The topic of love is a dominant theme in the social life of people the world over, and since time immemorial people have sent their beloveds little letters expressing their interest. Whether that letter takes the form of a hand-writtten sonnet, a typed essay, an sms, or even a beaded brooch, the intention remains the same. Zulu people are famous for their beadwork, and with the exception of beads worn by traditional healers, the majority of Zulu beads relate in some way to courtship and marriage. The combination of the pattern and colours of the beads convey a subtle message, without the need to speak. A bangle worn by a young girl may indicate that she’s single, or the accepting of a brooch by a man from a woman, may be a sign that’s he interested in pursuing her.
Love may be complicated, but Zulu beadwork follows some simple and straightforward rules: the basic shape is always a triangle; there are seven different colours used, which have both a negative and a positive meaning, depending on how they are arranged; beadwork is a craft practiced by women; beadwork flows from women to men, and traditionally beaded gifts from mothers, sisters and daughters are avoided.
Zulu beadwork has a very rich culture that harks back to the time of the Phoenicians when glass beads first made their way into Africa. It’s a fascinating subject, and one that evolves over time. For a basic introduction go to Zulu Beadwork Culture, and to see some local examples of traditional Zulu beadwork pay a visit to the wonderful Phansi Museum in Glenwood, Durban.