Beads and beadwork have tremendous symbolic meaning across all regions of Africa. From the Zulu of South Africa were beads are used as a message of love, to the kingdom of Benin were the use and wearing of beads is strictly worn and controlled by royalty.
Colors and patterns of beadwork adornment come to signify wider issues, from place of origin, to marital status, to religious beliefs, to fashion, even to political allegiances.
Ndebele beadwork is associated with the female status and female creativity and often displays the life-cycle stage of the wearer. The Yoruba of Nigeria associate beads with the power of gods and kings. In Kenya, the Massai used beadwork as a means to identify social institutions in the form of body decoration.
African beads can comprise of brass, copper, gold, silver, iron, various gemstones, wood, seeds, shells and glass. Beads from Africa can date back to as old as the 15th century with the arrival of European traders, following the Portuguese exploration of the African coastline.
Beads are traded widely within Africa, with specialist bead dealers and bead markets still found. African people often create new uses ranging from a single strung bead, through simple and multiple strands to beaded regalia and furniture such as royal thrones. Bead workers also produced beaded robes, cushions, staffs, and other items intended to demonstrate royal wealth and power.
Beadwork most often appears in many color combinations and can be worn by children and adults of both sexes. For the Zulu tribe, it is most often first worn by young adults as the vast majority of Zulu beadwork items are primarily associated with courtship and relations between the sexes. In general, the more variation of color would indicate the more specific, and therefore personal, the message it could convey to the recipient.
The Massai of Kenya has its origins in the familiar triad of basic colors, red, white and black. As other color of beads became more readily available in the twentieth century we found that different Kenyan groups such as Kikuyu, Kipsigis, Nandi and the Massai, were often distinguished by the prominent use of a particular color.