Waist beads: A cultural antiquity in Africa

Oluwatunmise Adesewa
July 8, 2023

How culture has transcended into fashion.

 “If I hold her hand she says, ‘ don’t touch!’ if I hold her foot she says ' don’t touch!’ but when I hold her waist beads she pretends not to know.” – Things Fall apart by Chinua Achebe.

  In our present day, we have witnessed a rise in the way people, especially women, don waist beads for reasons such as weight control and for its aesthetic value. However, there is nothing without an origin, now the question is- what is the significance and history of waist beads to us as Africans?

 Before the 12th century, beads were commonly made from materials such as- clay, ivory, bones, cowries, animal teeth, shells, precious stones and even egg shells. These were made into ornaments ranging from head pieces, necklaces, anklets, protective amulets and of course waist beads. After this time period, there was an introduction of glass beads which is still popular today. According to historians, waist beads originated in Egypt and were known as ‘girdles’ ( which is present in their hieroglyphics)- due to the amalgamation of  Africa at the time -it became widespread and is believed to have been popularized by the Yoruba tribe of West Africa.

Waist beads have been a part of African culture through history.

“Jewelry in Africa is seldom just ornamental; rituals, religion and ceremonies play a large part.”- Africa facts organization.

 In Africa, beads are more than jewels as they represent and show the values, culture and belief system of a society/ community. They have different meanings right from the color -for example, white signifies light and truth while blue signifies loyalty, harmony and peace- to how the beads were arranged. Hence, wearing waist beads was done with intention.

African waist beads

 Waist beads represent a symbol of femininity, beauty, fertility and sensuality, hence they were used for purposes such as:

A rite of passage

 When a girl starts her period, it is a transition from being a girl to a woman- there are tribes that keep it hidden for only her future husband while some others show it off as a signal to men that she is a ‘woman’ now and ready for marriage. This sometimes will be cut by the husband on their nuptial night and she is given a new set to commence another phase of her life. A different one is the Maasai boys of Kenya who wear waist beads before and during their circumcision as it is not done when they are born. Once the beads were cut off after circumcision, they are now welcomed as men into the society.


 Waist beads was also a way of women ensuring connection with their husbands as it was on a part of the body that is guarded and usually not exposed. It is believed to stir deep sexual desire as the waist is deemed a very erotic area. It is a common tradition among the Yoruba and Asante tribes. In the Efik tribes of Nigeria, waist beads are placed on girls as soon as they are born- this is done to sculpt out an hourglass figure for them- as it is the desired standard. Depending on the reason, whether marriage or fertility special stones were added to aid in its fulfillment.


 Everything we need can be found in nature and it isn’t less true in this case as waist beads also served as a form of birth control, in the sense that,  significant herbs were woven into the beads and worn for a specific period of time to prevent pregnancy.


 Depending on the wearer, waist beads served as a form of protection against evil spirits and ill intentions through the incorporation of specific stones. The Sangomas of South Africa use it to show the spiritual journey they have undergone; with this, they become healers, diviners, priests and they are able to also make waist beads for others with these intentions. They are also used in rituals and for communication.

 Taking everything into account, waist beads is more than the demonic use and aesthetic purposes it is known for now. It is an important element in a lot of tribes for women and in ensuring an intimate relationship in marriage, bonding between a daughter and mother, spiritual awakenings, community ceremonies, continuity of life and protection. They are always more than adornments.

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