Kwottenai Kanye – The Fulani Symbol of Wealth

The Fulani people of Mali are well known for their extravagant displays of wealth and status. Fulani women, in particular, are renownedly competitive, and will often wear every item of jewelry they own just to communicate the wealth and prestige of their husband or family. But there is another reason the Fulani adorn themselves with such a great many rings, necklaces and trinkets.

A traditionally nomadic tribe, the Fula amass their wealth in the form of small, portable items such as necklaces, gold earrings and beaded masks, as opposed to heavy paintings and sculptures which are too difficult to transport long distances. The reasoning behind this is that these items are far easier to carry – particularly if the tribe should come under threat of attack from neighboring tribes.

Fulani tribespeople are distinguishable from other cultures by the type of jewelry they wear. Whereas the Dogon people of Mali tend to use glass beads and natural elements in their jewelry creations, the Fulani prefer more expensive elements, such as gold, amber and brass. Fulani women can also be identified by their huge, extravagant gold earrings, known as “Kwottenai Kanye”.

Kwottenai Kanye are particularly popular among Fulani women in Mopti and Djenné, who receive them either as an heirloom on the death of a mother, or in the form of a gift from husbands. Traditionally, Fulani men seeking to impress those in their social group would sell an entire herd of cattle in exchange for bigger Kwottenai Kanye for their wives. Originally, they would have been made from 14-carat gold, and inscribed with either flowers or animals with a binding of red silk at the top. Modern interpretations are around 2.5 inches in length, however, traditional pairs can span anywhere between three and five inches from lobe to tip!

A Fulani woman wearing large Kwottenai Kanye earrings. Alfred Weidinger/ Flickr.

A Fulani woman wearing large Kwottenai Kanye earrings. Alfred Weidinger/ Flickr.

Spiritual Adornments of the Yoruba: The Orisa Necklace

Beads serve as important tools among the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Not only are they symbols of status, wealth and fertility, but also a means of protecting and preserving one’s spiritual essence. The Orisa necklace – a long beaded lariat fringed with cowrie shells and/ or recycled glass beads – is considered one of the most important spiritual adornments among the Yoruba. It is primarily worn to protect the wearer from spiritual attacks, yet also as a symbol of reverence to the Orisha – a “Pantheon” of deities which include guardians of the earth, sea and destiny.

Orisa necklaces (also known as “ilekes”) vary in design depending upon the origin and heritage of the wearer, however, all can be distinguished by the use of glass beads in the core design, and a carved or painted central pendant which is usually rectangular or oval in shape. The pendant, usually crafted from clay or wood, depicts petroglyphs or symbols which represent one, or several Orisha. They are usually made from ‘earth elements’, because the Yoruba believe this keeps the spirits of the Orisha close to the wearer.

The Yoruba have strict rules concerning the wearing of ilekes, since they are considered “banners of the Orishas”. For example, women are strictly forbidden from wearing them during menstruation, as are warriors engaging in combat or conducting a sacrifice. Couples are also prohibited from wearing them during relations, as it is considered unlucky for anyone else to touch the necklaces other than the wearer. Essentially, ilekes are considered items of purity and divinity, therefore must be treated with the greatest of respect and care. 

Waist Beads – Ghana’s Secret Weight Loss Tool

It’s no secret that curvaceous women are considered sex symbols in some African cultures. In West Africa, being thin or slender is synonymous with poverty and malnourishment, hence why women with more voluptuous figures are so desirable. Tribes such as the Ashante and Krobo of Ghana consider the hourglass shape to be indicative of a woman’s level of fertility, however, the way she ‘holds herself’ can have a significant impact upon her desirability in the eyes of men.

A fuller figure may be celebrated in Ghana, but even they have limits as to the kind of size that is socially acceptable. Women are therefore taught from a very young age that excessive weight gain is frowned upon, and can even impact their chances of finding husband when they come of age.

Enter waist beads.

Ghanaian women don’t measure weight gain and loss in quite the same way as we do in Western cultures. For starters, very few households have metric scales. Instead, they use the strings of waist beads gifted to them by their mothers after the Dipo initiation ceremonies, or those presented to them by their husbands. Although primarily a tool of seduction, African waist beads are also used to keep one’s weight in check.

Traditionally, waist beads should be worn at the narrowest point of the waist above the hips. If they roll up higher, a woman will know she has gained weight, whereas if they fall onto the hips, a woman will be aware she has perhaps lost too much. Ideally, the beads should always sit in line with the navel.

Some women were multiple strands of beads around the waist. This is commonly a style choice, however, strands of larger glass beads can also train a young woman to hold herself correctly. Slouching and hunching are synonymous with women who are lazy and overweight – both traits that are considered undesirable in the eyes of Ghanaian men.

Red African Wedding Waist Beads gifted to brides on the eve of their wedding.

Red African Wedding Waist Beads gifted to brides on the eve of their wedding.

African Helix Armband Tutorial

Beaded armbands are prominent in many African cultures, particularly the Maasai and Samburu, who wear them as both a symbol of their identity, and to communicate their tribal heritage. You’ll notice that many such armbands are created using a sort of helix stitch – commonly known as the African Helix. But, while it appears quite complex, it’s surprisingly easy to master. Here’s how.

What You’ll Need:

  • Glass or plastic seed beads in two colors (size 8/0)
  • Fine beading needle
  • Strong nylon thread, such as Nymo
  • A pencil or pen

Step 1: Creating the Base

For this tutorial, we will use blue and green seed beads to create a contrast between the piping and the lower layer.

First string 3 blue beads onto your needle, followed by a single green bead. Repeat this process three times until you have 12 beads threaded in total. Leave a tail of approximately 2 inches. Create a circle with the seed beads by tying a knot, then pass your needle through all of the beads in the circle to strengthen this base layer. Bring your needle through the first GREEN bead after the knot.

Step 2: Forming the First Layer

Slide the formed bead circle onto a pencil or similar long, rounded object for ease of working. Next, string three blue beads, followed by two green beads. This will bring you to the second green bead on your base layer. Pass your needle underneath the thread after this green bead, and pull back over. Continue adding three blue, and two green beads in the same pattern until you complete the first row.

Step 3: Building the Helix

To step up to the second row, pass the needle under and over the thread after the first GREEN bead on the base layer. Then, add three blue beads, followed by two green. Pass the needle under and over the thread after the THIRD blue bead on the second row, and repeat this pattern until you have created a second layer. As you work, you will begin to notice that the green beads will begin to rise up slightly. They will eventually form the piping of the helix.

To finish the piece, simply reduce the number of beads per layer until you end up with a single row of beads once again.

Note: This is a relatively easy stitch to master, but if you need a video guide, I found this tutorial to be particularly helpful.

African helix bracelet example by Love Potion Design/ Flickr

African helix bracelet example by Love Potion Design/ Flickr



Ndebele Stitch – Its Origins and Significance

Herringbone (Ndebele) Stitch. Manda Vixen/

Herringbone (Ndebele) Stitch. Manda Vixen/

A little patience, and a lot of concentration. That’s all you really need to learn the art of Ndebele stitch. I first discovered this delightful off-loom stitch several years ago while researching how to make Maasai wristbands, and I have to admit, it’s one I’ve use in almost all of my beaded designs since. Ndebele is often referred to as Herringbone stitch in Western culture; so named because of the distinct ‘v’ design which emerges when several rows are worked together. It can be used to create relatively simple lariats, or more complex items of artwear, such as the Ndebele amaphephetu apron worn by women after their coming of age ceremony.

The Ndebele are a large sub-group of the Nguna currently residing in present-day Zimbabwe. Originally, they were part of the Zulu culture, which is why you’ll find that many of their beaded adornments look very similar to those of the Zulu and Maasai. Art plays an important role in Ndebele culture, and is used as a medium of expression not only in jewelry, but on the exterior walls of houses too! Ndebele jewelry is similar to that of the Maasai in that it often features geometric shapes, and specific marriages of color to convey information about social and marital status, life events, and spiritual orientation.

Traditional Ndebele is an off-loom technique usually done with size 10/0 beads. Before the introduction of glass and plastic seed beads to Africa, artisans would use Natural Plant Seed Beads and Clay Beads painted with vegetable dyes. Each row of beads are sewn in pairs into the piece, and slant away from each other at the top – like a small, upside down ‘v’. This technique can be used for flat, circular and tubular creations, with graduation achieved by adding larger sized beads. Take a look at the beaded aprons here – they truly are a work of art!


The Symbolism of Maasai African Jewelry

Renowned for their use of bold colors and natural elements, the Maasai are perhaps one of the most instantly recognizable cultures when one thinks of African jewelry. The huge collars, customarily worn as a rite of passage for women before getting married, have been heavily replicated in the West, and even the beaded armbands used to distinguish one another from different clans have become a style statement.

In order to understand how the Maasai use jewelry to communicate, one must first be familiar with the meanings of colors used in Maasai jewelry. Unlike many tribes where there is a single positive or negative connotation for shades, the Maasai have established dual meanings for colors – positive and negative. This effectively means that when a certain series of colors are worn together, they might connote both a warning, and an indication of solidarity. Black, symbolic of unity and solidarity, is also associated with the daily struggles with poverty and famine in many subcultures, whereas white is indicative of purity and rebirth after death. Both colors often feature prominently in Maasai jewelry – a long-serving reminder of the struggles overcome when united together.

The influx of glass seed beads to Kenya over the past 50 years has had a considerable impact upon jewelry as a medium of expression and communication. With infinite number of colors available, the unspoken language of the Maasai has invariably become more complex.