Fiona Graham, Head of Content   26 July 2016

Watch Garbe Mohammed, bead merchant at the Koforidua beads market in Ghana, show us his treasures. Picture: Fiona Graham / WorldRemit

Garbe Mohammed has sold and traded beads across West Africa his whole working life.

His father and grandfather before him were also bead merchants, and his great-grandfather before that. When his son leaves school, he too will work in the family business.

“In Ghana here, we make glass beads, powdered glass beads, and other beads too,” he says.

“We [also] collect them from other African countries, here at the Koforidua beads market.”

Garbe Mohammed is a fourth generation bead merchant. Picture: Fiona Graham/WorldRemit

These are trade beads. From the 16th century, ships bound for Africa and the Americas would load up with huge quantities of them.

On the outbound trip they would act as ballast, and on arrival would be used to barter for spices, fabrics, precious metals and even slaves. A currency that worked across most borders.

Many were Venetian, including glass chevron beads and millefiori. These beads are now sought after collectors’ items.

The Koforidua bead market, in eastern Ghana, isn’t selling tourist tat. This is where merchants from across west Africa come to buy and trade merchandise.

“We’ve got Malians, people from Mali who used to come down … to buy, to trade and exchange beads. Sometimes we do barter trade,” says Garbe.

“Collectors from European countries, some from America, they do come here and buy beads."

Garbe’s booth is in a prime spot near the entrance.

The walls are covered in strings of beads of every colour and shape – amber, carnelian agate, glass, bone, brass, wood and more.

In the same way the original beads followed trade routes to be bartered for goods, Garbe also travels by bead.

“When I travel from Ghana here, I… take Ghanaian beads to Togo, I exchange them with Togo beads, I travel far to Benin, exchange with Benin beads, come to Nigeria, I sell them then sell Nigerian beads back to Ghana,” he says.

“So you can see Ghanaian and other African, or west African, beads far outside Africa.

“That’s how beads travel in every part of the world.”

 

If you’re lucky, Garbe will take out a small plastic box, where he keeps a very special collection.

“Those beads are very special. Very, very old ones. These beads were sold to my father, and after his death, I just inherited it.

“This one is not for sale. This bead was made in the early 16th century, about 400 years [ago]. This the real seven layer chevron.”

Chevron beads are highly prized, and one of the most recognisable trade beads. Modern copies - often made in China or India - are the most expensive beads sold here.

The originals can be dated by the number of layers of coloured glass used to make long canes, from which the beads are ground.

“These beads were used for barter trade in the olden days. Some of these beads were even exchanged for a slave,” says Garbe.

These beads were worn to ward off evil spirits, at the time of the Roman Empire. Picture: Fiona Graham/WorldRemit

This isn’t the most unusual bead in his collection. 

As well as a round, striped bead that found its way to Ghana several hundred years ago from a Thai island – discovered buried in a pot – he has several much, much older.

“These beads are right from the Roman Empire. They were used for evil spirits. They wear it for protection against evil spirits, so maybe you will go round the whole of this market these are the only one you can see,” he says.

But the pride of his collection is an African bead.

“This is the face bead. I’ve been searching for this bead almost 20 years. It’s a spiritual bead, and this one was found in Northern Nigeria,” he says.

“It migrated from person to person, man to man, these buy, these sell.

“And it came to me.”

Ghanaian beads are made from glass that is ground down to powder and reformed. Photo: Fiona Graham/WorldRemit

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