Tuesday, January 23, 2007

African Beadwork : The Romance of Zulu Beads

Beads feature prominently in the culture of the Zulus of South Africa. They decorate everything including themselves with lots of beads. 


Beads play an important role in the courtship of young Zulu men and women. The men try their best to impress a maiden of their choice and if she reciprocates his attention, she presents him with most likely an ibheqe, a beaded necklace and keeps another for herself to wear. The traditional designs are geometric.

Some ibheqes carry messages and a prudent young man quickly learns how to read them. This bead language is based on colour, their position in the overall pattern, the background colour, even the intensity of the colour. You can see why some men have to resort to help from their sisters in order to interpret this intricate language of love.

Take this bead sequence for an example :


Red can mean intense longing or anger. As the pattern starts and ends in red, it signifies anger. The yellow beads bracketing the blue one signify pining or wilting like dying leaves. And the blue itself is a request. The translation is : " I am angry. You are neglecting me. When will you return?" If she is really angry, she'll add more red beads! The young men could therefore be wearing not only messages of love, but of rebuke and even "Dear John" necklaces. Remember, all these beads are public announcements! But a girl can cleverly make a special message more private by making a single bead less conspicuous.


The ibheqe is not a pledge for a popular guy could be sporting several ibheqes! If the girl manages to cut through the competition and gets him to commit to a formal engagement, she presents him with an ucu, a 5-yard long white beaded coiled necklace. He wears it only at their engagement celebration. Thereafter, she wears it. This is their equivalent of an engagement ring.

Photo Credit : ethekwinigirl on Flickr.

References
Chris and Janie Filstrup. (1982) Bedazzled : The Story of Beads.The Murray Printing Company.

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Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
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2 comments :

Almost Precious said...

Relationship - Complicated ... very complicated.
LOL
A Zulu fellow would be romantically challenged if he didn't know the bead color patterns or at least have a sister, aunt or mother that could help translate the encrypted bead work for him. Poor guy he could end up broadcasting to the whole village that he is a womanizing, inconsiderate jerk.

I'm also trying to comprehend just how heavy a 5 yard beaded engagement necklace would weight ! Though I'm sure it must look fantastic I think I'll stick to my engagement ring, wedding band combo. ;)

Cate said...

Just goes to show that words can be inadequate communication!

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