put them on to differentiate between the male and the female roles played in a homosexual relationship.
Patricia Naa Dei, a university student I met buying these jewels, told me waist beads were simply for fashion. She indicated, she didn’t like them but had to put them on to satisfy her boyfriend, who loves to see them on her.
During sexual intercourse, her boyfriend whose name she only gave as Ato, removes them and put them on his waist and takes them off after the act. Weird, I agree. But lots of people do kinky stuff in the bedroom, you know? “The rattling sound of the beads during sex urges my guy on,” she added.
Beads on the waists of women are said to possess the power to attract and evoke deep sensual feelings for men. So I decided to shift gears and speak to a few gentlemen about the subject.
Most of them including Alex Anim-Ansah stressed that waist beads make the waist of the ladies attractive. He said, “I like it on my wife and sometimes get irritated when she takes them off. It’s sexy.”
Its power to turn men on is a mystery one cannot comprehend, but the men agree whenever they see them on a woman’s waist, it awakens their sensual desires. Aunty Monica the beads seller advised young ladies especially the married ones to continue wearing waist beads as it “charms” men to somehow remain faithful. According to her, if a woman stops wearing her beads, the husband might be tempted to cheat with another woman who puts them on.
Though this allegation has no scientific backing and is more superficial than practical, could waist beads actually reduce promiscuity in marriage?
We see them around, we see our daughters, sisters and wives wear them. Have we ever thought of their significance?
Well, besides its usefulness and mystical powers, beads in general and royalty are also closely linked in Africa. In Yoruba tradition, strands of beads are the emblems of the gods. Wearing a beaded crown with a veil is the quintessential sign of kingship. Also in Ghana, beads worn around the wrist and legs are signs of royalty or priesthood.
For me, beads are not just mere ornament for adornment, but with its mysteries, they are a symbol of the link between Africans and superstition.