Synonymous with both fertility and feminism; African waist beads are thought to originate among the Yoruba tribes of Africa – a significant proportion of the population of which, is now settled within Nigeria. Conversely, the tradition also extends to Western Africa, notably Ghana, where women perceive African waist beads to be both a sign of wealth/ aristocracy, and of femininity.
The Western fascination with African waist beads has been a long and debated one, with many of the impression they are purely worn to attract a mate’s attention. While there is some evidence to suggest this is true, the reasoning for the wearing of such adornments is actually far deeper, and goes back many hundreds of years.
Due to the sheer diversity of sub-tribes falling within the Yoruban categorization, there are many conflicting reports regarding the primary functionality of waist beads. The general consensus however, is that Yoruba people perceive glass beads to be the source of life, and ‘of the Earth’. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that the supernatural beliefs relating to the wearing of beads for birth control, and as a source of protection to pregnant women, are still upheld today.
The more frequently discussed symbolism associated with African waist beads, is that of sensuality and seduction. Among the Yoruba tribes, the belief in superstition, spirit, and the energies of the Earth has lent itself to the magical properties of African trade beads and glass beads. Yoruban women are said to ‘lace’ beads with incantations, and symbolic charms, which assist in the persuasive powers they have over men. Brides lure their new husbands with the promising rattle of waist beads – however such behavior is also thought to be communicative of fertility, at certain times of the month.
Ghana, regarded as the ‘bead production capital of the World’, has held a long fascination with beads as both ornamental, and symbolic adornments. The wearing of waist beads among the Asante tribe is still a popular, and even fashionable trend today. Although modern belief tends to be limited to the aesthetic benefits of waist beads, some Asante tribeswomen still wear them as symbols of chastity, femininity and status indicators. Mostly, they are loved as a fashion item which cinches the waist, and accentuates the natural curvaceous figure of African women – a figure that most men instinctively find attractive anyway!