Waist beads are accessories with deep cultural significance in Africa. The cultural significance of waist beads is peculiar to each region, however there are similarities in most of its functions.
The Yorubas in West Africa are known to have the most varied and peculiar reasons for using waist beads. Yoruba waist beads are also called Ileke, Jigida, and Lagidigba. They are worn mainly by females, from the littlest to the oldest.
These beads are made from small pieces of glass, nuts, wood, or metal which are pierced, stringed, and threaded together. These beads come in varying degrees of color, length, and even quality.
So why do the Yorubas wear waist beads? The reasons are varied and unique.
Decoration – Yoruba women wear waist beads to adorn their bodies. Waist beads are colourful, shiny and attractive just like any other modern accessory like a watch, earring or necklace. Waist beads are very feminine and women are encouraged to wear them from an early age. Doing so is a way to symbolize and celebrate feminism and beauty. During traditional ceremonies, women wear extra number of beads to decorate themselves.
Sexual Attraction – Yoruba women wear waist beads because they believe it attracts the opposite sex and stirs deep emotional responses. The waist beads accentuate the figure and draw attention to the movement of the waist. It is believed that some women lace their waist beads with love spells to evoke deeper sexual attraction.
Tradition forbids a woman from showing her waist beads to an opposite sex outside of marriage. It is also believed that seeing a woman’s waist beads is the same as seeing her naked. During marriage ceremonies, brides wear more waist beads to add more volume to their waists and seduce their husbands.
Contraception – waist beads are also believed to act as fertility beads which the woman use to determine her ovulation and avoid sexual intercourse with her husband. It is also believed that the beads are sometimes laced with charms to prevent pregnancy.
Symbol of Love – waist beads are given to women as a token of love from a suitor, a husband or family. Parents can gift waist beads to their daughters to demonstrate the love and affection they have for them.
Pregnancy – waist beads are believed to enhance fertility. It could be because the sexual attractiveness of the beads increases the rate of sexual intercourse between couples. However, the beads are said to be laced with charms that promote fertility, protect pregnancy and make child-bearing easy.
Fecundity – the Lagidigba, which is made from palm nut shells are worn to indicate the number of pregnancies a woman has had. Since the palm nut shells are arranged in clusters, the Lagidigba is used to indicate number of multiple births.
The Lagidigba is very useful in Yoruba land because Yorubas are known for their high incidence of twin births.
Proof of Chastity/Sensuality – waist beads are used to determine if a woman is chaste or provocative, by watching the rolling of the beads as she walks. It is believed that loose/unchaste women roll their waists seductively to gain attention from the opposite sex.
There is a popular belief in Yoruba land that “it is the beads that make the buttocks to shake.”
Spiritual Protection – the Orisas, devotees of water deities and priestesses wear waist beads as a means of protection from malicious water spirits. They also wear waist beads to adorn their dress regalia.
Women also wear beads to protect their pregnancies from spirits and evil charms that can make them miscarry, have a still birth or die during delivery.
Royalty – some waist beads depict royalty. They are expensive, rare and made of materials higher in quality. Princesses and other women of royalty wear these beads to distinguish themselves from others.
Weight Control – some women use the waist beads as a means of watching and controlling their weight. When the waist beads become tight, it probably means the woman is adding weight and needs to do something about the weight gain.
Rites of Passage – waist beads are also used as a rite of passage. As a girl grows, she switches her old waist beads for newer ones that are more suitable for her growing body.
Girls are also taught that wearing waist beads from an early age helps them achieve more rounded hips, slim waists and fuller breasts.
Wearing waist beads in Yoruba land is a culture that will stick around for a while. Although some women swap beads for chains and belts, women are still interested in the femininity and beauty of waist beads. Not surprisingly, men are interested in the sexual attractiveness and sensuality of waist beads and encourage their wives/partners to wear them.