Beads in the ethnic jewelry of Africa

Samburu woman. Photo credit Sankara Subramanian

Beadwork is the most popular form of adornment among many Eastern and Southern African people. In earlier times beads were made from ostrich-eggshell, wood or bone but in the 19th century coloured beads from Europe came to the continent and tens of thousands of them began to be used to make amazing ornaments. These ornaments started to play an important role in social life of tribal people of Africa.

Zulu woman. Photo credit John Atherton

The jewelry itself, the way it is worn, the choice and combination of colours all have certain meaning. The Zulu and Swazi make different ornaments for different stages of their life: first love, marriage, birth of a child and so on. For example, when a Zulu girl falls in love, she makes a necklace which she gives to her lover and makes for herself a matching set of wrist, ankle and waist beads. The wearing of these ornaments by both partners tells the others about their relationship. The motifs of the ornament, the overall design  the colour of the beads used - all have their own meaning and symbolism (though it vary from region to region). By stringing beads in certain pattern girls are able to write love messages to guys. The main design motifs are squares, diamonds, straight lines, zig-zags arranges in symmetrical, geometric patterns. Married women usually wear several hoop-like circular-sectioned necklaces made by wrapping strings of beads tightly around thick fiber cords. When a woman is widowed she changes the colour scheme of her jewelry making black the predominant colour in the design.

Samburu women. Photo credit European Commission DG ECHO

Young Samburu men. Photo credit davida3

Among the Samburu of Kenya it is possible to recognise the social status from the beadwork he or she is wearing: whether he is a youth, a warrior, an elder or a priest, or whether she is a virgin, a marriageable girl, a mother, the mother of a warrior, an old woman. Samburu women wear massive ensembles of beads around their shoulders and necks, usually made from thousands of small single-coloured glass beads. The great collars of beads make the head look as if it is lifted high and frame the face concentrating attention upon it. For these women to be without their adornments is same as to be naked.

Masai women. Photo credit Martha de Jong-Lantink

Masai warrior. Photo credit  Tambako The Jaguar

The Masai have similar ways of using beadwork. There are at least forty words in the Masai language for distinct types of beaded decorations. One of characteristic jewelry is the stiff, flat, beaded necklaces worn by the Masai women of marriageable age. They are magnificent, resembling collars or ruffs in halo shapes, made of glass beads threaded onto wire. Red, white and blue beads predominate, although yellow, orange, green and black beads are often used in smaller quantities. The head-dresses worn by the Masai women consist of three or more strings of beads encircling the head, which is shaved. A beadwork aigrette may be worn rising from the front of the head-dress and sloping backwards over the skull. Strings of beads are wound around the wrists to make tight-fitting armlets.
Masai men also wear jewelry according to their social status: warriors wear colourful bandolier-like bead ornaments across the chest and fitting neck chockers; arm and leg bands which are made for them as particular signs of love. The elder men wear beaded snuff containers around their neck which is given to them by their eldest daughters.

Ndebele women. Photo from here

Ndebele people are known for their beaded aprons in brilliant geometric designs. Girls wear small ones and the size increases as the girl grows up. Whey they reach marriageable age the aprons are replaced by the big sized one, about 30x25 cm or larger. Besides the aprons, large rings of beads on an iron or straw core are worn on the hips, arms and legs. The decorative meaning of these rings is to imitate rolls of fat which the Ndebele used to consider attractive. I wonder how Ndebele women manage to walk and move wearing all those adornments: considering how much beads are used for creating them they can't be light. Sometimes the total weight of all the adornments may be as much as 25 kg!

Ndebele men. Photo credit United Nations Photo

Ndebele fertility doll. Photo credit Avital Pinnick

Another impressive Ndebele beadwork, though not an adornment, is their "fertility doll". Such a doll is made by mother or grandmother of a girl and is given to her on her wedding day. It is supposed to insure her bearing healthy children. However, after the third child is born the doll must be given away or desrtoyed because it is considered unlucky to keep it any longer.

You may also like Nepali glass beads jewelry


  1. Amazing....their bead work is stunning....I love the colours and designs....each one is so unique...and the hiddnen messages in the beading jewellery make them even more unique !!!:):):)

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  3. What a wondeful showcase...you have made this so informative :)

  4. WOW !
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  5. Awesome post!
    Nice blog and great post.
    Thanks a lot for sharing this article.
    Munmun Nishi :)

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  6. I love that so many cultures use intricate beading like this! I wonder how heavy those necklaces get after wearing them for a long time. I love how colorful they are! http://www.shop.fromafricatoamerica.com/9-Earrings-Necklaces-and-Jewelry-sets_c9.htm

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