The African woman compliments her beauty by adorning herself with accessories like beads on the head, hands and even her waist. The use of coral beads to adorn the waist is considered an intimate beauty on any woman who wears it. Only the man who sees the Jigida (Hausa) or Ileke (Yoruba) on the waist of a woman would appreciate it.
In Nigeria for instance, almost every ethnic group wears beads in one form or the other and for different reasons. Some wear it just for the beauty or the sensuality it creates, or to make a fashion statement, while other do so for some form of traditional reasons or even for charms.
From the six geopolitical regions of the country, women always wear beads to showcase their culture during various occasions.
In the olden days, it was fashionable for every young girl to spot jigida on her waist, and this culture has endured until now. Like Nigeria, some countries that adorn beads include Ghana, Uganda, and Cameroon, amongst others. But despite the fact that the use of waist beads is almost as old as our African culture, surviving whatever modifications and cultural reforms, its use has continued to be shrouded in controversy, and as many would argue, misconceptions.
For instance, in one report, female journalist Yetunde Arebi in her piece, “Mystery of the waist beads and modern sexuality,” recounted her experience thus, “As a child, I lived with my grandmother, a very loving but strict disciplinarian and daughter of a clergy who took her Christian religion very seriously. However, we lived in Sango, Ebute Metta area of Lagos where a large number of northerners and Muslim Yorubas also lived.
“This gave me the opportunity to interact with and make friends with several Hausa children and fell in love with a few of them. Because their lifestyle was quite different from mine, I was really enchanted by everything about them and I became quite attached to two of them.
“Ruwa, who was a few years older than me lived next door to my right while Binta, my age mate lived two doors to our right.
“Virtually all my spare time, after school and evening lesson, was spent in Binta’s company, in their dimly lit rooms with blue and yellow light bulbs and thick smelling Arabian perfumes. Binta’s mother must have been the most beautiful woman I had ever seen at the time.
“Tall, dark, beautiful and soft spoken she was always dressed in gold and other shiny ornaments, same with Binta. Long, drop earrings, which my grandmother insisted, were unsuitable for children were Binta’s favourites.
“And she always had a string or more number of beads tied around her waist which she would let me see whenever she got a new one. I loved them and wished I could own a couple too but my grandmother would always say no, insisting that they were for adults.
“At about seven years, I did not understand why my friends could wear them and I could not. Then one day, on a visit to Binta’s, her mum gifted me with a very beautiful set, similar to one of Binta’s. I quickly rolled it up my waist and bounced home to show off to my grandmother. Since she could not make one for me, well, my friends have given me one.
“What happened that evening formed one of the few childhood experiences I could not understand for a very long time. The beads were not only snapped off me, I received a very good beating as well and told never to go to Binta’s house again.
“My grandmother insisted the beads were obscene, dirty and for wayward children. I did not understand what the fuss was about, but a few weeks later, Binta came to inform me that she was getting married and moving to somewhere in the North, I later learnt was Kano.
“The reality of what happened to Binta did not dawn on me until many years after, as a full grown adult and journalist, but the memory of my grandmother’s reaction to the beads that night has never left and is often replayed in my mind whenever I see a woman wearing one.
“As I grew up, I realised my grandmother was not the only person with a misconception and bias towards the jigida. Just as I have met women who adorn them and even swear to their potential benefits, so have I met people like my grandmother who have serious aversions to them, especially because of their sexual undercurrents? Waist beads have, for a very long time, been associated with female sex and sexuality.
“They are believed to possess great erotic appeal and the ability and power to provoke sexual desire and deep emotions from the opposite sex. Primarily, a traditional female beauty enhancer, they are worn to accentuate feminism and beauty, drawing focal attention to the hips, bum and thighs as well as their movement. (The sway of the bum as a woman walks) A woman’s chastity and sexual character can be decoded by the use of beads.
“It is believed that the movement of the bead as she walks reveals a lot about her sexual morality, either as seductive or reserved. For young African women, wearing of bead was also a symbol of female maturity as they are worn as proof that they have begun menstruation and are ready for marriage, hence, the many gifts of beads to young brides.
“In fact, in some cultures, the strings of beads are used to hold up the menstruating cloth across the buttocks. Binta, at seven, was being prepared for marriage! My grandmother knew while I was ignorant of these facts. I now understand why my grandmother broke my beautiful beads and wonder what might have happened to my beautiful and loving friend.”
And until now, the controversy and “misconceptions” about the waist bead is still ever present, enduring side by side. According to Jessica, a native of Calabar, “I do not wear waist beads because I don’t like it. There are some supernatural forces attached to it, so when you wear it, people think you are either diabolical or possessed. Like Jessica, Dorcas Joseph says she does not like it because it blackens the waistline. She says her aunt used to wear her beads when she was a child, and it blackened her waistline, so she stopped wearing it when she grew up. She also said that some ladies wear and use it to attract men.
For Grace Ogbe, she has never admired it on other people so she does not use it. She also believes it is not morally right, just like Amarachi, another young lady says she detests its use as where she comes from, in Igboland, it is mostly diabolic. She recounted the experience of her bunkmate in school who according to her, used it to attract men.
The men folk are not left out in the diverse opinions about the waist beads. According to John Efe, “It is not a descent way of dressing; it does not make a lady appear responsible.”
He believes it should be used only on cultural and traditional events and not a piece of daily fashion. He says he can only allow his spouse use it during such traditional celebrations as require its use. But for another respondent, Andy Onazi, “it is all about fashion and it is good in some ways mostly for young girls not for elderly women.” He will allow his girl child to wear waist beads if they want, he says.
And for Rabiu Muhammed, he likes his wife to wear it but not his daughter until she gets married because it makes the lady who wears it look attractive to the men. He suggests only married women should use it, as such attraction could lead to promiscuity.
Like him, Anthony Dado says, “I like women and ladies that wear waist beads; they look attractive. To him, if his spouse wears or uses waist beads, it would draw him closer to her, so he will encourage his wife and children to use it when he eventually gets married.
Chukwuemeka Agwu, a journalist said the last time he saw ladies wear it was during the Biafran era and it was used on newborn babies. “This was done primarily to watch the weight of babies to know when a child is growing fat or lean. He also feels that women use it as charms for protection from unwanted pregnancy and others to seduce men.”
For those who believe waist beads are diabolical, or used as charms and amulets, they will never touch any woman wearing it for the fear of falling under her supposed spell.
According to Yomi Kareem, “The wearing of beads on the waist was made popular by the Yorubas in Nigeria. Overtime the culture of the use of beads has been associated with both spiritual and material reasons.”
He explains that waist beads are used to adorn the Ere-Ibeji figurine on the death of a twin, there is the belief that when treated well the spirit of the dead twin will not harm the living twin and will return to the family to stay. It is also adorned and laced with charms to ward away the Abiku spirit (mermaid spirit) from a woman, while some wear it as a sort of fashion when dancing because the Yorubas believe that beads enhance tweaking.
According to him, “The Yorubas have a belief that the waist beads possess some erotic appeal and have the power to incite desire or deep emotional response on men. Waist beads in Yoruba land have a revered usage attached to it.
“It could be worn as a form of birth control, as the beads are laced with charms and worn by women to prevent conception, as a way of preventing obesity or also for their ‘healing’ and therapeutic powers. They also wear it around the waist of baby girls to perfectly shape their hips.
Joshua Uchendu therefore believes it is purely fetish. “My ex-girlfriend who is from Akwa Ibom State says she always wears the bead so that any man she loves and has an affair with will never meet any other girl expect her.
“So to me, I see it as some sort of juju and it really made me scared because based on what I heard, waist beads is not ordinary and it is not for fashion” he laminated.
But whether you believe it is fetish, or an adornment used by African women, the waist bead, it appears, has come to stay despite the controversies and misconceptions.
Additional reports by Odirachimma, Chibuzo Ekere and Ruth Terry.