Somewhere between the glitter and colour of vibrant beadworks, are traditional functions and justifications tied closely to African roots. However, in contemporary times, waist beads have become more of a fashion statement.—one of femininity and sensuality, rather than social status, fertility, or spiritual well-being as believed in some cultures. Waist beads are an intricate network of beads strung together and worn around the waist or hips. ALSO READ: The beauty of beads These are thought to have roots in African history, with deep traditional significance which has evolved over the years, from a cultural symbol of womanhood to a fashion accessory embraced globally for its beauty and aesthetic allure. Waist beads are believed to have originated from Egypt before spreading through trade routes, to West African countries like Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal. However, in recent years, they have transcended cultural boundaries and gained popularity worldwide, even in Rwanda. ALSO READ: There’s a trend: More Rwandans are getting inked Elsie Tumukunde, who sells waist beads on her Instagram page @waistbeadbyelsie, said her mother, who is of Congolese origin, first introduced her to them. “My mother’s sister used to wear them and I used to find it interesting until I started wearing them myself and even decided to make a business out of it when all my friends asked me to make some for them as well,” she explained. ALSO READ: The anklet: How to accessorise your ankles Tumukunde affirms that most of her customers buy from her for decorative elements, but waist beads are also sometimes used to check weight loss or gain, as they don’t stretch and can be adjusted depending on body size. It works in such a way that as you gain weight, the beads will sit higher on your waist and feel tighter. For others where waist beads are a cultural tradition, the beads are often associated with womanhood, maturity, and growth. They are used to mark significant life transitions—from a girl’s first menstruation to pregnancy, childbirth, etc. ALSO READ: Birth control: How to effectively use cycle beads In some cultures, the use of waist beads to signify growth and development is not limited to women; even babies wear them, as it is believed to be symbolic of the nature of life itself. To date, waist beads continue to carry deep significance in different African cultures such as the Ashanti, Krobo, and Yoruba people, among others. For instance, in Ghana, women add larger beads or bells to their waist beads when they become fertile. And as she walks, the noise that the beads make depicts a show of faithfulness to her partner. ALSO READ: Necklaces: The timeless accessory In Nigeria, the Yoruba tribe is known for lacing waist beads with charms and fragrances that will be irresistible to their partners. These waist beads often come in different shapes, sizes, and colours, each with its meaning, use, or symbolism. “I was never exposed to waist beads as a child. These are things I only learned as I became acquainted with people from other countries. And knowing that in our Rwandan society, waist beads or any other concept of excessive adornments, such as many earrings, anklets, and others, are instantly viewed as a show of perverts and prostitution, I have never thought of putting them on,” shared Kigali resident, Aline Gikundiro. Though, the allure of waist beads lies not only in their intricate craftsmanship but also in their ability to evoke a sense of femininity and sensuality, hence boosting a sense of self-esteem and confidence in the wearer. With their distinct colours, patterns, and materials, waist beads possess an undeniable aesthetic appeal that draws attention and makes one feel good about their body. While some stigmatise waist beads as relics of diabolic moves, meant to attract love or lust, they have been, and still are, being used to celebrate womanhood, sexuality, femininity, fertility, healing, spirituality, body shaping, protection, and wealth. The rise of waist beads as a fashion trend can be attributed, in part, to the power of social media platforms such as TikTok, where influencers and celebrities are seen wearing them all the time. In fact, with all accounts considered, whether worn as a private secret or flaunted as a daring fashion accessory, waist beads seem to cross the gap between tradition and modernity. Andre Ntagwabira, Archaeology Research Specialist at Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy, highlighted the use of waist beads in Rwandan culture, primarily for aesthetic purposes. “Obtained through barter trade, they were predominantly worn by individuals from well-to-do families. Both men and women adorned themselves with beads, although women typically wore more, emphasising their care in beauty and elegance,” he said. No known myths surround their significance, but they were more of a symbol of social rank, he added.