These are gorgeous don’t you think?  They are beaded slippers worn by the  Yoruba king (oba) when he appeared in public ceremonies. I recently received a beautiful gift from a very creative friend, a beaded bracelet. Imagine my delight when I fell upon the online exhibition of African beadwork. Serendipitous indeed!! When the king is greeted in Yoruba society, people say, “May the crown rest long on your head, may shoes remain long on your feet.”

The beadwork identified in the exhibiton is exquisite craftmanship in itself, but the interest lies far beyond the intrinsic beauty of the items.  Deeply embedded in the work are rituals and traditions that tell a narrative to the people creating them and using them. They are markers of value and meaning , bonding generations of cultures. The wonder of our species is accentuated by the diversity of those traditions and cultural narratives. These examples of African beadwork show us glimpses of their histories, their lives.

A diviner would be the only person with the power to bridge the gap between humans and the gods, or Orisha. This connection with the supernatural was emphasized by all the beaded tools and accessories owned by the diviner, including a diviner’s bag, or apo Ifa, which would be used to hold instruments used in divination.Beaded objects are generally the prerogative of royalty, and the importance of diviners as negotiators between the world of the living and the realm of the supernatural is underscored by their possession of beaded accoutrements. Have a peek at his diviners headdress.

Wondrous! this would belong to a Zulu diviner, who would be easily recognisable by his headdress.

I love this tradition, young boys might make a Fali doll for a girl, but the significance of them  is apparent when a young man makes one for his fiancee.  She will care for it and carry it everywhere as a sign of their commitment to one another , carrying it on her back or hip as though it were her first-born.  Simply lovely!!

Akua’ ba or “child of Akua” figures are recommended by Asante priests for women who have problems with fertility or childbearing. Fertility and the bearing of children are of great importance to the Asante, and these dolls are carried by Asante women in belief that they will ensure protection from the gods for them and their unborn children. They are also often used as offerings on the altar of the  god, Nyame in an attempt to ensure fertility. I know myself how anxiety can impede the process, so I can understand how an embedded cultural belief in an aid could interfere. In my case I had to give up a high pressure job to conceive!

Baroka mothers make beaded aprons (thito) for their eldest daughter’s initiation. After the ceremony is over, the apron is washed and passed on to the next eldest daughter. I imagine sisters would feel very much part of something greater than themselves, a wonderful tradition maintaining the importance of family. Perhaps we need more ritual in our lives


Young Zulu men and women wear long beaded panels, ulimi, meaning tongue,on the chest or back. The colours carry meaning, black and green are the most essential. Black is symbolic of soot used to blacken oxhide skirts (isidwaba) worn by married women, and thus conveys readiness to marry, whereas green denotes sickness and pining. These may be worn at weddings or ceremonies honouring ancestors.

Sacred Yoruba chiefs and religious conjurers wear protective orikogbofo or coronets to protect their heads, the most important part of the body according to the Yoruba.This coronet, with predominantly yellow beads, associates the power of the king with that of the deities who have the attributes of calm and rationality, Oduduwa the creator, and Orunmila, who controls fate. The tradition of beadwork being worn by royalty, and by important members dates back generations.  It marks out individuals, and it was forbidden for ordinary members of tribes to wear footwear.

The exhibition is at the Harn Museum in Florida, so I am very glad I  live in the digital age, where it can be seen here,

And thanks to Karen for my beautiful bracelet inspiring a new interest!


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