Fiona Graham and Iva Kubickova   09 October 2019

Ghanaian beads merchant Garbe Mohammed in a white shirt and a smile on his face standing in his stool surrounded by colourful ghanaian beads

Beads are a fundamental part of Ghanaian heritage. Not only they testament to the vibrance of Ghanaian creativity, but they also play a significant role in the country’s history, rituals and culture.

WorldRemit travelled to Ghana and spoke to Garbe Mohammed, a fourth-generation bead merchant, who has sold and traded beads across West Africa his whole working life.

He spoke with us about his passion for his craft and revealed some of his secrets - including a seven-layer chevron and Roman face beads.

There’s so much more to beads than just decoration. Read on to find out more about the history of beads and what they mean for Ghanaians.

What’s the history and meaning behind Ghanaian beads?

Beads have been a part of Western African culture for a long time.

1. Origins of Ghanaian beads

The exact origin of beads is a hotly-debated topic. However, archaeologists have confirmed that the craft of bead making, especially in Ghana, goes back thousands of years.

So, what do people use beads for in Ghana?

  • Celebrations and festivals
  • Artistic expression
  • As a spiritual object
  • Fashion statement
  • Trading currency

"From the 16th century, ships bound for Africa and the Americas would load up with huge quantities of trade beads. 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," shared Garbe with us.

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

2. Ghanaian beads in the modern era

Over the past decades, many locals began to consider beads as slightly old-fashioned.

Luckily, their popularity is growing again. They are getting more and more attention among collectors, jewellery makers, and everyone who loves and appreciates their captivating beauty – in and outside of Africa.

The history and heritage of Ghanaian beads are also protected by the Ghana Beads Society. The first of its kind in Africa, the society is dedicated to recording, preserving and promoting the culture of Ghanaian beads.

hundreds of colourful bracelets made from colourful ghanaian beads“A

Who are the main beads producers in Ghana?

The majority of beads produced come from the Ashanti and Krobo people in the Krobo region, who occupy areas of Accra Plains, Akuapem Mountains and the Afram Basin.

The craft is often based on a family tradition, and know-how is passed on from one generation to another. Using mainly handmade techniques, beads often have unique designs and charm.

What are some different styles of Ghanaian beads?

Here are some of the most popular styles of Ghanaian beads.

an image of a krobo glass bead in a hexagon“A

Krobo powder glass beads

Formerly used as a trading currency, these beads are named after the region where they’re made. They’re possibly the most popular African beads.

The beads are created from layers of powdered glass mixed with dyes and poured into moulds. After heating and cooling, the finished bead is sometimes hand-painted with original designs.

Recycled glass beads

an image showing many glass beads“A

Recycled glass beads (or bottle glass beads) are an excellent example of creative recycling in Africa. Ghanaian craftsmen and women smash old or broken bottles into pieces as big as peppercorns. The end product is heated in a wood fire and polished to perfection. 

Brass beads

an image of brass ghanaian beads on a red table“A

The technique used on brass beads originated from an ancient process called 'lost wax'.

Made in the old Ashanti Kingdom area in central Ghana, each bead is created in a bees wax mould and covered in clay.

The mould gets heated and cooled, which often causes it to break in certain places – so each bead is unique. 

Chevron beads

an image of white chevron beads with blue and red stripes from ghana“A

Chevron beads are highly prized, and one of the most recognisable trade beads. Modern copies - often made in China or India – are some of the most expensive beads you can buy.

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

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

What products are made with Ghanaian beads?

Here is a list of some of the most popular products and designs made from Ghanaian beads.

  • Ghanaian waist beads

Waist beads are the most common beaded items worn by Ghanaian women. Traditionally, in the areas of Ashante and Krobo, girls began wearing waist beads after their coming of age.

Nowadays, many women are going back to this tradition and embracing these beautiful beads.

  • Ghana beads jewellery anklets, bracelets and necklaces

From anklets to bracelets and necklaces, beads are used in many types of jewellery – for both men and women. Here are our favourite picks.

  • Ghanaian beads bags and clothes

Today, beads can be seen everywhere, decorating bags, shoes and clothes! These unique, handmade products have a special place in many people’s hearts.

Credit: 4CamRes MultiMedia, Flickr (modified photo)

What are the best Ghanaian bead markets?

Agomanya and Koforidua markets are the most reputable bead markets in Ghana. Merchants from across West Africa come to buy and trade merchandise in Koforidua market.

Just like bead producers, bead merchants are often upholding a long family tradition.

Garbe Mohammed, 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.

He has a stand in the Koforidua bead market, located to the north of Accra. The walls are covered in strings of beads of every colour and shape – amber, carnelian agate, glass, bone, brass, wood and more.

Garbe passionately travels throughout West Africa – such as Togo, Benin, Nigeria or Mali - in search of rare beads to add to his stock, as well as his precious personal collection.

“When I travel, I take Ghanaian beads to Togo and exchange them with Togo beads. Then I travel further to Benin, to exchange them with Benin beads. Then I go to Nigeria to sell beads and bring Nigerian beads back to Ghana. That’s how beads travel in every part of the world,” he says.

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

How beads make the world go round

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 inherited them. This bead was made in the early 16th century, about 400 years [ago]. This the real seven-layer chevron.”

The original seven layer chevron, made in Venice in the 16th century, next to some modern copies“A

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However, 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 from the Roman Empire… They wore them for protection against evil spirits,” he says.

two african beads with a shape of a face worn to ward off evil spirits, at the time of the Roman Empire“A

But the pride of his collection is an African bead.

“This is the face bead. I’ve been searching for this bead for 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... And it came to me.”

African bead from Northern Nigeria on a wooden table“A

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