History Of African Beads

History Of African Beads

Jan 28, 2021

Termaine Davis

It might just be the prettiest trend you’ll never see.

Oh, you might get a peek now and then. Tica Bowden says she spies glimpses of color all the time lately, as a woman leans over a certain way and the glistening glow of her African waist beads makes a coy cameo appearance.

They’re everywhere, but “they’re not for show,” said Bowden, owner of Creative Waist Beads by Journey Armon (her children’s names) in Oakland. “In African tradition, waist beads are meant to be worn under clothing,” she said. “They’re for you. It’s personal. The meaning of the colors varies with every tribe — it’s kind of like visual dialects. And here in America it’s certainly a form of personal expression and individual interpretation. They’re for all women — any body type, any race, any background.”

Think of them as colorful strands of femininity — vibrant glass or clay beads, gemstones, pieces of horn, shells and sometimes gold or silver fittings, strung together by hand and tailored to embrace a woman’s individual midsection.

Yet they’re more than just pretty baubles. The hues — and the reasons for wearing them — bear myriad meanings and a modicum of mystery and folklore. While the practice dates back centuries in various regions of Africa, even depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics and taking on different interpretations in other cultures, it has become increasingly popular in the United States during the past couple of years. Now waist beads are often sold at house parties and bridal showers in the style of Tupperware and Mary Kay — a sign they’ve clearly taken on trend status in American culture.

Ndeya Berryman of Waist Beads by Ndeya in East Palo Alto gives two to six house parties per month.

“(They’re) addictive,” Berryman said. “I’ve had women who get one strand then quickly come back for more.”

Adorn, appreciate

A big reason for the modern popularity of waist beads is the sense of empowerment they provide over an area of the female form that’s often a source of physical discomfort or embarrassment over extra pounds.

“Most women have an issue with their middle section, and the last thing they want to do is draw more attention to that area,” said Sewra Kidane of Waist Beads by Sewra, who has been wearing and making the jewelry since 1999. She sells the beads at art shows all around the country and has a booming online business. “By putting on something very beautiful and adorning that area, you accept your body more, appreciate the beauty of it.”

Berryman says the beads are a wonderful way to combat the unrealistic body images women see in magazines and on fashion runways.

“So many things in the media are telling us not to be happy with who — and what shape — we are,” she said. Berryman started wearing beads in 2005 — a gift after her second child was born — and they immediately increased her self-confidence.

“I have stretch marks, and I don’t have the perfect body,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter if someone else doesn’t think I have the perfect shape. (The beads) honor that shape. Our midsection is our center of balance. We need to be aware of the womb area. We carry a lot of miracles in that section.”

Strands of folklore

She now sells beads to women with waistlines from 20 to 65 inches and of all ages — from young women to clients in their 60s and 70s.

During an interview at her home studio last week, Bowden tugged up her tank top to reveal several strands of vibrant greens and blues swirling about her waist — colors that, to her, symbolize growth, humankind’s connection to the land and her own African heritage.

Historians believe the African tradition of waist beads may have originated among the Yoruba tribes, now mainly in Nigeria. But the practice is also seen in West Africa, notably Ghana, where the beads signify wealth and aristocracy, as well as femininity. Waist beads are also found in other cultures, and while African and Islamic women typically keep them under wraps, some display the beads over their clothes or on bare midriffs, such as belly dancers in Eastern cultures.

Beads, which are typically worn at all times — even while bathing or sleeping — can serve as symbols of sensuality, fertility and rites of passage, passed down from mother to daughter. There are superstitions about pregnancy and the energies of the Earth. Some see them as conveyors of positive energy and healing. Some wear them strictly for fashion. And still others choose them for the very practical use of weight control — when your beads are getting a little tight, it’s time to back off that blueberry muffin.

Jinina Knox, 40, of Oakland, a nurse who works with autistic children, bought her first set of beads a couple of years ago when Berryman gave a presentation at a bridal shower. Knox, not a small woman, loves the idea that the beads embrace all sizes, defying media images of what’s beautiful.

“I felt sexy the moment I put them on,” she said. “They are definitely not just for the skinny woman. You go walking naked past a mirror and see this gorgeous jewelry hanging on you. It makes you feel beautiful. They’re for the confident, vivacious woman, whatever size she is.”