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There are few symbols of feminine allure that are more powerful than African waist beads. Some men literally lose their minds over their powerful spell, and I use the word ‘spell’ intentionally:
When asked about the power of the waist bead in Xhosa culture, a South African Elder said; “there is more to it, it might be used as a voodoo/ juju to lure men cause I had a maid who had those. When I accidentally saw them she said she was given by her grandmother and it’s for luck with men.”
Regardless of the superstition wrapped up in African waist beads, they are exploding in popularity across the Black Diaspora. To help dispel some of the misinformation, this article breaks down the history of African waist beads, what they symbolize, and how to wear them.
You will also learn where to buy African waist beads from Black owned makers, so bookmark this article.
What African Waist Beads Are, How They Are Made, and Why They Are Worn
The African name for waist beads depends on the language of the people wearing them. In Nigeria, waist beads are called Bebedi, Jigida or Ileke idi, depending on the culture.
African waist beads are made of glass, shells, ivory, and precious stones or metals. In some cultures, charms, crystals, and other sacred items are also used. The material all depends on status and symbolism – two concepts that you will read more about later in this post.
The string used for african waist beads is usually not elastic or easily stretched, and if you are a true Initiate, you should never put unnatural material on your body. That means 100% cotton or natural fibers.
Some makers use elastic strings to make the beads easy to remove. However, the string should not stretch for reasons that you will explore below. I will give you easy and convenient ways to make it easy to take off African waist beads if you want to wear them without using elastic material.
Waist beads can carry strong spiritual and cultural significance, so they are traditionally made by a Priest (Babalawo), Priestess (Iyanifa), or a spiritual leader. If they are given as a gift from a family member or a friend, the giver will bless the beads before giving them to you. And if you purchase African waist beads from other sources, you should bless them yourself.
When it comes to your family, waist beads hold special significance as well. An interesting aspect of rural Krobo culture in Ghana is that new beads are uncommon and unacceptable – especially during formal ceremonies.
Since tradition dictates the only respectable beads are old heirloom beads, wearing a new bead is said to mean that “you have no grandmother” to give you quality beads to wear in public.Progression of Aesthetic: a Study of Beads and Adornment in Contemporary Krobo Society
One last point of note: not all waistbeads are the same. They change as a girl walks her path from childhood into womanhood and marriage.
That is why you may notice that the beads a woman wears for her husband will be vastly different from the ones a young girl wears into her transition into womanhood.
A Short History Of African Waist Beads
It can be hard to pin down the true origin african waist beads. If you read most articles on the subject, writers claim that the first depiction of African waist beads appear on the walls of Kemet.
There are a few images often used as evidence to support this claim. The first comes from a tomb painting of musicians and dancers shown below.
The second piece of evidence is from the colorfully painted tomb of an official named Nebamun. You can see two dancers on the bottom of the image wearing what appear to be African waist beads.
While we cant be positive that wearing waist beads started in Kemet, we can definitely give credit to the West African regions along the Bight of Benin for making the style popular.
Yoruba women have been wearing ‘Ileke-Idi’ since the foundations of West African civilization. Over time, waist beads have become a source of superstition, tradition, and wise words like the phrase below:
Omo eni onise idi bebere ka fi ileke si idi omo elomi
Translation: Ones Daughter can not possess a gorgeous waist while ones adorn another person’s daughter with a waist beadYoruba Proverb
Ghana’s indigenous Krobo people are legendary for making and wearing some of the most elaborate beads in the world. Oral tradition has it that the Krobo migrated to the Accra Plains from Benin or Nairaland, so it is likely that they brought the practice of making and wearing African waist beads with them.
We also see waist beads being worn across the African continent, but based on what we know about cultural migration it is likely that other cultures were influenced by the Naija practice.
What African Waist Beads Symbolize
Jewelry, clothing, and accessories act as far more than just decoration. These items are indicators that tell you where a person is from, their social status, their level of maturity, and what matters most to them. The same is true of African waist beads.
From the material that the beads are made from, the color of the beads, the number of strings worn, and whether the beads are visible or not represent a woman’s place in life.
Specifically, African waist beads symbolize wealth, maturity, devotion to African Spirituality, and a woman’s character.
Beads have been used as a form of currency across the African Diaspora for generations. So when a woman displayed beads made from valuable material, she displayed her status to the world.
And when a man wished to marry a woman, the husband-to-be would give his bride to be a dowry of waist beads along with beads for her neck, arms, wrists and ankles.
For young women, African waist beads are worn as proof that they have started menstruation and thus Womanhood.
In Ghana, young female members of the Krobo people undergo a puberty ceremony called Dipo. During the ceremony, each initiate enters a ritual house, sheds her clothing and is dressed with beads by her ritual mother. This process is symbolic of a girl shedding her childhood and being dressed as a young woman.
In some cultures the beads serve the more functional purpose of holding loin cloths or sanitation cloths in place for women who are in their cycle.
There are some African religions that use waist beads to signify a form of devotion of to invoke spirits. For instance, Priestesses in Yorubaland may wear them to invoke water deities for protection against malicious water spirits.
But religious uses are not necessarily what we are referring to here.
Protection is an important function of African waist beads, as they encircle the body and close off the circuits of energy. Once this is achieved you are then protected from evil thoughts, negative spirits, and energy vampires.
According to Mystery of the waist beads and modern sexuality “Waist beads are believed to be sources of great spiritual energy which many link with juju practice. Traditionally, charmed waist beads are worn by women to ward off negative energy from the body and to close in positive or protective energy around the body. They are especially worn by pregnant women to protect their unborn babies too.”
When it comes to influencing the energies around you, some women use charmed African waist beads as a tool of seduction. The Yoruba are well known for their charmed waist beads. These charms are believed to possess the powers to entice and entrap the opposite sex and even improve their sexual prowess.
This is not to say that every woman or girl wearing beads is signalling sexual readiness. In fact, the Igbo culture of Nigeria used African waist beads to signal just the opposite. Here is a quote from Semantic Scholar on cultural norms surrounding waist beads among Nigeria’s Igbo people:
“The Igbo do not approve of sex before marriage. Traditionally, the Igbo used
charms, waist beads and silver or brass anklets to beautify the otherwise naked unmarried maidens.
These bright and shining adornments are seductive in their tantalizing jingling and jangling musical sounds, but firmly signify denial of sexual access and even knowledge about sex before marriage.” (Source )
Body Acceptance and Honoring The Divine Feminine Energy
Whether you wear them as a spiritual practice or a social one, African waist beads are a beautiful way to honour the divine feminine energy within you. How you feel about yourself and whether you accept the body that you were blessed with play important roles in cultivating a healthy spiritual disposition.
How do waist beads help? Here is what Sewra Kidane of Waist Beads by Sewra has to say:
“Most women have an issue with their middle section, and the last thing they want to do is draw more attention to that area.. By putting on something very beautiful and adorning that area, you accept your body more, appreciate the beauty of it.”
The color of your waist beads matter as much as the material, the function, and the properties that you are looking for. Each color has the power to heal, rejuvenate, protect, and/or cultivate.
If you do a Google search for ‘African waist bead color meaning’, you will get a lot of the same charts and interpretations. The problem is that this information is based on western color psychological theory, and is disconnected from traditional African practice.
So instead of rehashing western interpretations of what African waist bead colors mean, here is information taken directly from indigenous Black culture.
African Waist Beads Color Chart
Can You Use African Waist Beads For Weight Loss
Some women swear by the power of African waist beads for weight loss, but how does the simple act of wearing an accessory help?
The answer is simple: What your brain can measure it can manage.
Your body sends you signals that may not easily register to your brain as you go about your daily life. One of those signals is a slowly and quietly expanding waistline.
If you have ever looked in the mirror and experienced shock at how quickly your belly got out of hand, you know what I am talking about.
Thats where African waist beads come in. They don’t just get tighter as you get bigger, they also rise and fall to let you know whether you are making progress or backsliding. As your belly grows, your beads slide further up. As your belly shrinks, they fall to your hips.
So wearing African waist beads serve as a powerful psychological motivator to remain aware of what you eat and how active you are.
Should You Wear African Waist Beads Under Or Over Your Clothing?
The answer depends on who is wearing waist beads and why you are wearing them in the first place.
You have already learned how different cultures use African waist beads, so their answer depends on their culture. Individually, if you are wearing your beads for non-spiritual reasons then the answer is based on your preference.
But if you are wearing beads for protection, for energy balance, and for spiritual strength, then your beads should touch your skin and be hidden from the public.
In African Spirituality it is understood that what is exposed to the light and to the public has the power to attract energy from the outside. This is not always a good thing – if you are surrounded by negative energies, you may absorb those energies.
In some cultures African waist beads are not visible to the public. The only person who is permitted to see a Woman’s waist beads are her husband, and even mentioning the color of your waist beads to another man is sometimes taboo.
Of course, if you are wearing waist beads as an accessory and nothing more, then wear them any way you prefer.
Where To Buy African Waist Beads
If you are ready to add waist beads to your life, here are some affordable bead makers to support.
For the Queens who do wear African waist beads, what is your ritual for blessing your beads? What are some of the reasons behind you wearing them for spiritual reasons? And what have your experiences wearing them been like?
Share your knowledge and experience in the comments below!