Group Culture Coordinator and Researcher Rukariro Katsande weighs in on the significance of beads in African culture…
Part 1 – Materials and Origin
Beads are among the most intriguing and important symbols in African culture, past and present.
The materials used in making beads/beadwork are of the largest variety, from bone to glass. The colours and sizes, the significance of the materials chosen, the placement of beads (on the body, clothing or articles) among other uses, and of course the “subjectivity” of the person using beads denote perspective, experience, feelings, beliefs, desires, and/or power. Subjectivity is the “sense of self” which influences and informs people's judgments about truth or reality, especially on the topic of beads and beadwork.
The origin of beads and beadwork in Africa dates back to the beginning of any civilization documented in archaeological history, some say as far as 10,000 BC. Material used to make the beads is useful to determine the technological ages, for dating local initiatives as well as foreign contributions to the art form.
There has been much dispute as to where the more advanced technologies originated, however ample evidence points to a parallel universal development, and an abundance of natural resources required for the making of for example, glass beads in Africa.
On this continent much beadwork still consists of natural material such as bone, coral, horn, ivory, seeds, shells, stones and pearls, which places emphasis on the beadwork’s meaning. In contemporary times beads are also produced from synthetic materials like glass, plastic and alloy metals. Today’s sources for synthetic beads are China, Hungary, India and Poland. In southern Africa, important historical sites where beads have been found include Mapungubwe in South Africa and Great Zimbabwe just to the north. Countries include Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
The uses of beads and beadwork differ widely across the continent, and include…
Prayer or spiritual representation – Judaism is possibly the only faith that does not use beads for prayer or divine communication or representation. Many sangomas/n’angas or traditional healers wear distinctive amulets and beadwork which aid in identifying them and their work, or for help during their work. They originate beadwork for anyone who feels that they need support in particular spiritual issues or areas of their life. Bead colours are usually chosen by the sangoma in line with an individual’s characteristics and particular ailments or troubles. In most known common practices, novice sangomas wear single strings of white beads around their heads, wrists, elbow and ankles, while experienced older healers have the right and privilege to wear more opulent and elaborate bead work with variant colours and materials including feathers. Beads are also used in rituals, thrown on a mat combined with bones, dice, stones and pieces of wood. By the flick of a wrist, they can determine one’s fortune. Beads and seeds can be contained in gourds which are shaken to ward off evil spirits or to play ritual/festive music (leg rattles, hosho for the mbira, or in church choirs). Beads are used as part of African and European religious rituals, increasing their value and respect for them.
Read Part 2 (Uses of Beads) here and Part 3 (More Uses of Beads) here.