As I have mentioned before, I design book covers as a favor to a non-profit organization that sells books to stores in Africa, mainly Nigeria and Kenya from what I understand. The organization is based in Illinois but maintains a close relationship with the store owners and distributors in Africa, so I get plenty of input as to what kinds of imagery is popular there that might not be popular in the States and vice versa.
I learned, for example, that a in good of bit of Africa, wedding rings are not a recognized symbol of marriage. They are seen as a white man's invention, so when I design book covers for books on marriage, I have to use something like hearts instead of rings. And big, hairy, ugly spiders are admired. It's been an educational experience.
Several weeks ago, I asked my contact person in Illinois if she knew where I could get antique African trade beads similar to what my husband bought while in Nigeria a few years ago, and she set herself on the task. It turns out the founder of this organization was going to Nigeria soon, and he agreed to shop. He knew of a reputable dealer, and since these beads are inexpensive when you buy them at the source and not from an importer, we decided to barter—book covers for beads.
Just this week I received my package of beads, and I am overwhelmed. I was expecting a couple of strands, but I was given seven full strands of pre-colonial beads, and they are all beautiful. From what I understand, the term "pre-colonial," when used in Africa, refers to the colonization of Africa by the Europeans, so these beads date back to the late 1800s and very early 1900s.
I can't explain my fascination with these things. Maybe it's because the world where they were made is so foreign to me, so far removed from anything I have ever known. Maybe it's because the process of making these beads out of old glass ground into sand is hundreds of years old and has been passed down from generation to generation. Craftsman still make these beads using the same process, but this is no hobby. This is their livelihood.
Mostly, I use these beads to make earrings, and I have been asked to make a pair for one of the people responsible for sending me this mother load. It will take me days just to sort through all the options and choose the perfect combination of colors.