The African waist beads are believed to have originated in North Africa. The history of waist beads dates back to antiquity. Many believe that the history begins in ancient Egypt where they were called “girdles” and were worn by women as a status symbol. In West Africa, the tradition was made popular by the Yoruban tribe of Nigeria.
Belly beads have slowly gained popularity and have become an important accessory worn by women all over the world for various reasons. Some people see it as a beauty ornament while others claim they enhance sexual performance.
Waist beads are decorative pieces made from cowries, precious shells, beads, pearls, or small metal strung onto a wire or fish line.
Wakesho, a lady from the Taita community in the coastal area of Kenya says that when the beads are worn around the waist, they enhance a woman’s femininity. “During sex, a woman seduces her man by gyrating her adorned waist,” says Wakesho.
It is also said that the beads shape women’s body and keep their waist small and hips accentuated. It was (and still is) used as a measurement tool. The beads do not stretch, so if/when the waist beads start to feel a little tight, it’s a sign that there was some weight gain and vice versa.
Additionally, some women who are deeply rooted in spirituality associate certain waist beads with the capacity to bring spiritual healing, peace and sanity into their lives. They also wear them during meditation claiming it helps bring protection to their heart, body and soul. It is used against bad omen.
Traditionally, most waist beads are worn under clothing and are considered a private affair. Recently though, they have been used as fashion accessories, worn over clothes and under crop tops, showcasing each strand’s beauty.
However, waist beads hold deep cultural significance peculiar to the different African societies.
In some African societies, female children are adorned with waist beads by their mothers 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.
In some cultures, these waist beads signify purity and are only to be taken off by her husband on their wedding night. Traditionally, the waist beads were not to be seen by anyone except the wearer’s partner. They possess an intimate appeal that provokes one’s desire for another.
In other 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.
Among the Mijikenda tribe, these ornaments were worn to celebrate womanhood.
Oral narratives state that a successful suitor would commission a set of beads including bracelets, anklets, necklaces and waist beads for his bride a night before her wedding. Those who agree with this narrative claim that the bridegroom was the only one who was allowed to remove them from his newly-wedded wife’s waist on the wedding night.