Monday, August 27, 2012

African Beads—Timeless

Of all the things I thought I’d be doing with my free time, I didn’t imagine this—I made rosaries over the weekend.

The other day, I was talking to my friend Katy about how I have this collection of pre-Colonial African trade beads. For a couple of years, I designed book covers for a non-profit American publisher that sells books in English-speaking countries in Africa, and because I did the work pro bono, they paid me in trade beads (my suggestion). My husband visited Nigeria once and brought back strings of these beads, and I love the things.

I have used these beads to make all sorts of stuff—earrings, bracelets, necklaces, pendents. to decorate purses… Katy asked if I would make a rosary for her. Of course, I would. So, she gave me one I could use for parts, and I got to work.

A rosary needs a cross or crucifix and a charm of Mary with three links, and the beads are strung just so. The dangly part has five beads—two Our Father beads and three Hail Mary beads. Then comes the Mary charm, and then the strand, which consists of five decades, ten Hail Mary beads each divided by the Doxology and the Lord’s Prayer.

I didn’t know this about the rosary until this weekend, of course, having been raised a conservative Baptist. I'm not one anymore, but I've never been curious enough about rosaries to learn anymore than "Hail Mary, full of grace, our Lord is with you...blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus." (the ellipses represent the words I can't remember)  I’m not certain, but I’m pretty sure that as a child, I would have been slapped in the face if I learned anything about the rosary, and especially if I owned one of my own.

In our church, and in our house, Catholics were as bad as those charismatics, you know, those Pentecostal types with their hand raising and speaking in tongues and the like. I remember once at a Sunday night service, during the 27th verse of Just As I Am or something, a visiting woman standing in the back was waving her arms as we sang, and the ushers escorted her out of our midst.

Our neighbors were Catholic, lovely people my family adores to this day, but my father would sit on the couch looking out through the picture window that faced those neighbors, framing their house and yard like a TV screen, and he would grumble about them going to mass on Saturday night so they could be lazy and sleep in on Sunday. That was his interpretation at least, but really, I think he was just jealous that they didn’t have to go to church on Sunday. His way of getting out of it was to get dressed and then hold his side, doubled over as if in pain, and say “I got a crick in my ribs. I can’t go to church.” Yep, the Catholics were bad folks.

And blessings on them when Notre Dame played Alabama. Roll Crimson Tide all over those sorry people with their Marys and their crucifixes and their nuns.

Well, that was a long time ago, and I have evolved to know better than to think Catholics are misguided people in need of a thorough judging. What they need are creative rosaries made with old beads from Ghana. This tiny country in West Africa is mostly Christian—and mostly Catholic, I think—because missionaries discovered the place along the coast in the 1300s. Before that, it’s hard to say what people of what is now Ghana believed beyond their traditional practices. What we do know is they have been making these beads for more than 1,000 years, mastering a process of pounding glass into dust and coloring it in unique ways.

This practice of bead making has weathered a series of religious influences—Christian, Islam, traditional, Hindu—and not one of those missionaries or movements has had any affect on the process or the results of the craft. And now I’ve got bags of the things in all colors and sizes, and I find satisfaction in putting them to good use, whether it’s to make a pair of earrings for an Evangelical or a rosary for a Catholic or a pendent for someone who is neither. Fitting, don’t you think?


savannah said...

gorgeous beads, sugar, and a very ecumenical attitude! xoxoxoxo

risa said...

I also agree that African beads are timeless. These speak of culture, beauty and mystery. These are wonderful and can be matched to any outfit whether plain or printed.