Glass from the Gold Coast
by Ettagale Blauer
photos © Jason Lauré

This article, by Ettagale Blauer, was first published in the October 1999 issue of Lapidary Journal. It  is reproduced here with the permission of the author and the photographer Jason Lauré, who took these photographs while on a trip with ABA TOURS.

Think of African beads and two images come to mind: the first, glass trading beads brought from Venice and used in the slave trade, and second, the tiny beads from the Czech Republic, used by myriad African tribal peoples, including the Maasai, Samburu, Zulu, and Yoruba. But there are also glass beads made in Africa, and used by Africans, and these have a rich heritage, too. They are found in one small area of Ghana, commonly known as the Gold Coast among those who learned history before 1957. Located along the coastline of Africa's northwestern "hump," Ghana is a country of great heat, humidity, and cultural history.

On a continent often thought to be unsophisticated in its material culture, Ghana artisans have demonstrated a dazzling use of pattern and material in an abundant range of crafts, from textiles to gold. It is here where the Asante (also spelled Ashanti) flourished; it is the land of Kente cloth and the famous Asante gold weights. The Asante culture was built around a rich tradition often expressed in proverbs - proverbs that have been condensed into single symbols that have meaning for the Asante. Many of the universally understood symbols came to be fashioned into gold weights. Gold weights (actually usually made of brass), were needed in a culture in which gold dust was the medium of exchange, the daily currency. Each merchant carried his personal set of gold weights, usually 12 in all. There came to be thousands of motifs in use, including porcupines, which represent the strength of the warriors, the groundnut, a basic food, and the popular wari board game, also known as mancala.

The kingdom was built on gold; the precious metal was abundant and, as is often the case in African material culture, the material at hand became the material of use. Gold ornamentation, however, was restricted for royal use, although perhaps restricted is not quite the right word. Within the quite extensive royal community, gold was used lavishly to create ornaments of astonishing variety and detail. It was used to such an extent that when the Asantehene, the king of the Asante, was on ceremonial display, he had to be carried - the weight of his gold ornaments, the bracelets on his arms and legs, made it impossible for him to move on his own. His staff was gold, the cloth he wore included woven gold threads, his headpiece was of gold, his daughters' faces were dusted and decorated with gold. The brilliant yellow color of gold, the color that seems to capture the sun itself, was reflected everywhere in the already brilliant sunshine of the Gold Coast.

CEREMONIAL ROLE. But the Asante gold-based culture is limited to the one area. In the southeastern part of Ghana, a more humble object has become the heart of the material culture. One of the oldest cultures, the Dipo-Krobo people, part of the Ga-Adangbe linguistic group, claims a small territory, no more than 70 miles from east to west and from north to south. The heart of this cultural region is the village of Odumase-Krobo, a drive of about 1 1/2 hours from Accra, on one of Ghana's best roads. People such as the Krobo, who live close to the coast, have come into contact with foreigners, both those from other African cultures as well as Europeans. This has influenced their language and some of their economic activities, but their traditional cultural practices have managed to survive.

Each year, the Dipo-Krobo festival takes place, a very old tradition among the Krobo people. The ritual marks the coming of age of Dipo girls, and strands of glass beads play a large role. The villagers prepare for the ritual for an entire year; during the ceremony, which takes place over several days, the girls wear different strands of colored beads and are redressed several times, exchanging one color for another. Although each girl is draped in many strands of beads, these likely are not her personal property. A woman acquires beads throughout her life, and wears them proudly - some she will receive from her mother, some she will buy for herself as she can afford them, and some will be given to her by her husband when she marries. During the ceremony, the girls stay together, secluded from the other members of the group. In the past, the ritual was a crucial step leading to marriage; the girls would be instructed in the ways of their people, learning about the moral and ethical rules and how to fit into their culture.

At the culmination of this ceremony, a girl would be considered eligible for marriage and indeed, in the past, would be married immediately and leave with her husband for her new life. Traditionally, a husband could take his intended away when she was just 14 or 15 years old, but times have changed. These days, a potential husband must carve out his own farm before he can marry and he must pay a dowry to the bride's family. Equally important, girls once considered to be of marriageable age are now more likely to be attending school. The ceremony interrupts their schooling for several days, but when the ceremony is concluded, the girl will likely return to school and continue her education rather than taking up her duties as a very young wife.

The festival usually takes place in April, but the date is not fixed and changes from year to year. The chief determines when the ceremony will start, and it can be delayed for several reasons - the moon may not be in the right position, for example, or the chief may not have gotten enough money together to pay for all the food needed to take care of the many people who come to take part in the ceremony.

Originally, participation in the ritual was strictly limited to pubescent girls. Today, however, if a participating teenage girl has a younger sister, the little one will take part as well, even though she is not considered ready for marriage by any standard - a practical response to the enormous expense involved in staging the ceremony. Because of the costs, there is always the chance that the ceremony might not take place when the younger sister comes of age and so she takes her place in the event even when it is not really appropriate. Although the ceremony is restricted to women, men may observe it; in many cultures, coming of age ceremonies are limited to the one sex.

THE LOST-STRAW METHOD. The beads are made by hand in Odumase- Krobo village using an age-old glass making method, although today, the basic material comes from recycled glass, mainly from imported bottles. The chief beadmaker is a man named Nomada Djaba, known locally as Cedi (pronounced CD). Whether by design or by coincidence, "Cedi" is also the name of the currency in Ghana.

Before the bead making begins, Cedi and his helper form small, round, clay molds that are baked in a kiln. Then the glass bottles are ground into a fine powder which is poured, layer by layer, into five rounded depressions in the molds.

For varied-color glass, two or more layers of different colors are used, then a sharp tool similar to an ice pick is used to draw the color through the mixture. When the section is filled, a straw is placed in the center of each mound of powdered glass; during the firing, the straw burns out, leaving behind a hole for stringing the beads. (One may call this the 'lost straw' method, similar to the lost-wax method of casting gold.) After the beads are fired and allowed to cool, they are washed in order to remove the residue from the kiln. Finally, the beads are strung onto sisal or other fibers to form long ropes.

The appearance of the beads varies from opaque to translucent. Colors range from pale pastels to vibrant primary colors. In addition to matte-finish, translucent beads of one solid color, the bead maker offers variegated colored beads that may include blue and green in the same bead. Some beads are completely opaque with a shiny glazelike finish, while others include central stripes decorated with bits of glittery sand. These are well finished and are smooth to the touch. Not one of the beads is truly round; they are more like cushions with slightly flat ends where they are strung together. Strands are generally comprised of just one color or type of bead, that is, the decorated beads are not mixed with the monochromatic beads. According to Lois Dubin's History of Beads, making beads using powdered glass is a technique nearly unique to Africa. The practice has reached a remarkable level of sophistication since it began, estimated to be some time in the 16th century.

Glass bead making in sub-Saharan Africa is confined to a small area of West Africa in the countries known today as Niger, Nigeria, and Ghana. But bead making is not an industry or even a widely practiced craft, instead usually confined to a group of families. Glass making in Ghana, specifically in the region where the Dipo-Krobo people live, is a 'dedicated' craft, aimed at, and guided by, the needs and demands of the local people; the people need the beads for their ceremonies as much as they enjoy wearing them. The makers and the initial consumers are all found in the same town, and the beads are created almost to order by a small number of craftsmen in one-man workshops.

Cedi, however, also sells beads to visitors who make their way to his own little shop. Outsiders are obvious, as they usually come accompanied by a guide who knows the bead maker and knows the way. On one of our more recent visits, the Italian ambassador to Ghana and his family were also there, making their choices. Some of Cedi's beads are sold in the local market, and he also travels to Europe and the United States to sell his work.

Because the beads are made individually, the colors can be varied at will, unlike the tiny, mass-produced glass beads from the Czech Republic that are favored so widely in other African cultures. Where the availability of the Czech-made beads depends on the middlemen, usually Asian entrepreneurs, who bring them to the markets in the many areas of Africa where they are used, the color of the Ghanaian beads is dictated by the scarcity or availability of the recycled glass. Certain colors are difficult to obtain or not available at all.

In rural Africa, open-air markets take the place of supermarkets. In Odumasi-Krobo, a sprawling market takes place twice a week. Early in the morning on market days, vendors arrive and spread out their merchandise. The goods - whether they are food, fabric, or furniture - become the display. A walk through the local market takes the shopper past stalls offering chickens and goats, vegetables and sandals, hair cuts and cooking pots, anything and everything people in this area need. The bead shopper must know exactly where to go. The bead sellers are tucked into one small area of the market, reached only after a circuitous path through the maze-like aisles. Although there are no set prices in most places, and no price tags or signs, local people who buy the same goods each week know the prices, and a little friendly discussion is all that's needed to agree on a price.

Ghana offers a look at the "real" Africa, where traditions are alive and where cultural expression is part of daily life, not something performed for curious visitors. These strands of glass beads are part of that expression, a continuation of an ancient tradition. They also speak to the universal love of adornment.

For more photos by Jason Lauré visit his website at