Symbolism of African Jewellery and Beadwork

Arab traders, sailing down the East African coast in dhows, introduced a variety of goods in exchange for ivory and other treasures. The earliest known Masai and Samburu beaded jewellery items, dating from around 1850, were assembled from large red beads originally made in Holland. But the specific look of jewellery in East Africa, particularly among these two peoples, was transformed in the late 19th Century. Traders introduced tiny, colourful glass beads–uniform in size and hue–that had been imported from what is now the Czech Republic. These beads, already drilled with precise centre holes, could easily be strung on threads or sewn onto leather. Their variety meant they could also be arranged in contrasting colours and geometric patterns. This revolutionized the look of ornaments in East Africa and other parts of the continent.

A whole mythology grew up around the beads. Symbolism based on existing Masai beliefs about the natural world remains valid today. Blue represents sky and embraces the Masai belief in Nkai (God). Green represents grass, a sacred element revered because it nourishes the cattle that play such a central role in the cycle of traditional Masai and Samburu life. Red and white are the life-sustaining colours. Red represents the blood of the cattle, and white stands for their milk. These are the basic Masai foodstuffs. (Masai only slaughter cattle for meat to provide for ceremonies marking stages of life. Cattle hides are used for clothing and material for pouches, slings, and straps.) The imported beads enabled the Masai to spell out the essential beliefs and elements of their lives in their dress and personal adornment.

Xhosa beadwork has been documented as early as the 1820s. Because beads were expensive, their use distinguished the wealthy from the mass of Xhosa society and beadwork came to represent a woman’s dowry.

The Ndebele people are of the Bantu Tribe. Together with  the Xhosa and Zulu peoples, they have made the most extensive and aesthetic use of glass beads. Beadwork and beaded jewellery is one of the oldest and most basic of the ornamental skills carried out in Southern Africa by rural people.  Mostly, it shows the development of a young girl to womanhood.

Yoruba  people most  likely simplified versions of religious staff sheaths. Large iron staffs are the emblem of Orisha-Oko, a god associated with farm work and women (women are traditionally the farmers in Yoruba society). The Tomkins Collection provides a good example of an Orisha-Oko staff. Priestesses use these staffs in religious ceremonies, and the elaborate sheaths protect the staffs when they are not in use.