Waist Beads: Embracing Tradition

By Kye Makyeli

A few days ago, I attended a craft show that was being held at the Yaya Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. After buying a beautiful pair of earrings at one particular stall, the elderly lady who sold them to me offered me a formidably colored string of beads as a freebie. Delighted, I thanked her and flung the beads around my neck. To my surprise the elderly lady, who was regally clad in Maasai garb, laughed and told me that they were supposed to be worn around my waist.

And that’s when it dawned on me.

They were waist beads!

Waist beads, like all African beginnings, are claimed to have originated from Egypt. As part of their findings, archaeologists discovered paintings dating back thousands of years depicting images of dancers wearing nothing but strings of beads around their waist. Folklore from different tribes of Africa, from the Bemba in Zambia to the Yoruba in Nigeria, attributes them to the slave trade in which the major currency were beads. But despite the disparity in culture and tradition, waist beads are attributed to one common thing; womanhood.

As a rule in African tradition, girls grew wearing waist beads which they were given by their mothers and grandmothers. These beads were fragranced over smoking pots and anointed in oils and were meant to be worn during their adolescent transition from girlhood to adulthood. During this transition the girls were meant to adjust the beads as their bodies developed so as to achieve a definite shape that was deemed desirable to the opposite sex: a slim waist and rounded hips and bottom.

Traditionally a successful suitor would commission a set of beads for the wrist, neck, ankles, arms, and waist for his bride which formed a part of the dowry and a foundation for her personal wealth. This made these ornaments a symbolic adornment of wealth, aristocracy and femininity.

Women wore multiple strings of beads and the only person allowed to remove them was her husband on her wedding night. Touch alone declared sexual intent! These waist beads were even adorned with bells to let a woman’s partner know that she was ‘clean’. That is post- menstrual stage where sexual intercourse is allowed. Talk about arriving with bells on!

Commonly referred to as obutiti in Uganda, and kachumbari by Kenyans, they still carry a sexual connotation. Women still adorn their waists with these beads to offer sexual gratification to their significant others. Some men however, have their reservations about them.

“I would never get with a girl who’s wearing those things,” twenty four year-old Michael said, “I think they’re like some form of demonic charm to try and get me to fall in love with her.”

Although it is an old age practice with its roots in the old civilization, this complex and alluring trend has been embraced with a modern touch by many women today.

Celebrities like Beyonce, Leona Lewis, Mariah Carey and Rihanna have frequently been sighted sporting renditions of gold, silver and diamante studded ones whose prices range from a staggering Ksh.15,000- Ksh100,000.

However, you can get your fix of glass, clay and plastic ones at your local craft shop or jeweler at budget prices of Ksh150- Ksh600.

So why not try something new today? Get yourself a pair today and get the full feminine experience!


kimirajewels / 14 June 2014

Hey, neat! I just saw this post. That is my picture at the top of the article (with the rows of waist beads on my waist)! I have the picture on my website http://www.kimirajewels.com as well as some of my other social media pages. I am glad that you liked my picture :o)

ewangelia / 25 March 2015

I’m not sure where you’re getting your information, but good topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more. Thanks for excellent info I was looking for this info for my mission.

shalika / 15 November 2020

Thanks for the information I really wanted to know something about them

Teakisi / 22 November 2020

Thank yo for reading!


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