The Krobos Say It with Beads
By “Awake!” correspondent in Ghana
BEADS—tiny perforated bits of glass—how small and insignificant they appear! But beads of many varieties have long been prized by man. They have been discovered in royal tombs of Ur, home of the patriarch Abraham, on Egyptian mummies of great antiquity and in the old graves of Greece and Italy. King Solomon of Israel, enraptured at the sight of a beautiful girl from Shunem, declared: “Your cheeks are comely among the hair braids, your neck in a string of beads.” (Song of Sol. 1:10) Long before the first European traders made their way to the coasts of West Africa, fascination with beads occupied the Krobos of Ghana.
The beads (called adiagba) made by Krobo craftsmen, both ancient and modern, are highly prized in Ghana for their beauty, rarity and durability. They are often given as presents. Before the advent of modern coins, they served as a medium of exchange. Why, adiagba are even used as security for loans or mortgages on buildings and land. A string of beads can cost anywhere from as little as ten cedisa up to one hundred cedis, depending on the variety and number.
How the Beads Are Used
While many of the beads are just for everyday use, there are those that become the property of the family and are preserved for generations. Such family beads are highly valued and, often, somewhat reverenced. They are never sold, and are displayed at funerals in remembrance of dead family members and, sometimes, just to show the family’s wealth. These beads are prominently used in connection with traditional puberty rites for girls.
Though not practiced by true Christians, the customary rites performed for young Krobo girls entering womanhood are accompanied by a show of beads not generally observed otherwise. The young girls are bedecked with the family beads, some of which were worn by their great-great-grandmothers when they were young. Displayed in public in little more than their expensive and valued ornaments, the girls attract a lot of local attention, especially on the part of the town’s eligible single men. The girls, swaying rhythmically to the beat of drums, in effect say, ‘We are ready for marriage!’ On this occasion, too, there is an opportunity for different families to display their wealth to a greater extent than usual.
It is especially true then that the Krobos ‘say it with beads.’ Different beads have different names and meanings. Powa means “I am challenging you,” while Koli declares “You are not better than I,” and Odonor speaks up with, “You are envious because I have and you do not.” Omitiomete, being more modest, simply says, “The results of my labor.” People travel from far and wide to witness prominent ones of the various families strutting around town displaying their beads.
The more brightly colored beads are for celebrations and traditional festivals of the Krobos. Black or dark-colored beads are worn to signify times of mourning, whereas white beads are used on occasions of joy, such as when a baby is born, a new marriage is contracted or on recovery from serious illness.
Intricate Designs and Fascinating Colors
The skill of the native artisans is clearly reflected in the beads. A close look reveals that the beads can be of practically any color—yellow, rich brown, red and blue being prominent. By a clever mixing of different colors, the craftsmen have created designs that look like miniature explosions of molten, colored glass on a background of darker glass. Little patterns that resemble miniature pressed flowers, stripes, whorls and pinwheels are common. The highly polished finish of good-quality beads sparkles and twinkles in the light. No wonder the Krobos enjoy their beads and use them to express their thoughts and feelings. But, how are they made?
Krobo Craftsmen at Work
The first step is to prepare a furnace, measuring about two feet (.6 meter) in diameter and about two feet in height. It is carefully constructed from good, heat-resistant clay obtained from a nearby riverbank. Several iron rods are laid across the furnace just above the point where the fire will be.
Next the craftsman makes several molds from the same clay. These consist of tablets, about six inches (15 centimeters) square and about one inch (2.5 centimeters) in thickness, punched with holes measuring anywhere from one quarter to three quarters of an inch (about 6 to 18 millimeters) in diameter, and about half an inch (12 millimeters) or so in depth. The materials for making the beads will be put into these holes. Both the furnace and the molds are left to dry hard in the sun. When well dried the molds are carefully polished with chalky limestone so that the inside and edges of the holes are very smooth. After preparing his furnace and molds, the native worker will select his raw materials for the beads.
The basic substance used to make the beads is called soso. It is usually yellowish in color and is finely ground glass, silica or porcelain. The grinding is done on a smooth stone and then the powder is carefully sieved. The material for the contrasting colors is prepared likewise.
The craftsman moistens the basic powder slightly with a little water when pouring the substance into the holes in the clay tablets. Next he inserts a very thin stick of wood into the middle of the powder all the way to the bottom of the hole. But how are the various designs achieved? After the basic material for the beads is put into the mold, four or more small holes are bored into the wet powder around the stick at predetermined intervals. Into these holes colored glass powder is poured. This results in the designs and patterns that make the beads so fascinating and attractive. After all the holes in the molds are filled the tablets are ready for the furnace.
The craftsman lays the tablets on the iron rods in the furnace, places a quantity of dry hardwood under the rods and sets fire to it. To increase the intensity of the heat to a temperature sufficient to melt the glass, silica or porcelain, he uses bellows. When the molds are seen to contain molten materials only, they are quickly hooked out of the furnace. Then the Krobo artisan holds each mold—carefully so as not to burn himself—and gives it an expert shake, twist or knock. This serves to blend or intermingle the colors so as to form the desired patterns. The tablets then are set aside to cool. Later, the individual beads are extracted from the tiny molds by inserting a pointed hook into the holes that were formed when the thin sticks burned away as the substance surrounding them melted in the furnace.
If you expected to see beautifully colored beads at this stage, your first reaction will be one of disappointment. But, with a little hard work, this will change.
The workman first takes a rough flat stone and rubs the crude bead on it to remove most of the irregularities and blemishes. Then, using a smooth flat stone, he carefully brings the bead to a high degree of finish and polish. The completed bead glows softly and attractively. With the stringing of the beads, the work is completed.
The native craftsman can now relax and smile in satisfaction over a job well done. It will speak to someone, not in words but in beads, for the Krobos often like to say it with beads.
a One cedi is about 87c in United States currency.