Beads made in Europe were once used to trade for West African slaves. Today, beads from Africa have found a flourishing market not only in Europe but also in the US and Japan. LARA PAWSON, in Accra, draws a bead on this fascinating new industry.
The first durable ornaments ever possessed by human beings are thought to have been beads. Aside from the fact that they can be used to adorn the body, either as jewellery or sewn into clothes, beads embody the most important characteristics of any item worth collecting. Not only are they durable, easy to transport and wildly diverse, they are also extremely valuable from both a traditional and modern consumer context. From time immemorial people have been unable to resist the myriad colours, shapes, designs and materials in which beads are available.
Evidence that they are still sought after across the globe has never been stronger than it is today. In Africa more than in any other part of the world, beads continue to play a vital role in the display of different tribes' and communities' cultural heritage. It is also in Africa that the trade in beads is growing rapidly: not simply between West African (ECOWAS) states but as exports to Europe, North America and more recently, Japan.
Between 1992 and 1996, the value of beads exported from Ghana to foreign lands multiplied over 80 times from $493 to $39,222. In fact, 1996 proved a watermark year since the export figure for the previous year, at $8,737, was significantly lower.
According to Mr Tawia Akyea, executive secretary for Ghana Export Promotion Council (GEPC), "Beads have now become a real item of trade (in Ghana) and an industrial base for a small but increasingly significant cottage industry."
The escalating demand is put down to two reasons. First, many West Africans are living in the diaspora: their cultural values are still firmly intact and the significance of beads to their everyday lives remains strong. Second, foreign communities have always enjoyed wearing beads and the last 10 years has seen fashion in the north turn towards so-called ethnic goods. "They are fascinated by our culture," says Mr. Akyea, "and will pay significant amounts of money for African beads. In particular the response in the US, where so many of the diaspora reside, has seen an increase in the industry." However, he points out, "although there has been a definite growth in the last few years, the figures could be even more impressive if all...