The place of beads in Ghanaian culture
A statement by Prof George P. Hagan – Consultant on Culture & Development at the launching of the first international beads festival Odumase Krobo
Beads are intriguing cultural items of beauty. In Ghanaian traditions, beads are made of seeds, pieces of wood, shells, stones, bones, tusks or modern materials like glass and plastics, formed, polished and pierced to be strung and used as bodily adornments or as decoration for other objects. Beads seem to more in use in southern Ghana than in northern Ghana. Wherever they occur, however, they are treasured as valuable objects of material culture, and play a significant role in some of the most important aspects of our personal and communal life,, from the proverbial cradle to the grave. I wish, in this presentation, to show why beads, from time immemorial, have held such fascination for Ghanaians in our way of life.
In most Ghanaian traditions, beads were produced mainly by women; but they were used by all and sundry. The many uses of beads do not suggest they were primarily anything but art objects. Beads are, arguably, one item of material culture that comes closest to giving us what might be considered art for art’s sake. Whatever else they might be used for, we judge and value a bead or string of beads, primarily for any physical or material function they are used for, such as , for example, tying a woman’s loin cloth, but for their beauty or what they add to the aesthetic quality of persons and things, either perceptually or symbolically.
BEAD-MAKING AS AN ART FORM
As practiced by skilled producers, bead-making can be appreciated as art form. For bead-makers, the purpose of their craft is to produce a thing of beauty; and mind-set of the bead-maker is to craft an article (1) to be beautiful or pleasing to sight in virtue of their colours, shapes, and feel ; (2) to adorn and impart beauty to other entities, especially the human body and other artifacts; and (3) to convey , besides the above, beautiful ideas, sentiments, values and proverbial thought that enhance how we feel about things.
Essentially, then, bead-making involves a creative process out of which a creative process out of which emerges in each finished product, something new, something original and something aesthetically pleasing. Each bead design, even if repeated using the same material and mould, reproducers beads each of which is unique in colour-mix, tone or texture, and has special individual features, finish and discernible imperfections. The pleasure the bead-maker gets out of the process is that its outcome cannot be fully anticipated, and always offers a special surprise.
THE COMPOSITION OF BEADS
When strung together, beads portray a different aesthetic effect; for, a string of beads is, in itself, also artwork. For those who know how to string beads, stringing beads is practiced as an art form that one can learn. It requires years of practice to develop the compositional skills and aesthetic appreciation to configure beads not only to be beautiful in design and presentation, but also beautiful in evocation of ideas and sentiments. Well constructed when a string of bead is a piece of visual poetry. It is a statement constructed with colour cadences, rhythm and rhyme to make aesthetic sense and evoke fine aesthetic sentiments in us. It is this that gives meaning to the traditional saying that when a string of beads breaks in front of the elders none gets lost.
The elders, with their experience, can tell which order or sequence the beads should have. They can thus tell which bead should follow which; and; using the colour rhythm and rhyme, indeed determine whether all beads on the string are in place. They can thus complete the veritable jig-saw puzzle.
BEADS AND THEIR MESSAGES
It is common knowledge that, this proverb invoked in situations of social conflict, disruption and chaos. Used in that kind of context, it means that when a dispute, disorder, or conflict breaks out in the presence of elders, or when chaos breaks out in a community, the elders, or when chaos breaks out in a community, the elders of the community can restore order, and recreate the beauty and harmony of social relations without overlooking any important elements or issues. The elders, by their experience, can solve the puzzles of human life, making everything complete. This then suggests that we must look for beauty and harmony, not only in the arrangement of things, but also in social relationship and rational thought in all life situations.
Now, it may sound fantastic to claim that the idea of art for arts sake has roots in our culture, and that beads, as aesthetic object, represent art for art sake.bt there is a basis for claim. Some proverb s enable us to appreciate that in traditional thought we recognize the fine distinction between the nature and value of the beauty and what is of utilitarian value. Thus, the proverbs says, “It is because what is beautiful is beautiful or pleasing to sight, that when a young lady is running, she holds up her breast; it is not because the breast would fall on the ground” this makes it clear that it is not for utilitarian reason, securing the breast both of the breasts and her body movements, that a maiden holds up her breasts when she is running.
I relate to this distinction between the utilitarian and non-utilitarian purposes of human actions, another conceptual distinction expressed in another proverbs.
The proverb says, “What are necessary is done before what is appropriate or becoming” And the distinction between the essential and non-essential things in life is important to the determination of priorities in life. But this is not to suggest that it is only things that are necessary that should be considered of value. If it is reduced to just doing the things that are essential to life, life as a whole would be banal and unfulfilling indeed. What we use beads for, is not anything necessary to human existence; it is more to make things becoming, fitting and uplifting. And it is in this sense that beads represent or bring a different dimension to human experience.
BEADS AND RITES OF PASSAGE
In Ghanaian culture, we use beads mainly as articles of body decoration. However, in a wide range of contexts beads are used, not only to enhance the body but also to symbolize and express a wide range of ideas. In this sense, the use of beads is highly gender sensitive. As articles used for beautification, beads are predominantly used by women for body decoration and for expressing and enhancing the quality of femininity in a woman. Beads are put on the wrists and waist of newly born boys and girls; but, while they stay as the adornment for a boy for not more than a year or two, they stay as adornment for a girl for life. For both sexes, however, beads feature in the celebration of life in most traditional rites of passage to mark the major transitions and stations in life.
A Ghanaian mother would put beads in the hair, around the neck, wrists, waist, above the knees, and on the ankles of a baby girl, all to help enhance the curvaceosness of the girl’s body as she grows up. The strings of beads worn around the waist serve two purposes. They are used to help hold in place develop the buttocks into two rounded wholes to give rhythm to the movements of a girl. Strings of beads worn below the knees and at the ankle are meant to make that calves more shapely and feminine. We love beautiful rounded legs (anantupa)
BEADS, BEAUTY AND MARRIAGE
When a girl comes of age to be initiated into womanhood, she would be ceremonially unveiled to exhibit in public the beauty of her body, something the Krobo dipo custom and nubility rites of many other ethnic groups in Ghana put emphasis on. A girl comes out adorned mainly with bead, in the hair, around the head, around the neck, around the elbow and the wrist; and around the waist, knees and ankles. The beads are meant to enhance the physical features of the mature adult female for men to admire.
It is at this stage, that the deeper beauty of the waist line beads is revealed to a maiden. In the first place the beads are said to enhance foreplay and erotic excitement in the sexual act, and they are spoken of openly in traditional marriage ceremonies these days as ‘high tension cables’. They are said to carry high voltage currents. Secondly, to indicate the exclusive sexual rights that a man acquires in marriage, the bride-wealth presented for the hand of girl is expected to include sets of vanity waistline beads and a piece of loincloth, to be worn by the bride. Among Akans any man who touches the beads of a married woman is accused of adultery and made to pay adultery fees (Ayerefare). Thirdly since in marriage one of a woman’s greatest virtues is thought to be her ability to to control her tongue, the beads are also meant to tell her. “Quality beads do chatter (Awhene pa nkasa”- Akan), A good and virtuous woman does not gossip and quarrel.
The foregoing should already indicate the importance of beads as significant symbolic articles in traditional rites of passage. Besides initiation into womanhood and into conjugal life, beads are prominent in the installation of chiefs and queen-mothers, Asafo (military) title holders and cult leaders,
Inevitably, beads feature in the adornments of the dead; in funeral costume of mourners and in widowhood rites etc. where red and black are deep blue beads, or, in some cases, black and white beads may be worn by close relations and sympathizers.
INDIVIDUAL STATUS IDENTIFICATION AND GROUP IDENTIFICATION
Besides office holders and other prominent members of society, who wear beads to mark their statuses and ranks, certain categories of people traditionally use beads to identify themselves. In some cultures, the first-born child would be marked with a special string of beads. The third serial male or female (Mensa or Mansa), the tenth born child, (Badu), twins would wear special strings of beads. These have some mystical status in the community. I am also informed that, in Asante, the members of the Kona Clan which has the Bush Cow as their totem, also use a distinctive bead to identify themselves.
THERAPEUTIC AND SPIRITUAL POWER OF BEADS
Because beads are so intimately involved in life crisis rituals, and especially, because we wear beads to express our emotional states, it is not surprising that in many places beads should be counted among things endowed with spiritual force. Thus, beads worn by twins represent the special spiritual status and power of twins. Twins are said to be gods; and their distinctive string of beads, abam, is considered endowed with mystical power. Beads worn by akomfo and other ritual leaders are meant to give them spiritual protection.
Some beads are worn by ordinary folk for protection against the evil eye or the attacks of evil spirits.
According to R.S Rattray, among the Asante ,when eight days after birth , a baby was brought outdoors, a ceremony was performed that involved removing the baha fabric armlets and leglets that the newborn was given at birth , replacing them with “bands of particular kinds of beads, gyanie, abia, nwansana ‘ti, interspersed with other charms and little gold nuggets(Religion and Art in Ashanti, 1927 p.62).” These beads were for the spiritual protection of the baby. Not surprisingly some beads are believed to be invested with witchcraft power.
An old lady told me years ago in Winneba that some special beads have the power to reproduce themselves. I was not shown one. And this has not been confirmed anywhere else in my research. Like any thing of value in popular culture, such a myth is to be expected as the ultimate expression of the vitality of beads.
MUSIC AND DANCE
Beads feature in music and dance. Some adenkum gourds, calabashes and rattles are decked with beads. Some drums are also decked with strings of beads. On ceremonial occasions, dancers, often deck their bodies with beads to articulate the movements of the body and accompany them with rhythmic wounds. Indeed, the Dipo ceremony of the Krobo, the Otufo rites of the Ga, as wells as the Nde rites of Effutu, are popularly associated with a special gracious dance movements performed with dainty little steps by initiates bedecked with heavy strings of bead. The beads come out, as it were, to dance and be appreciated.
TRADE ARTICLE AND CURRENCY
Beads are considered treasures to be passed on from one generation to another. They reflect wealth and status. In the olden days, they were not only commercial items, they also served as currency mediating commercial transactions or exchange of goods. They were used even to purchase slaves.
CULTURAL DISTRIBUTION AND CONTACTS
The distribution of beads in Ghana and in many West African groups might be interpreted as evidence of contacts over many generations among a wide range of ethnic groups. Indeed in the African diaspora, some groups have used stories associated with certain kinds of beads in the family to retrace where in Africa their forebears might have been enslaved from. This makes beads important archeological objects.
BEADS MUSEUM, PRODUCTS CENTRE AND MARKETS
Ghana has become an important focal point fort the bead culture of West Africa. There is thus ample reason, and urgent need, begin planning to establish a Museum of African Beads, something that would attract a lot of tourism.
The growing worldwide popularity of Ghanaian beads should also indicate the beads production is a cultural industry with great potential. There is the need to enlarge the international market in Africa and in Europe and Asia. There is also the need to enlarge transform the main production centre and make them accessible to tourist. What is further required is the introduction of technological improvements to reduce the drudgery of aspects of the process production.
I would therefore, like to conclude by urging the organizers of this event to see it as the beginning of great things to come. Beads have the capacity to create self-employment and personal wealth with little investment. It can help brand Ghana as a centre for the appreciation of Africa’ traditional arts. I believe it is with this in view that the CISP award a big grant to enable the organisers to demonstrate the great economic potential of beads in our country and in the culture of our global village.
Ghana Culture Magazine 03/2009