Why West African women wear Waist-beads

Ileke-Idi (Yoruba), which literally means waistband, is an accessory worn by the women of West Africa for centuries. Initially, the waist beads were a significant part of the cultural identity of the Yoruba Tribe in Nigeria. Therefore, the tribe is given credit for the popularity of this accessory in the country.  

In Nigeria, mostly, the Yorubas make Ileke-Idis. The waistbands come in different colors, shapes, and sizes, and are made of glass, wood, metal, or nut. Usually, the beads made of different materials are woven together in a string and are worn by the women around their waists, hips or bellies.

While most of the modern women wear it for its beauty, in the past, the reason for wearing waist beads was entirely different. During ancient times these beads were worn as an instrument to serve celebrity status for a woman during her final rites. The woman was considered rich or destitute depending upon the beads that she is wearing.

In some traditions of Africa, the waist beads showcase the status of a person in the community if it is worn outside the clothing. And when it is worn inside the clothes or naked, they are considered as an indication to a spouse or lover.

In few parts of West Africa, Ileke-Idis were worn by mothers for their daughters on the onset of their puberty, which, according to them, was a sign of the advent of womanhood.  In some other parts, such as Ghana, waist beads are worn by babies during their naming ceremony despite their gender. However, after growing up, only females wear it.

The Ashantis and Krobos (two, out of several ethnic groups in Ghana) weave larger sized beads or even bells to the waistbands of their women once they reach the puberty. It is said that the jingling sound produced by the larger beads, while the women walk around, tends to attract the potential suitors towards them.

In traditional Yoruba tribes, however, women wear the Ileke-Idis during their pregnancy. It is believed that the waistband protects both the mother as well as the child. Some people even believe that the beads contain spiritual powers, and therefore, they are worn for protection. Additionally, some herbalists in Africa use these beads to connect with Gods in the traditional Yoruba culture.  

‘Lagidigba’ or waist beads made of palm nut shells are worn to inform people about the number of deliveries a woman has had. Besides, the women in the Hausa tribe of Nigeria to wear waistbands for increasing their sexual performance while getting married. They call their waist beads, “Jigida.” As per their belief, the waist beads increase the sexual drive between couples after their wedding.

Despite being a part of the tradition of ancient Africa, there are still several prejudices and biases in the whole of the continent when it comes to banning the waistbands. In some cases, these biases go to the extent that women are called out names, and identified as escorts. Although people attach great spiritual beliefs with Ileke-Idis, during recent times, the women wear it more for enhancing their beauty.

Currently, a good percentage of Nigerian ladies wear waist beads. Many of them believe that the ornament is helpful in determining their weight gain or loss. For instance, if the waistband tightens around your waist, then it indicates the weight gain and vice versa. In addition to it, some women wear it to increase their positivity levels in her body, as they believe that the beads have divine powers in them. Trading in the waist beads has, therefore, attracted many small businessmen and women who need an excellent source of income. 

Waist beads are also treated as legacies in some families as often those are passed on to the next generation females within the families. The charms, colors of beads, and bells on the strings determine the purpose of the waist beads. Like roses, each color and stone is associated with a meaning: blue for healing, brown for stability, green for fertility, black for power and protection, gold for good health and wealth, red for confidence or passion, purple for royalty or spirituality, yellow for joy and white for purity.

Women of all sizes can wear these waist beads. Therefore, by looking at the lucrative business it offers to the people in Nigeria for earning decent sum along with the deeply entrenched roots of Ileke- Idis in the culture of continental Africa, it seems that this trend of wearing waist-beads will continue to proliferate in the region in the future as well. 

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