Beads were brought to Africa by traders from Arabia, Europe, and India, where they were exchanged for goods, slaves, and services. The Arabs traded mainly in northern Africa, while Europeans and Indians traded mostly in the western parts of the continent. African tribal lords and chiefs who obtained these beads began making decorative jewelry out of them. Wearing the jewelry was, in fact, wearing one’s wealth, and it became a sign of social status to wear a large amount of beaded jewelry in different colors.
The original African beads were made out of gold, silver, or glass. The material was melted and then poured into a clay mold that had compartments in the shape of beads. After the beads were formed, they were processed in a kiln to make them hard and durable.
Today, there are hundreds of different kinds of African beads. Most are made of glass, with plastics and ceramics added to the glass. People of different tribes in southern Sudan wear their beads in different ways. Women of the Dinka tribe, for example, often wear a long string (or strings) of rather large beads that are black on one side and white on the other. Toposa women sew small, multicolored beads in intricate rows onto the goatskin skirts they wear, and like to adorn themselves with thick rings of beads as necklaces and headdresses woven from beads of many different colors. Boys and men wear beads too, though not in such great quantities as the women. In some tribes, the style of beads worn indicates the wearer’s marital status and place in society.
Below, a Toposa woman appears in her beaded finery.