Beadwork has been a common decorative tradition for many years in Africa. The earliest beads were made from grass seeds, shells, clay, stone, and wood. These were strung to create necklaces, headgear, bracelets, and anklets, or sewn to blankets or other cloth to make beaded garments. Beginning in the fifteenth century, Europeans brought glass beads to Africa. Africans were attracted to these new beads, which came in bright, shiny colors. The Zulu of southern Africa traded extensively for glass beads and made intricately designed beadwork. Beadwork was also popular among wealthy Africans. The kings of Ghana, Songhai, Mali, and Nigeria, for example, wore such heavy beaded regalia that they required support from attendants

A Masai man wearing detailed beadwork. Both men and women wear beadwork, and it has become a sought-after item among tourists to Africa. Reproduced by permission of © .
when rising from their thrones to move about in the course of their duties.

Aside from its visual beauty, beadwork has been used for social and religious reasons, as well as for an elaborate system of communication. Beadwork was designed and worn to distinguish young girls from elder women of a tribe, to identify girls engaged to be married, or to adorn brides and young mothers after the birth of their first children, among other things. Young unmarried Ndebele women of South Africa wear beaded aprons, resembling skirts, called isiphephetu, while married women identify themselves with beaded blankets worn as traditional outer garments. Zulu beadwork was designed following a set of codes by which certain colors, shapes, and designs contained messages. These messages conveyed ideas, feelings, and facts related to behavior and relations between the sexes among the Zulu of southern Africa. Modern beadwork has become popular among tourists, but some traditional uses for the beautiful designs still remain in African societies.


Gröning, Karl. Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art. New York: Vendome Press, 1998.

Kennett, Frances, and Caroline MacDonald-Haig. Ethnic Dress. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

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