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Faith Nyasuguta

Since time immemorial, waist beads have held a significant place in African tradition.

These beads strung on fine fishing lines or carefully threaded ropes have adorned the waists of numerous African women

Whether hidden under clothes, peaking out at intervals or carefully arranged to show over clothes, the mesmerising sounds these beads make as the wearer moves and their vibrant colours keep our eyes glued.

Adorned with these beads, the allure of the beaded woman could be hard to miss.


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Made from beads, small pieces of glass, metal and sometimes cowries, pierced and strung together, these beads come in different sizes, colours and lengths.

Waist beads hold deep cultural significance peculiar to the different African societies. Worn by women or sometimes men, these beads are viewed as a symbol of femininity, fertility, sensuality, and spiritual well-being.

Each bead with its different colours and shapes possess different meanings in different societies and send across messages depending on who wears and who sees it.



In some African communities, female children are adorned with waist beads by their moms once they get their period to mark their rite of passage into womanhood. These beads symbolise the female child’s transition from childhood to adulthood, proof of her fertility and sexuality.

For a number of ultures, the waist beads signify purity and are only to be taken off by her husband on their wedding night. Traditionally, waist beads are considered private, not to be seen by anyone except the wearer’s partner. 

They possess an intimate appeal that provokes one’s desire for another. In some cultures, these beads are laced with charms and fragrances, which are irresistible to the opposite sex. Also viewed as traditional lingerie, wearing waist beads during intimacy is believed to enhance the sexual experiences of the wearer and her partners. 

For others, adding precious stones to these waist beads adds healing qualities, treating ailments or other issues like love and balancing that need enhancement. 

A more physical significance of the waist bead is that it serves as an instrument for body shaping. They keep wearers informed of even the slightest change in their weight, weight gain, or loss

While they don’t stretch, they either roll up or break as the wearer gains weight. It is also believed that wearing these beads from a younger age improves the fine curves African women are known for.

Traditionally, most waist beads are worn under clothing and are considered a private affair. More recently, they have been used as fashion accessories, worn over clothes and under crop tops, showcasing each strand’s beauty. 

However many you choose to wear, one thing’s for sure, regardless of newer alternatives like chains, waist beads have and would always remain highly significant in African tradition.



Waist beads can be traced back to ancient Egyptian times where they were known as “girdle.” 

African waist beads were made popular by the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria. These beads have been noted to have been worn as early as the 15th century for many purposes such as rites of passage and as a status symbol.

Women in Ghana also wear waist beads as a symbolic adornment that can serve as a sign of wealth, femininity, and aristocracy as well as spiritual well-being. They are the perfect tool for one’s healing and spiritual journey as they encourage self-love, confidence, and beauty within a woman.

Do not be fooled into thinking that only slender women can wear them because African waist beads are worn beautifully by women of all shapes, sizes, and ages.

In Egypt, waist beads were worn by all women as uniform for pre-pubescent girls without any sexual connotation.

In Ghana, waist beads were nicknamed Jel-Jelli, Jigida, Giri-Giri, Djalay Djalay and Yomba. 


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“Belly beads are worn to accentuate the sexiness of a woman’s waist. Sometimes a woman can set the mood for romance with her man by tying a bunch of jasmine,” says Zulekha, a waist beads merchant.

“A woman would be adorned with beads by her bride’s chaperon and tutor, with instructions to use them to keep her husband happy,” Zulekha says.

She adds that the beads were so revered that when a woman strayed, she was required by tradition to take them off before entertaining a side chick as the ones on her waist were for her husband’s eyes only.

 “Such an abomination could even lead to exposure of her infidelity for disrespecting the power of the beads,” Zulekha says.

Some Kenyan women lace their beads with charms and fragrances that reportedly make them irresistible to men, while others use the shanga to attract and keep men because the beads apparently enhance sexual experience.

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Faith Nyasuguta

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