This entry’s prompt for the Blogging Abroad Blog Boot Camp: details (aka the small aspects of life that we tend to overlook). While reflecting on this prompt, I tried to think of the smallest element of amaZulu culture or the vibrant “Rainbow Nation.” Then it hit me: beads.
Traditionally composed with glass (I have yet to see glass beads used here), products embellished or composed of plastic beads are ubiquitous throughout South Africa. Women are the main participants in beadwork and vendors in urban and rural areas offer a variety of beaded objects from cups, food protectors, embroidered clothing, and traditional costumes. Yet the most common use for beads in South Africa is jewelry. All basic forms of jewelry are produced with beads including brooches, earrings, bracelets, hairbands, traditional headpieces, and necklaces.
The amaZulu undeniably excel at beadwork, but most tribal cultures in South Africa incorporate beadwork into their traditional costumes especially the Nguni tribes (language family of isiZulu). My first encounter with South African beadwork was through my amaNdebele host family during PST (Pre-Service Training). My great aunt was a beader in the community and for our Host Family Farewell, she made me a beautiful jewelry set. After the event, I had a chance to thank host aunt in person and she showed me her entire range of beaded items. I was unaware of the adaptability of beads.
She also demonstrated how she made bracelets by tightly folding plastic bags (or plastics here in South Africa) until there was a circular band. She would then use thread to bind the design to the base.
Necklaces are a different and intricate technique, especially traditional amaZulu collars. Using a combination of knots and bead strands, women develop nets of diamonds. I have seen necklaces long enough reach the shoulders and middle back.
Another design is embellishing larger beads. At site 1.0 my neighbor’s wife (married to the iduna/local amaZulu branch of chief) made necklaces similar to the one below. She threaded a strand of beads and wrapped it around a large plastic bead. She continued the process until the bead was covered. Once she had enough large beads, the iduna’s wife would bead her pieces into a complete necklace.
The meticulous process to make jewelry is not the only incredible aspect of beadwork. Another shocking element is how many beads are involved; a single necklace incorporates at least a 1000 beads. Not only must a beader contain 1000s of beads as they work but they organize the colors into geometric patterns. For a sustainable Income Generating Activity (IGA), they will generate at least several necklaces a month. Taking this to another level, if you look at Ndebele traditional dress I would bet this blanket alone has 10,000 beads.
Combined with the traditional skirt and body rings, a woman could wear over 100,000 beads at once.
In the world of fashion beads are either loved or shunned for precious stones. My time in South Africa has firmly placed me in the bead lover camp for a variety of reasons. Jewelry made out of beads are a lightweight pop of color to daily outfits and travel well. Beadwork is a culturally appropriate way to preserve tradition while ethically supporting a local economy (as opposed to gemstones). Also after a year in country, I learned that beads help me connect with the community and do my job. When I conduct health focus groups with community members, I always wear a beaded necklace or hairband because it helps break the ice. Indirectly, wearing beads acknowledges an appreciation for a dynamic culture that is not reduced to derogatory public health statistics.