So, what are waistbeads, exactly? Where did they come from? What qualifies a waistbead strand as African?
These are all great questions. To begin, waistbeads are an ancient and traditional type of adornment from Africa. They are 100% African, please don’t allow anyone to tell you otherwise. They are strands of beads made from various materials such as glass, coral, and gold that are worn on the waist of women.
Now why African woman have traditionally wore them varies from country to country, culture to culture. As with much of African culture, it is oral and passed down. My research into scholarly papers and books has yielded some anthropological results, but mostly anecdotal. Here’s what I’ve found:
Women have and still do wear them as a form of body adornment. They are considered feminine, sexy and like a magnet to a woman’s partner. The tinkling sound they make when a woman walks is like a siren song. I read these accounts mostly in articles or books written about Ghana culture.
In Dakar (Senegal), the women used to (and still may) perform a slow, sensual walk in social settings and ceremonies. The women would be well moisturized, fragranced down and that tinkling sound. The walk was called a dirriankhe.
Waistbeads also can act as a private piece of adornment between a woman and her partner, traditionally only one’s husband (i said traditionally) being allowed to see them or touch them. Some have been adorned with bells to signal potential partners that she is ready to socialize. They’ve even been used as dowries.
Waistbeads have also been used to represent youth, holding up red cloth that covers the lower half of the young woman’s body. Called otofo, these huge bundles of waistbeads are worn during puberty rites by the Ga people in Ghana.
Heavily ornate strands have been used is traditional costume and ritual, also being worn by small babies in naming ceremonies in Nigeria.
Overall, they can be seen as a manual waist trainer. When worn, the beads move up when a person gains weight and loosens as she loses. In this way many women track their weight journey and stay mindful.
Now while women in the diaspora wear them for some of the same reasons, they have also adjusted to include many forms of spirituality like chakra healing, crystal healing and more. This is also okay.
At BIRTHRIGHT, I take the tools that were given to me by default of my heritage and create them to serve as mindfulness and healing tools. Each strand is crafted with a specific intention in mind, whether it is to balance the chakras, provide amplification of certain energies, or bring certain things to fruition. I use herbs, preparations, oils and more from the earth, as well as certain bead materials to help further the goals of the strand. The number of beads in the pattern? Intentional. The color variation? Intentional. The metallic gleam to some strands? Intentional. It’s a process, sus.