Krobo Beads: Bidding for Tourism Boom – By Kofi Akpabli

Just like diamonds in Western culture, beads are a Krobo girl’s best friend. Throughout her life, custom requires that a Krobo woman’s waist be adorned with the pretty little gems. But more than that, beads from the area have appealed to people of different backgrounds. Today, the loveliness of the native pearls has shone beyond the borders of Ghana.

In Kroboland beads are the nuggets that validate traditional custom. With a great tradition and growing international appeal, ‘Made- in- Krobo’ beads offer the rallying point for increased tourism activity in this area of the Eastern Region. Indeed, they can be obtained in other places but in terms of utility and symbolic value, beads don’t mean as much as they do in Odumase, Agormeda, Agormenya, Somanya and Asesewa.

A critical trend in tourism today is a growing shift from beach and urban attractions to communities that have indigenous cultural and natural resources. The cultural tourism segment has become an important source of employment for local people. Tourists want to spend more time in such communities; interact with folks, learn about their crafts and take some back home with them.

According to the UNCTAD Report for 2010, creative industries (visual arts, traditional textiles, handicrafts, performing arts, etc.) are among the most dynamic sectors in world trade. Over the last decade, international trade in creative goods and services have experienced an unprecedented average annual growth rate of nearly 10 per cent.

Talking to a range of people within Krobo that include, a queenmother, information officers, beads makers and sellers, one gets the feeling of a new dawn for a livelihood process that is closely linked to a people’s heritage.

Currently, tourist arrival in the area is on the increase. What attracts them most is the twin Krobo Hills as well as Mount Yogaga, the highest peak in the area. For those interested in water bodies, Kpong Lake is close with Boti Falls only about 30 kilometres away.

The good news is that there is enough about beadscraft to engage the interest and money of tourists substantially. Spending time to observe the manufacturing process has become a hobby for tourists. Big sales outlets include Cedi Beads (Krobo Girls School Junction) TET Beads (Ogbojo) and TEK Beads (Dodowa Road).

Agormenya beads market occurs Wednesdays and Saturdays. The weekly beads market in Koforidua (Jubilee Park every Thursday) has also become a tourist rendezvous, ranking high on the itinerary of tour operators. Truth is, the suppliers at the Koforidua beads market trek from Bomasu, Huhunya, Subrino, Otsrokpe, Kyebi Tei, all within the Krobo Districts of Yilo and Manya.

Krobo beads are precious stones that have stood the test of oven fire. They are made from crushed recycled bottles or glass. In the ancient past, however, natural materials such as shells, stones and bauxite were used. Today, there are three types of Krobo glass beads, namely: powder glass, translucent and painted glass beads.

The bottles and other glass items are first washed and sorted by colours. These are then broken into small fragments for making translucent beads, or pounded with a metal mortar and pestle, and sieved to get a very fine powder for making powder glass beads. The different colours are achieved by using dye chemicals.

Small clay moulds are created to contain the different shapes. Stalks are sticked in the middle to leave holes for threading the beads. They are then baked in traditional kilns made of termite clay. Translucent beads, for example, demand heating for almost an hour at a temperature of 850-1000 degrees celsius.

As soon as they are removed from the kiln the shape is finalised. The beads are left to , slowly in the moulds to prevent them from cracking. Finally, they are washed and polished by rubbing them forcefully with water and sand on a smooth stone.

In the local dialect beads are known as Muoe. And for a Krobo lady (Kloyo) to be properly dressed, then we are talking loads of assorted beads. These are worn round the wrists, neck, knees, ankles and of course, the waist. But beads are not only for the Krobo woman. They are unisex and thus men also spot them, especially as bracelets.

Various types of beads are used for various purposes. A blue, one Korli, is put on children. It signifies the pride of fatherhood. Leh, a reddish one is mainly for the dipo rite. It is also used for funerals. Tovi is an important black bead. In contrast, there is the white one, Nyoli. When they are freshly delivered of a baby, women wear white beads to signify victory. Other beads are zagba (yellow), powa and sikisaka.

During festivals notably, Ngmayem, (last Thursday in October) there is a gracious display of beads by celebrants. When worn, variety and volume show wealth and social status. Beads worn can be used to identify families. They also communicate the mood of an individual wearer or the entire community.

The dowry a man pays must include beads and a red loincloth (subu/i). The traditional jewellery is used in child-naming ceremonies, installation of royalty and burial rites for the dead. A well-known use is at the initiation of young women at puberty known as Dipo. A young maiden’s naked body, including her torso, arms and legs, are decorated with so many beads that the ogling eye really has little to see.

Beyond customary rites and aesthetics, Krobo beads are used to achieve shapely curves of the human body. This is done by ringing up specific parts of the body from childhood. (There are special ones for children, male or female.) Over time, the woman grows well-rounded in the right places.

A leading queen mum, Esther Kpabitey said that beads are used not only for cultural purposes but as economic stock. ‘‘Collecting and owning beads is an investment,’’ Mama Kpabitey explained. ‘‘In our society when one is in debt one can sell beads to pay up.’’

According to the older generation, beads are put to certain creative ways that wouldn’t have been possible in bygone times. For example, it is used to form the Holy Rosary. In the words of Awotsey Tettey an elderly beads dealer, ‘‘Many years ago this would be impossible, because our tradition did not go with Christianity.’’

Another modern use by the youth is to create beads in the shape of letters of the alphabet. A young lady, for example, wears around her waist beads that spell out the name of her lover. (Actually, there are romantic beads that glow in the dark!) In white weddings, some ladies are innovative enough to use beads in dressing up. For the tourist market, the use of beads in shirt buttons, hand bags and purses makes exciting souvenirs.

Aid to Artisans Ghana (ATAG), an NGO in crafts has for 17 years worked with the bead-making communities. ATAG works to ensure that the bead makers (both men and women) master not only the crafts (beads making, pottery, basketry, calabash craft, etc.) but also social skills and entrepreneurship.

Apart from generating employment and enhancing the income levels of the artisans, ATAG has also supported the bead makers to design and develop different types of beads shapes. This serves as mixed media for other contemporary craft products like chandeliers, candle holders, bedside lamps, napkins, rings, Christmas decor, among others. These have attracted the export markets in the USA and Europe.

The production of beads itself has seen a lot of change. According to Henry Narh, a local beads maker, aspects of the process have been taken over by machines. ‘‘We used to grind the bottles like we ground cassava for kokonte. This was tedious and hurt our eyes. Thank God there are grinding machines today,’’ said Narh. One of such mills is owned by the Queen Mothers Association.

Information gathered from the District Chief Executive’s office at Odumase shows that on a rather low key an international beads festival started last year. The objective is to institutionalise it into a big cultural event on the national calendar.

What makes Krobo beads distinct is that they are colourful. Compared to beads from other places they are also typically round. They are also able to create clear sounds. Around a woman’s waist, Krobo beads make that inviting ‘chachacha’ sound. Other beads can’t beat that.

It is no secret that many men are tickled by this. But (men oh, pause) until a man is married or engaged to a woman, custom does not allow him to watch, let alone touch the beads around her waist!

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