The Rich Culture of African Ethnic Tribes: African Jewelry

The Rich Culture of African Ethnic Tribes: African Jewelry

by Mary Tacderas

Africa

Africa

The African continent places the second largest continent in the world. It comprised of more than fifty countries, more than three thousand tribes, with an estimated population of consisting if a total of 12% of the world's ever-increasing population. The continent is very diverse, having 11 languages.  

Culture and belief

Because of its vast state, African culture is also quite diverse for each country and tribe have their own district tradition and culture. Their food, music, language, clothing, and rituals can categorize their culture. One similarity is their respect for their elders.

African Fabric

African fabrics are known to produce beautifully colored with intricately designed materials. In ancient times, African tribe own pieces of clothing made from animal leather or fur. There was not much evidence supporting that they used fabric made from plants other than the colorful tunics of the Turkana tribe.

Modern-day African fabrics are made from woven cotton, palm, or silk fibers. The two most popular African materials today are the Kente and Bogolan fabrics.

Kente cloth is indigenous to Kenya, woven from a combination of silk and cotton fibers. From the word kente, which is translated to basket that a pattern featured on colorful fabric. The fabric itself is a representation of its national identity. Africans have been weaving since the 300AD; however, dud to the lack of supporting evidence, historians claimed that the kente fabric only occurred during the 17th century. It was said that the Asante tribe invented the kente.

Customary to the African culture, each color represents different meaning:

Red signifies political bloodshed, death, and sacrifices.

Pink is a very womanly hue that embodies gentleness and mildness.

Maroon is a brownish red in essence; this signifies the land, mother Earth and restoration.

Violet, comparable to a pink shade, this represents the mildness and femininity of a woman.

Green is the color of leaves and produce. This signifies growth and inner healing.

Blue is the color of peaceful waters, this represents harmony and calmness.

Black is primarily the color of death and mourning.

White symbolized purity, spiritual cleansing, and celebratory occasions.
Gold represents a high status, such a king. This also symbolizes wealth.

Bogolan fabrics are characterized by geometric patterns in Earth tone colors. This is also the basis on why it is called mud cloth.

African Jewelry

African beaded jewelry is comparable to none when it comes to intricate handmade beaded artworks. Beads used to be a form of exchange and trade in the past where African beads were found in Libya and in Egypt, which dates back from 2000 BC.

The most popular beaded artwork comes from the Zulu tribe with their geometric patterned beadworks and magnificent decorative pottery. The Maasai tribe for their distinct, colorful beads representing various meanings.

The Himba tribe is represented by their traditional ohumba, while large hoop earrings embody the Fulani tribe.

Colored Gemstones

African rubies

Characterized with a color purple to purple red, these red rubies are mainly found in Tanzania. Pink to dark pink rubies comes from Kenya, while reddish-brown are mined from Mozambique.

When Burmese rubies were exhausted, African rubies have replaced them in the jewelry world. However, African rubies do not have the pigeon blood color and fluorescence of the Burmese rubies, but some are almost of the same caliber.

Rubies have a score of 9 based on the Mohs scale. The most expensive among the red rubies still belongs to the unheated Burmese rubies with pigeon blood color that is currently valued at 15,00 USD to 25,000 USD per one to two carats. Unheated African Mozambique vivid red rubies are priced at 7,000 to 15,000 per 1 to 2 carats.

African Rhodilite garnets

Characterized by a pinkish to purple-red color, lighter than rubies with a bit of orange coloration. These scored 7 to 7.5 in Mohs scale, making it strong enough to be cut in various shapes such as the oval, cushioned, and emerald cuts.

Myths and beliefs surround this gemstone, for it is believed to light up as protection from the evil entities during the night. It was also said to be the stone in Noah's lantern that guided him through the night. Another story is that the Greeks believed that garnets protect them from poisons and guards their offspring's against drowning.  At present, garnets are priced from 50 USD to 200 USD per one carat.

African Paraiba tourmaline

Considered to be an extremely rare class of tourmaline characterized by blue color ranging from neon blue to a blue, green shade. Mined from Nigeria and Mozambique, its rarity and color have increased its value over the years.

Paraiba tourmaline from Brazil is still considered of the highest quality and fetches a higher price than those mined from Mozambique because of its vivid blue color. Brazilian Paraiba tourmaline is valued at 15,000 USD to 20,000 USD per carat, while Paribas from Mozambique is valued at 10,000 USD per carat.

African Tsavorite

Mined from Tanzania, characterized by a green color due to its vanadium or chromium content. The name was hailed from the Tsavo national park in 1967. At present, it may fetch up to 8,000 USD per carat.

African Tanzanite

The rarest of them all, a high-grade tanzanite gem, must have a color that ranges from violet-blue to violet purple. Any green coloration is deemed as low quality. The first-ever tanzanite stone was mined a member of the Masai tribe in 1967. Mined in Tanzania and has a six to seven score on the Mohs scale. What makes this gemstone unique is that it is considered pleochroic, where its color changes depending on the angle.

Tanzanite is considered one of the rarest gemstone found on Earth. It is exceptionally rare that it is projected to be exhausted by humans after the next 20 years. To have an overview of how valuable a tanzanite gemstone is, the current market offers a 0.8 to 1.25 carat with an A grade at 150 USD, while a AAA grade tanzanite gemstone fetches up to 425USD.

The gemstone may be beautiful, but obtaining them is difficult. Small miners would blow up the Earth inside. A line of men goes inside to collect rubbles from the blast. The colors and the amount of tanzanite would tell them if high-quality pieces are nearby.

In recent local news from Africa, they had a feature of a miner selling tanzanite stones amounting to one million USD. In the interview, the man said that they used to throw away these rocks.

African Jewelry History

Ostrich Eggshell Necklace of Kenya

40,000 years old, made from bored eggshells attached to a strong and made into a necklace, was found in a placed dubbed as the twilight of Kenya or Enkapune Ya Muto.

Ostrich Eggshell beads are significant in many ways:

  1. Social and economical

Beads are exchanged for resources and products from other regions. They used beads to trade and import glass beads across the Sahara from the Egyptians. This is confirmed by the Egyptian glass beans found, which historian concur date back from 250 AD. Pieces of Indian glass beads were also found at the Southern part of Africa supporting the indication of trade.

  1. Medical

The oil of an ostrich egg was believed to treat ear infection and asthma.

  1. Protection

Ostrich eggs were used to increase livestock production, as it was a symbol of fertility. It was also believed to protect children from evil spirits.

The mollusk shell beads of Blombos

In the year 2004, this tiny, pea-sized shell beads were found and is believed to be the oldest form of African jewelry dating 75,000 years old.

Yoruba Chief Headdress

One of the most iconic Youruban accessories is a crown made of colorful glass beads, string cotton fibers. Characterized by a 3D image of a chicken, embroidered with traditional African patterns, with a blue mesh with a network of long cotton string curtain.

Modern African Jewelry

Waist beads

Women belonging to the Yoruban tribe wore these colorful pieces of little glass beads, stones, or crystals tied by a string and worn around the waist. These are worn to seduce men together, enchanting fragrances to be irresistible towards the opposite sex. It is comparable to lingerie of some sort. Waist beads also epitomize womanhood for teens, fertility, and sensuality. It is also a part of the accessories worn during spiritual ceremonies like the naming rituals for babies.

At present African waist beads for various reasons such as:

  • Weight loss

Waist beads are used as a practical tool to measure one's waistline. If you have gained weight, your waist beads would feel tight for the string that holds the beads are not stretchable. Consequently, when you lose weight, your waist beads would loosen.

  • Seduction

Much like the belly dancers of the waist chain, waist beads focuses the eyes on to the middle area and emphasizes a woman's curvy hips.

  • Proper posture

Straight back, stomach in, and chest out. We always forget to practice this correct posture, particularly when we work long hours sitting in an office chair. The tightening of the beads around our waist when we forget to tuck our middle area reminds us to resume a correct body posture and train our body to do this continuously.

Elephant hair bracelets

As the name implies, these are bracelets made from elephant hairs. These are believed as a form of protection from illnesses and bad luck. Elephants were supposed to be a bridge between the heavens and the Earth.

Amongst the numerous African culture, elephants were believed to be a badge of power and strength: stamina, long life, and wisdom, however, due to illegal killing and hunting of these majestic creatures. Controversies surround the legalities of these elephant hair bracelets sold in the market, even though most of these unlawful killings are to gather their ivory tusks.

Popular African Tribes

Maasai Tribe

The Maasai tribe is known as warriors. They are famous for their red robe and colorful bead accessories that visually sets them apart from other tribes, unlike what is customary for some races, where the women wear long hair, and the men keep their hair short. The women of the Maasai tribe keep their hair extremely short or shaved, while the Moran's has their hair braided and colored with a red hue.

They are also known for their jumping dance, which is part of a ritual for young men as to adulthood. The one who jumps the highest is deemed most fit, which is appealing to the women. Here is where spitting on one's palm before shaking hands is a customary act to ward off evil entities before shaking the hand of an elder. Because they treat cattle as a gift from the sky god, they would treat them a sacred and would only eat them on special occasions. However, they would drink their milk and blood.

Culture

The Maasai warrior may be the basis of what we see on the big screen, where a warrior must take the rite of passage in order to become a fully pledge warrior. The ritual is called the Enkipaata, in this ceremony; boys with the age of fourteen to sixteen roam across the savannahs, led by the elders for four months. By the end of this activity, the group must build a village with 30 to 40 huts. The Leader of the group or the Olopolosi is chosen before they re-enter their town. They are now ready for the next stage, which is the Emuratta or circumcision. Both young men and women would have to undergo this ritual. Young men would have to herd cattle for 7 days finished off by standing under a cold climate soaked with cold water for cleansing before the is circumcised. After this, both the males and females can only wear black clothing for four to eight months, which is the duration of the wound healing. Only after this is he considered a warrior while the women may now marry a senior warrior.

Accessory

The Maasai Tribe is famous for its colorful beads. Beads accessories are made from indigenous materials such as bones, glass, seeds, shells, stones, and others represent various connotations depending on the tribe. Some beads represent tradition, the rich culture, status symbol, and age, and for others, it represents their power and strength specific to warriors. Beads were also a form of currency in the 15th century.

For Women

Wealth and beauty – Beads were worn by the women represents their marital status, and the number of their offspring's, a woman with a male child may wear earrings.

Wedding collars

Wedding collars denote the amount of (Cattle) dowry paid represented by the number of strands. Crimson red collar beads signify that she a mate was already chosen, and this collar would be replaced by a pair of brass earrings once an engagement is has been reached, which also denotes marriage.

Symbolic color or the beads

Blue – The color of the sky, this signifies water that energy and nourishment.

Green – the color of the grass. This represents the Earth and fields that give nutrition for both humans and their livestock.

Red – The color of the liquid that flows through our veins. This denotes threat, power, physical strength, and difficulties.

Black – The color of dark melanin produced by our skin, this represents everyday hardships, the solidarity, and a harmonious relationship

White – This represents the bountiful milk from the cows for nourishment and nutrition. White is also a color for purity and good health.

Orange – the color of the vessel made from the hard shell of gourds, where they store liquids like milk and even animal hides used as a bedspread. Therefore, the shade orange signifies camaraderie and kindness.

Yellow- the shade of the ever nurturing and all mighty sun. The sun grows everything that has life, the greeneries, animals, and humans; therefore, the color yellow denotes growth and fruitfulness.

Fashion

Maasai women do not wear the same type of clothing; however, some conventional aspects can be noticed.
Red color – The Maasai are identified with the red color as a symbol of their culture. The color was also believed to scare predators, such as a lion. Women are also seen wearing a cape decorated with a distinct Maasai colorful l beads and patterns.

For Men

Errap

Warriors from the Maasai tribe wear an armband made of leather and metal signifying his victory over another warrior.

Moran Warrior Headdress

There are two types of headdresses worn by  Maasai warriors. One is made of a lion's mane to represent the bravery of a Maasai warrior. The one is made cow leather adorned with tall ostrich feathers. Maasai warriors wear this type of headdress together with a ceremonial outfit and ceremonial objects when he has undergone circumcision.

Shuka

The red robe is commonly seen worn by the male Maasai. Adorned with colorful beads, which can be perceived as a message depending on the color of the beads used.

Ear stretching: Ear Plugs

Ear stretching has an African history with it. The Maasai tribe has used earlobe stretching to enhance their beauty. Stones, wood, and tusk were used to stretch their earlobe piercing with the use of weight or larger sized plugs. This type of body modification also denoted their age from older tribesmen would generally have bigger stretched piercings. The women also did rook piercing, where they wear large chandelier earrings made of colorful beads.

Fulani Tribe

The Fulani tribes know for their large gold earrings, they would get their ears to pierce when they reach their third birthday and stretch them just enough to wear large hoops popularly knows as the Fulani earrings. Characterized by a 5 inches ling twisted hoop earrings, a representation of wealth and marital status. The women would carry their wealth within the empty groove of the ornament while they socialize and purchase goods,

Himba Tribe

Known as hunters and gatherers, the Himba tribe of Northwest Namibia is characterized by resilient people. Commonly called the red people of Namibia, they use ochre color combined with fat and resins and cover their whole body, hair, and accessories. This red paste is used to protect them from heat and insect bites. It is also for beauty and with the belief that the color red embodies the Earth and blood, which is the soul of life itself. The Himba tribesmen are dependent on farming and livestock for sustenance.

This red paste is repeatedly applied on the skin in place of bathing, for they live in an arid area where water is considered holy. Only married men can wash and only during special occasions with religious connotations. Instead of using water to cleanse their selves, they use smoke baths where they lit aromatic herbs from and resins with antibacterial properties to cleanse their body as well as their clothes.

Okuruwo, a holy fire that continuously burns at the center of the village, is believed to be their bridge to their ancestors and their God Mukuru. The Himba tribe is patriarchal in nature, where heavy tasks are appointed to the women. Tasks like milking the cows, building the house, and raising the kids. Even the laborious task of fetching and carrying water from the waterhole befalls to these strong women. It is common for women to take care of other woman's children as she first finishes her task. The men are in charge of politics and taking care of the cattle. The son is in charge of taking care of the goats.

Unlike other tribes that a person must only belong to one clan, a person belongs to two families, each from the mother and the father's clan.

Fashion

When it comes to hairstyles, young women wear two braids. This hairstyle is change into several thinner braids once she has her menstrual period, which signals her reaching puberty. The Himba tribe wears skimpy clothes, usually only covering the lower half of their body with animal hides.

Accessory

The Himba women use leather, bone, iron, and copper-based accessories. The most iconic of the Himba tribe accessory is the ohumba. Characterized by white shells that represent fertility, this is passed from a mother to a daughter with the shell that originated from Angola, which is the highlight of the metallic necklace that hung lovingly in between a woman's breast. They also wear layers of thin circular beaded necklaces.

Soura Tribe

The Soura tribe is famous for its multiple body piercings and tattoos. Piercing of the earlobes and on its rim as well as septum piercing. They use twigs or tusks to pierce through the septum and place a bone or wood until the wound is healed.

Mursi Tribe

Known for their lip plates and stretch earlobe piercings, the Mursi tribe is known to have practiced body modification since the 8700BC. Both the lips and earlobe are stretched, denoting a woman's age and maturity. It was said that when a Mursi woman reached her fifteenth birthday or 6 months before her marriage. Her mother would pierce her ears, lips, and place a peg made of wood. After the wound has healed, the spike is removed, and a more giant-sized peg replaces it. This is done repeatedly until the piercing has stretched to 10-15 centimeters in size to gain a higher level of respect.

There are two reasons why Mursi women wear lip plates. The first one is to signify courage and strength. The other purpose is for their protection. The slave trader who takes them deems this type of body modification ugly. Therefore, women with lip plates are left behind

There are two types of plates used; these are wood and clay, which are commonly used. The clay plate is engraved with the tribe's symbol and is finished with a coat of a woman's milk. The woman's milk is said to create a polished finish. It is then heated near a wooden fire to harden.

According to their culture and tradition, a Mursi woman cannot take off their plates in from of a Mursi man, the women can only take them off while eating, sleeping, in the discretion of her household and in the presence of other women.

In addition, the lower incisors are removed in preparation for the possibility of having a locked jaw caused by a tetanus toxin. The hollow made would serve as a way to get food into the mouth.

Zulu tribe

One of the largest ethnic groups in the Southern part of Africa with east African origin. Hospitable in nature, believing in the concept to Ubuntu. The theory of Ubuntu is that humanity is based on the connection and relationships established by each individual. Each human should be welcomed with respect, kindness, trust, and care. They believe in a supreme being called Unkulukulu. Unkulukulu is based on a Zulu myth where he created all things and brought humans and cattle. He was also responsible for teaching the Zulu tribes me to hunt and grow their food. At present, only a few of the Zulu tribe remains with this belief for most have Christian faith.

The Zulu tribe is most iconic for their reed dance, Zulu bead patterns, and pottery. Their beadwork is considered complex for aside from the colors having their meaning. The designs also represent something. A triangle represents a female, while an inverted triangle represents a man. Triangles joined by its tip denote a married man. Consequently, a pair of triangles joined at its base represents a married woman.

Much like the Maasai tribe, colors also represent different meanings. However, each color has both positive and negative connotations.

Red – passion or anger

Blue – loyalty or hostility

Back – rebirth or death

Yellow – abundance or withering

Green – contentment or illness

Pink - wealth or poverty

Fashion

Leopard fur – These are individually worn only for the chiefs and the kings.

Ox hides – These are mostly used to construct shields. It was traditionally small in size, characterized by a leaf-like shape, but has become more significant as time goes by.

Leggings and headbands made from cowhides and cow tails worn during the reed dance.

Zulu Pottery

Pottery is part of a Zulu woman's skill set. They are an expert in molding and designing them with decorative surfaces. There are three everyday pots that were used to be an everyday part of a Zulu woman's day. These are the ikhanzi for cooking, igula for sour milk, and a Ukhamba for brewing beer. it was customary to pass an Ukhamba pot around where everyone gets to drink. This is a form of honoring the god and a social practice following the Ubuntu belief of creating a connection with other people.

Ndebele tribe

Knowns as the cousins to eth Zulu tribe, The Ndebele tribe, has its own distinct culture and belief. The highly believe in the spiritual world where the illness was cast by evil spirits. The Sangoma, the local healer, has to fight them with herbs and bones. The men and women belonging to the Ndebele tribe can communicate directly with their ancestors to help defeat illnesses cast by these negative external forces.

Ritual

Initiation or circumcision rituals are done every four years for teenage boys with 18 years of age. For the females to undergo initiation rites, they are required to wear an izigolwan characterized by colorful beads, around her neck, waist, arms, and legs. She is then trained to be a homemaker and a matron. An amemphepehtu or a leather apron replaces the izigolwan once the ritual is finished. This ritual represents the transition from childhood to adulthood that is celebrated by the entire tribe.

Jewelry

Colorful geometric patterns are distinct from the Ndebele tribe. Modern designs are characterized by vibrant colors compared to traditional earth tones and soft-colored dyes.

Ndebele women wear long necklaces made of colorful beads. Thick and large collars were also a part of their ensemble together with a pair of beaded chandelier earrings, a bright cape, and a set of metal stack collar necklaces.

Turkana Tribe

Turkana tribesmen also use the red paste to over their skin, protecting them from the heat and insects. As they also live in a dry place where water is used sparingly, they also practice smoke bathing and cleansing using scented herbs with antibacterial properties.

Natural antiseptic was used to clean their teeth, such as the sprig of esekon. This serves as both a toothbrush with an antiseptic property rubbed against the teeth and gums.

Fashion

Turkana women have a simple type of clothing that is only composed of a tunic or a cloth tied on one shoulder. Men wore a two-piece dress made with a leather or cloth fabric tied around his chest and waist.

Jewelry

Turkana women wear stack necklaces made traditionally made from seeds and shells. Modern versions are made with colorful glass beads.

Wearing for these colorful beaded necklaces starts from birth. The daughter would receive a colorful necklace from her father with shades of green, red, blue, and yellow. This continues until she becomes married or reaches her 20th birthday. Her necklaces will then be sold to her younger siblings while her husband bestows necklaces upon her. She would also wear a metal collar necklace to represent her marital status comparable to a wedding ring. These necklaced are regarded as high importance that they are never taken off unless a woman is ill or in mourning. As the necklaces thicken, so does its weight. The weight of these stacked beaded necklaces can weigh up to 10 kilograms. To prevent skin abrasion and irritation, animal fat is applied to the skin and the necklaces.

When a married woman becomes a widow, she can only wear white necklaces.

Beaded earrings were also a part of a Turkana woman's outfit. In addition, a lip or labret piercing is also practiced. Unlike a lip plate that is used to stretch the piercing, a labret is a lip plug that has larger external circumference than the piercing itself.

Asante Tribe

Unlike other tribes, that uses readily available materials, the Asante or Ashanti Empire was known to mine gold. The Asante people established their claim around the Kumasi in the 1600s. This place was famous for its gold deposits, which is apt for its name, gold coats.

Osei Tutu, the supreme chief of the Asante chiefs, unified all the leaders, creating a united and powerful military state. It was he who made gold mines his personal possession and used gold dust as a form of currency. Gold trade was the primary source of money for the Ashanti Empire in its earlier years; however, on eth later part of its history, it was involved with exporting enslaved people to the Brits, Dutch, and the French. It was because of this act that the empire had rifts with its neighboring tribes that later in its brief historical rule, the gold coast was colonized by the British Empire and exiled the Ashanti tribe.

We can only trace the surface of the profound and highly diverse culture and traditions of the African tribes. The sole thing that we have learnt is that they are also a fan of accessories. They are highly resourceful people able to use readily available materials and create beautiful pieces of jewelry as a form of individuality and self-expression. Their colorful bead suitably represents their colorful culture and belief that is distinctly African.

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