I spent a significant amount of time in West Africa, specifically Ghana, and during that time acquired a taste for African beads. Some are absolutely stunning and they range in material from recycled glass and flip-flops collected from the beach, to metals such as brass. Over the years and the course of many travels within the continent, I’ve managed to collect a few beautiful pieces of African jewellery. During my teens I went with an uncle of mine, (rest his soul) to I think a family member’s house. An elderly aunt of his. There, in the compound, sat an old woman on a wooden stool, hitting a medium-sized bead repeatedly on the concrete ground, turning the ornament slightly after every tap. I remember my uncle explaining that certain beads needed to be knocked into shape and that this lady would spend the better part of the day diligently working through the beads in the basket.
In Ghana, two shops, Suntrade Centre and Wild Geko were my go-to venues. Neither company has a website that truly showcases the amazing pieces of jewellery they make and sell. At both shops the pieces are expensive, no two ways, but all are handmade and because of that, each is one unique.
In South Africa, I nipped into Out of Africa, a souvenir shop franchise. This mind you, this was in 2006, so the piece featured here might not be in production any more.
The history of beads in Africa dates back centuries. Seen as a sign of wealth, they were once used as currency. My mother is half Nigerian half English and she grew up on an island in the Nigerian Delta. When my grandfather died in 1991, we travelled to the island where the women in the family were bedecked in gold jewellery and bright red coral beaded necklaces and bracelets. This was to signify the importance of the family in society. I remember asking my mother if we could keep the pieces, and was rewarded with a negative response as the jewellery belongs to the entire family as a whole. Coral beads are also given to Nigerian brides as wedding gifts if memory serves correctly.
Generally, across Africa, beads play an important role culturally. Among the Maasai for instance, each coloured glass bead represents something different. For example, Red personifies courage whilst white symbolises purity or health. Among the Zulu of South Africa, those same hues have their own meanings to the tribe.
The most beautiful jewellery and heck, even works of art with beads in Africa, were definitely by both the Maasai and Zulu. The former makes stunning footwear, which cost a pretty penny here in the UK. If you buy them in Tanzania, Zanzibar or Kenya, you can pay about $10 for a pair. I have three pairs packed away with my summer clothes and I have found that they make wonderful gifts.