Beloved Beadwork

As a teenager growing up in the former Rhodesia, I used to buy glass beads from a general-dealer in Manica Road, in Salisbury. The beads were sold in skeins, threaded on cotton, and were priced by weight. I never did anything with them, just kept them in jars for their beauty.

Years later, in the Transkei, I befriended the cultural historian Joan Broster (1916-2009) who is best remembered for her extensive knowledge, collections and documentation of amaXhosa beadwork. She had spent sixteen years living and working among the amaQwathi, a subgroup of the amaThembu, at Qebe in the Engcobo district of south-western Transkei. From the early 1950s she began collecting amaThembu beadwork. Joan introduced me to the language of beads and I came to understand that – beautiful as beads might be in glass collecting jars – when they are woven into items of adornment, their beauty deepens, becoming poetic and intrinsic. 

Another friend, Sue Ainslie, who had been a trader at Coffee Bay, told me how a woman, in traditional attire, had once come into the store without money, and how she had removed her beaded tobacco pouch and offered it for barter.

In more recent times, glass beads have formed the core of my friendship with Anna Richerby of Beloved Beadwork. So it is an honour to see, inscribed upon the wall of her new shop at Montebello, lines from this poem inspired by what Sue Ainslie had told me and by the straightened times following poor rains that I later witnessed in Tsakana, a village in the Transkei.


Shall I sell my father’s beads?
Tsakana, Transkei 1984

Shall I sell my father’s beads
now that the rains are late
and Nkululeko is not back from the mines
now that the pumpkins are eaten and there is no grain?
For the corn has withered and the cows grown thin.

My mother threaded them and placed them round his neck
once, when the rains were never late and the corn so tall.
My mother, then a girl, invited him with beads,
with threaded colours, threaded bits of sparkling glass,
into the fields of love and he, my father, wore them proudly

until old age and death.
My mother, her eyes now dim, will laugh still
when she remembers how her threading, not her words,
enveloped him with love.
But now the rain is late, the corn is withered

as she, the threader of the beads,
lies thin and old and patient in the darkness of her hut,
waiting for his voice to ride the morning wind
and call her. Zoleka, the little one, must go to school.
And Zolile too. But the rain is late and the earth so dry.


Beloved Beadwork
”As our name suggests, we make beloved items of personal adornment, using hours of loving labour and perfectly formed, tiny pieces of glass.
We would love to tell you that our work is ‘high fashion’, or ‘modern art’, ‘traditional craft’, ‘exclusive’ or ‘accessible’, but the truth is it is all of those things and more. Beads are a wonderfully democratic medium, they appeal to people from every walk of life, and wearing them makes people feel simply beautiful.
We don’t think of our work as African craft, but rather human craft. A love of beads is a universal phenomenon, devoid of ethnic divisions. For true beaders, the ability to bead comes from within. It is a deep mental ability to predict pattern and form, to weave a bead whilst thinking six beads ahead.
Founded in 2009, our company of twelve women is committed to the preservation and elaboration of the beadwork tradition. We also have a keen interest in economic justice, which is why we will be moving to a system of Common Ownership over the next year.”


Shall I sell my father’s beads?
From The Unknown Child – poems of war, love and longing

Patricia Schonstein Pinnock
African Sun Press
English edition available from African Sun Press
Swedish edition from Bokforlager Tranan
Endorsed by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and J.M. Coetzee

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