So I mentioned before that I have traveled a bit…
In January 2007, Ced (my other half) and I traveled to west Africa. We visited Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana over 6 weeks. We reached Ghana towards the end of our trip which was a good thing as I ended up leaving Ghana carrying a lot of beads. By “a lot”, I mean too many beads to carry by myself!
Before I left I knew there were beads in Africa. I’d seen the documentary shows, I’d seen the bright bangles and necklaces on the women, I’d seen the seed beads, the plastic beads. But I didn’t know about the huge glass bead making industry in Ghana, nor the historical trade of beads between Europe and Africa centuries ago. I guess I never stopped to think about the age of a bead, or who made it or owned it before it landed into my hands. Or how did a Venetian-made bead find it’s way to Africa.
I bought my first lot of beads for the trip from a antique-cum-bead-cum-curios shop in Mopti in Mali. Mali is a very poor, french-speaking country landlocked in west Africa that is famous for having Timbuktu within it’s borders. I only bought a few items as nothing was really organised in the shop. Small items, such as beads, brass items, stones and what ever else, were thrown into boxes around the shop, so you were forced to forage to find a treasure. It was a lot of fun, but I hadn’t done any research on beads before I got there so I did get frustrated not knowing what I was looking at or buying. I ended up with some nice pieces of brass jewelery, a large agate stone and a few glass beads for a few euros. I would have liked to have spent more time there but it was close to closing time and we had to get back for dinner at our hostel. But one thing we did do before we left was to accept an invitation to take a look at a bead museum that they had upstairs. Oh wow! It was amazing to see! I wish I had seen that earlier. I took a few photos of the impressively large collection of large beads!! Glass, semi-precious, clay, coral and stone beads – take a look at the photos and see what you recognise. It must be worth a million dollars at least!
I learned that night at our hostel about the African trade route for the Europeans. How the Europeans couldn’t travel overland through north Africa and the Sahara desert to trade with the western Africans, so they sailed their ships around the coast, trading with the Africans for gold and food. The Africans loved the European’s glass beads, it was something they hadn’t seen before and weren’t able to make for themselves. Beads were worn by kings and people of high status as these beads were seen to be worth a lot of money. They traded so much with beads that there is a saying or it might be a myth, that there are so many beads in Africa that they wash up on the beach. How lovely does that sound?
After spending 3 weeks in Mali, it was time to move onto Burkina Faso for a few days. I didn’t go looking for beads here as we were really only there to get our Ghana visa plus I had been told by an American peace corp worker that Ghana is *the* place for glass beads. So why bother in Burkina?? So after a few days, a few cups of espresso and croissants later, we got the bus south to Ghana.
The one thing we did notice as we headed south was it got hotter and more humid but still we dressed modestly as the guide books recommended. Sweating 24 hours a day was becoming a normal state of being. For me, I come from Brisbane where it’s hot and humid 6 months of the year, but I had just spent the last 18 months living in Europe so I think I lost my heat tolerance. Oh boy, does Ghana punish you.
Okay enough of the weather, more of the beads. I won’t go into great detail of where or how I got to these markets, there are already a couple of people who have written in detail about this on the internet. These were the trip notes that I used to get to these markets.
Okay, first big bead stop in Ghana for us was the Kumasi markets. I think it’s the biggest or the second biggest market in Africa (don’t quote me, it could be west Africa). It really is huge. If you just want to get lost for a day, this market is the place. From the distance it looks like a heaving mass. And up close it’s disorientating. It’s a little difficult for me to give exact directions on how to find the bead stalls in this market, but if you contact me I can give you some general descriptions and photos of how to find the bead stalls. What worked for me was to take the beads I bought in Mali with me and asked ladies at stalls where I could find them in the market. I would suggest taking prints of photos of beads to show them as well, if you won’t have any beads with you. The Ghanians were very helpful and speak great English. I would sometimes even buy a few beads from a stall owner and then ask them to show me where I could get more.
I found stalls and stalls of seed beads on string, in beautiful colour combinations for only 20 cents a strand. I found colourful hand-painted powder glass beads for only a few dollars. And then I found what I call the jackpot. I came across a short row of stalls run by men that were teeming with old beads. These guys know how much their beads are worth so it’s definitely hard to bargain with them but it’s worth doing. There is so much here I would recommend doing some research on the types of beads and their prices on the internet before you get here. One particular stall, (I have a photo of it) is chock full to the brim of amazing beads. I spent quite a bit of money with these guys, but I walked away with old (maybe 19th C.) Venetian chevrons beads, kiffa beads, white hearts, recycled trade beads – all sorts. If I ever go back to Ghana, his stall would be the first port of call for me.
After feeling quite pleased with my successful bead hunt in Kumasi, we traveled on to the capital city Accra. There are two markets that have a large portion of beads in them running one day after the other in the north. We took a minivan to the Agomonya markets one morning, then to the Cedi’s Bead Factory in the afternoon, then onto the Koforidua markets the next morning. Agomonya markets is a mixed produce market but no where near the size of Kumasi markets.
The bead stalls were all quiet and relaxed and I was able to go about like a butterfly visiting flowers – have a look here, have a look there. Round and round I went. It was all new powder glass beads here. Some people were selling the same beads, so it was a matter of finding what I liked at a good price. I bought quite a bit more powdered glass beads. I also stopped at a stall run by a man who had a great collection of old glass beads and semi-precious beads. He even had massive Amazonite beads there, but I did not know the quality I was looking at so I passed them up. I have a photo of me sitting in the shade of a empty stall working out my costs with pen and paper while surrounded by shopping bags of beads. Quite a happy little shot 🙂
That afternoon we caught a taxi to Cedi’s Bead Factory. This is open to the public to visit and they’re quite happy to take you for a quick tour around the place. I have included photos of this place. The most impressive thing about here was the guys working the beads at the kiln. As I mentioned before, Ghana is hot and really, really humid, so to see them working at a hot kiln all day just really got loads of respect from me. We buy these beads so cheaply but the amount of labour that goes into them is huge. They make their own kilns out of termite mound mud and car parts too.
At Cedi’s, to make a bead, they hand crush the glass bottles to a powder. They then fill all the bead molds by hand making sure they have put in the little piece that makes the bead hole in it. Next it’s fired in the kiln. Then the kiln guy has to take the molds out of the fire and pass them onto workers who quickly work the beads together (the bead’s are made in halves first, mid way through the firing process they have piece the two halves together and then it goes back into the kiln to fuse together.) The holes have to line up and then they are fired again. Once the beads are cooled they are then polished – by hand in a stone with water and sand. It must take a long time to polish them…
Cedi’s Bead Factory also has a shop – of course – to buy their beads. I only bought a few from here as I didn’t think there was a great selection to chose from. Maybe all their good beads are exported as I read in the guide book they have clients in the US and Australia. One great thing about the shop was that they had photos mounted on the wall of Mr Cedi at international bead functions. I read the accompanying scripts describing the event of people carefully, trying to work out what they were, where and who. I really wanted to know about bead making and these events so I took photos of these photos to refer to later. I’m glad I did as I have now realised I have taken a photo of my favourite English bead maker, Diana East! Wow, what a coincidence. I hope to meet Diana next month, so I’ll ask her what event it was she was at with Mr Cedi!
The next day I visited a little bead shop across the road from my hotel. This was a simple place, relaxed and had a small selection to choose from also. But I did buy what I think is the best hand-painted beads I got, so I was quite chuffed with the buy. We moved onto the Koforidua bead market, which is just a big open car park full of mostly bead traders. Again you see the men selling their impressive collections of old European and semi-precious beads and ladies selling the hand-made Ghanian beads. There were a few traders from the Agomonya markets here too. Again, I bought up quite a bit here and I left for Accra with a very heavy bag. And so did my boyfriend 🙂
Leaving Ghana a few days later, we had to juggle the beads and the extra weight they made so that we weren’t over weight on any of the bags. It worked out well, but I did strain my neck and require physio for a few weeks after 🙁 Not long after this trip we headed back to Australia with all our belongings that we had stored at friends in Ireland while we were in Africa. We really had to spread the weight out amongst 6 bags, and our hand luggage I’m sure weighed 15 to 20kg each. It took the two of us to push each day pack into the overhead lockers on the plane! How we didn’t pay for extra weight I do not know. What amazes me more is that after watching those reality TV border security shows that I didn’t get pulled up with so many beads! I’m sure the quantity would look like I was importing them to sell! “Honestly officer, all 50 kilograms of beads are really for personal use!” Ha!
But I am so glad my trip went so well. I learned so much about the historic trade of beads through Africa and gained insight into the age of beads and the road it’s most likely traveled to get to Africa. And I’ve gained a new respect for bead making in Africa – it’s much more labour intensive, I think, than my lampwork beads. We’re so lucky to have air conditioning, electric kilns and pre-made glass rods to melt. It’s nice to stop and look at a bead and think about the artist and what they were trying to achieve in their work on that bead. To stop and consider how far it’s traveled and how many sets of hands it had to pass through to get to you. Myself as a bead maker, I spend a lot of time on a bead as I am making it- focussed, planning, hoping for that bead to come out like I imagined in my head, whispering it encouragement as it turns in the flame.
And then I hand it on to someone else to carry and to love.