By Yetunde Arebi
Bebedi! Owanbe! Bebedi! Owanbe! This is a short question and answer chorus sang by little children while at play. The objective of the song is to find out who, in the group, has the biggest and most beautiful backside.
The girl in the middle then shakes her backside, now called twerking, for the others to judge. Naturally, the one judged most endowed of the group wins the game. Such is the importance attached to the female bum, especially in the African continent.
The female bum represents many things for the African society, just as much sentiment is attached to it. It houses the whole essence of a woman’s feminism and sexuality.
The Bebedi, Jigida or Ileke idi, otherwise known as waist beads are one ornament that have fascinated me for many years. Why? I really have no definite answer.
Perhaps it is because of the beautiful array of blended colours which often glistens against the rays of light when the beads sneak out of their hiding under the clothes, or just the idea that one is wearing something unusual and secrete from what everyone else is wearing. Unfortunately, I have not found the courage to wear one yet. A childhood experience, still fresh in my mind, probably contributed to this.
As a child, I lived with my grandmother, a very loving but strict disciplinarian and daughter of a clergy who took her Christian religion very seriously. However, we lived in Sango, Ebute Metta area of Lagos where a large number of Northerners and Muslim Yorubas also lived.
This gave me the opportunity to interact with and make friends with several Hausa children and fell in love with a few of them. Because their lifestyle was quite different from mine, I was really enchanted by everything about them and I became quite attached to two of them. Ruwa, who was a few years older than me lived next door to my right while Binta, my age mate lived two doors to our right.
Virtually all my spare time, after school and evening lesson, was spent in Binta’s company, in their dimly lit rooms with blue and yellow light bulbs and thick smelling Arabian perfumes. Binta’s mother must have been the most beautiful woman I had ever seen at the time. Tall, dark, beautiful and soft spoken she was always dressed in gold and other shiny ornaments, same with Binta.
Long, drop earrings which my grandmother insisted were unsuitable for children were Binta’s favourites. And she always had a string or more number of beads tied around her waist which she would let me see whenever she got a new one. I loved them and wished I could own a couple too but my grandmother would always say no, insisting that they were for adults.
At about seven years, I did not understand why my friends could wear them and I could not. Then one day, on a visit to Binta’s, her mum gifted me with a very beautiful set, similar to one of Binta’s. I quickly rolled it up my waist and bounced home to show off to my grandmother. Since she could not make one for me, well, my friends have given me one.
What happened that evening formed one of the few childhood experiences I could not understand for a very long time. The beads were not only snapped off me, I received a very good beating as well and told never to go to Binta’s house again. My grandmother insisted the beads were obscene, dirty and for wayward children. I did not understand what the fuss was about, but a few weeks later, Binta came to inform me that she was getting married and moving to somewhere in the North, I later learnt was Kano.
The reality of what happened to Binta did not dawn on me until many years after, as a full grown adult and Journalist, but the memory of my grandmother’s reaction to the beads that night has never left and is often replayed in my mind whenever I see a woman wearing one.
As I grew up, I realised my grandmother was not the only person with a misconception and bias towards the jigida. Just as I have met women who adorn them and even swear to their potential benefits, so have I met people like my grandmother who have serious aversions to them especially because of their sexual undercurrents. Waist beads have, for a very long time, been associated with female sex and sexuality.
They are believed to possess great erotic appeal and the ability and power to provoke sexual desire and deep emotions from the opposite sex. Primarily, a traditional female beauty enhancer, they are worn to accentuate feminism and beauty, drawing focal attention to the hips, bum and thighs as well as their movement. (The sway of the bum as a woman walks) A woman’s chastity and sexual character can be decoded by the use of beads.
It is believed that the movement of the bead as she walks reveals a lot about her sexual morality, either as seductive or reserved. For young African women, wearing of bead was also a symbol of female maturity as they are worn as proof that they have begun menstruation and are ready for marriage, hence, the many gifts of beads to young brides. In fact, in some cultures, the strings of beads are used to hold up the menstruating cloth across the buttocks.
Binta, at seven, was being prepared for marriage! My grandmother knew while I was ignorant of these facts. I now understand why my grandmother broke my beautiful beads and wonder what might have happened to my beautiful and loving friend.
However, sex and sensuality are just a little of the attributes of the beads, and in these attributes perhaps, lie the controversies about the jigida. African waist beads date as far back as early Egyptian history even though the Yorubas and Ghanaians have more robust records of being the source, users and makers of these beads. Waist beads are believed to be sources of great spiritual energy which many link with juju practice.
Traditionally, charmed waist beads are worn by women to ward off negative energy from the body and to close in positive or protective energy around the body. They are especially worn by pregnant women to protect their unborn babies too.
The Yorubas are also very famous for their charmed waist beads. These charms are believed to possess the powers to entice and entrap the opposite sex and even improve their sexual prowess. These attributes no doubt have helped to fuel some of the negativity some associate with waist beads.
Many years back, a very rascally male friend told me about a near death encounter he had with a girlfriend at the time. According to him, he had made advances to the girl for a quite a while before she finally agreed. The long wait had increased his sexual desire for her.
To get her, he said, he had resorted to all the lies he could think of in the code book. What he discovered the day she finally came visiting shocked him to his bones. His fresh, beautiful, university undergraduate wore waist beads with several balls of wool tied around her waist.
This, she said, was why she could not date any guy. Her father had put them around her when she began menstruating, warning her that it was to protect her virginity as well as deal with any guy that got access into her without his permission. She had been so scared ever since and until my friend came along, she had not been with any guy. She told him he would die if they had sex and so could only kiss and make out.
For several weeks he could not get the incident out of his mind and eventually shared it with a couple of his guys. Some believed the girl and told him to call off the relationship while some others insisted it was all a gimmick, either cooked up by the girl or a father to protect her. They were sure nothing would happen to him, while one of them even vowed to date the girl should he end the relationship.
After weighing his chances for several weeks, he decided to go for it and went on to persuade and convince her of the benefits (hmm) she could enjoy from her sexual freedom, if they succeeded. They cut off the waist beads, set it aside to plunge into discovery world. It took several days for them to realise that indeed, the supposed charm was all a ruse by the lady’s father! But what if it had been real, I asked.
“Well, it would have been part of a young man’s fool hardiness and I wouldn’t be telling the story today”, he’d boasted. He said they broke up not quite long after their successful exploration in the forbidden zone began. She is married with kids today too.
Yet, there is far much more to these beautiful pieces of wonder and their use have continued to spread across person and counties even to the pole and belly dancers of the West and Europe. For many women, these beads provide confidence, beauty and balance, especially in a world that daily dictates what a modern or beautiful woman ought to look like. Many testify that wearing them improves their sense of worth and self esteem, making them feel sexy and enjoy their sexuality better.
The beads can also be used to improve and prolong fore play during lovemaking, a male friend of mine told me. According to him, you will have something to run your fingers along as well as count on and since they are worn against the skin, this is another way of playing with your partner. The movement of the beads against the skin between the partners while making love also increases sensation and excitement, making sex more enjoyable, he said.
I am seriously thinking about getting one at this point. I’m just waiting to sum up enough courage. After all, catching a glimpse of shiny waist beads sitting on a well rounded bum does provide great attraction and sexual stimulation. Who will not want to take a second look, especially if worn by a pretty lady.
Not many, I am sure. Besides, I’m told it is also used to cultivate a well rounded hips and bum, which is why mothers wear them for their little baby girls. I may even start with a gold chain and good luck charms, after all, my grandmother is long dead now. God bless her soul! Enjoy the rest of your holiday please. I wish us all a happy, peaceful and prosperous 2015.