A Language all their Own

The most complex use of beads anywhere in Africa must be the rituals of courtship and  marriage among the Zulu. Zulu beadwork is actually a language system where colours, patterns and items of apparel convey specific meanings. Tiny seed beads are woven into messages that regulate behaviour between the sexes. Beadwork communication acts as a substitute for speech, thus avoiding the discomfort or embarrassment of direct discourse on sensitive topics involving affairs of the heart.

Zulu men wear beads to show commitment to women they intend to marry.
Because of incestual implications, mothers, sisters and daughters never give beads
to their male relatives.

Beads worn by females immediately convey status: married,  unmarried, engaged, uncommitted, has children, has unmarried sisters, etc. Additional colours and patterns even pinpoint the region she comes from. With these signals a man in a crowd can easily pick out females  that he may approach without fear of being rejected or embarrassed. Patterns convey additional meanings. The three points of a triangle represent Father, Mother and Child. Worn with the point down, it designates an  unmarried man or woman. Two triangles joined to form a diamond signify a married woman.

Two triangles joined at points to form an X indicate a married man.

The vocabulary of Zulu beads extends to colours, with both positive and negative meanings. Black can represent the happiness of marriage or the sadness of death. Pink indicates privileged wealth but can also mean laziness. Red portrays physical love and strong  emotion-or heartache, anger and impatience. Only white is always positive: spiritual love, purity, virginity and chastity.

But if you buy Zulu beads and intend to wear them, be careful you understand their meaning. The ucu is a simple strand of white beads some five metres in length. It might include a tassel done in the appropriate white and blue, indicating chastity and fidelity, and is worn in coils around the neck as an engagement token. It is absolutely unthinkable that an ucu should be made of black beads with a tassel of pale yellow beads.

Such a design and combination literally translates into uthuvi benkonyane (sh*t from a calf). Illustrating the vengeance of a woman scorned, a group of young ladies brought a black ucu to the village of a man who jilted his betrothed. Not finding him at home, the girls wound the beads around the neck of the first dog they found and left in a huff. To avoid the stigma of being thought a coward, the young man sheepishly wore them to two wedding ceremonies before finally selling them to an innocent tourist.

This is from an article by Montreal-based Bob Burch - a regular contributor to Travel Africa. His passion for beads has developed during his numerous visits to Africa.

Published in the
Travel Africa Magazine - Edition Eleven -Spring 2000