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Demystifying waist beads

In this age, waist jewellery has been associated with many things, from sexual attraction to being trendy, but they are more than just that

Sandra Wekesa @SandraAndayi

When Mercy Tatu turned 16 years old, her grandmother gave her a bunch of waist beads. At first, she didn’t know what to do with them, but later everything was explained to her and she understood what it meant in their culture.

“At such a young age, I didn’t know what it meant to be a woman. I kept on wondering what exactly it meant to have beads around my waist. I got so confused, I even asked several questions such as, does this happen to all Giriama girls? Or is it because they didn’t want me to finish my studies but nothing seemed to add up,” Tatu says.

She explains that she was told to ensure that not a single bead was to be seen by the public eye and that having it around her waist meant that she was fit enough to be a woman. At the back of her mind, she thought she would be forced into marriage, but her parents were keen enough to explain the situation before it was too late.

Tatu is not the only one to be initiated into womanhood using waist beads. Leah Wanzala experienced the same thing, but she didn’t know it was still a common practice, especially among tribes in the Western region of the country.

“When my mother’s sister and my grandmother came to my hometown in Khwisero, they said they had been preparing themselves for this day. As the first daughter in the family, I didn’t know what exactly was going on and I was asked to not talk about it,” says Wanzala.

Different course

She had no option, but to accept the rite of passage and move on. However, the moment she joined university, things took a different course. “People started asking me if I got the beads to entice my boyfriend or if they  were meant for romantic pleasure. I didn’t know how best to explain this, so I stopped wearing them,” she explains.

In most African set ups, the moment a woman comes of age, a major ceremony is held in her name. Older women would celebrate her and give her various items including waist beads, necklaces and earrings to signify this important stage. While most African communities may have deviated from this practice, it is still common in some.

Ideally, women would wear waist beads as a sign of womanhood until modern times, where girls grew up to understand these pieces of jewellery were a fashion statement.

This has in the recent past become controversial and has gone to an extent of affecting innocent people, especially those who link wearing waist beads to honouring their age-old traditions.

Ken Ouko, a sociologist, says that in the past, waist beads were associated with spirituality. For example, the Akamba believed that anytime a woman wore a waist bead, they could be protected from harm or be shielded from all enemies.

Form of protection

In some cases, the ornament would act as a form of fertility remedy. “Most of the time, they were associated with an increase of fertility among tribes like the Dinka, where the beads were said to stir up fertility hormones. In fact, they could also be said to be fertility beads in that they worked well when a woman was pregnant because they could protect the unborn baby from evil spirits.”

He adds that in other African set ups waist and ankle beads were meant to accentuate a woman’s feminity and that the moment they were visible, a woman was seen beautiful in the inside as opposed to the others.

According to him, at no point was one said to be a prostitute because of wearing such jewellery.

However, Ouko strongly believes that besides being a cultural treasure, beads are worn by teenagers to enhance their sex appeal or just because it is a trend.

“It is sad that millennials think of this as a trend that they need to take up. Just like tattoos, most of them will wear this not knowing the true meaning of the beads or just because most people are wearing them,” says Ouko.

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