Making Botswana: Beadwork

This series of blog posts is inspired by objects from Botswana which have been researched as part of the Making African Connections project, in partnership with the Khama III Memorial Museum and the University of Sussex. Many of these were collected by Reverend William Charles Willoughby, a missionary who lived and worked in what was then Bechuanaland in the 1890s. 

Each blog will explore connections between the objects in the collection and the history and contemporary culture of Botswana. There is an abundance of beadwork in the collection, in many styles, colours and designs. Beadwork has been present in Southern African since prehistory. Traditional crafts have continued and adapted over thousands of years to remain relevant to contemporary cultures in Botswana today. 

Enduring materials

several strings of small flat white beads on a leather thong
R4007/17 19th century Ostrich eggshell beads

One of the striking materials in the collection is ostrich eggshell. Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of people decorating their bodies with jewellery is of ostrich eggshell beads from the Limpopo region of neighbouring South Africa, from 74,000 years ago. The material is versatile and still in use, making ostrich eggshell beads one of the longest running cultural traditions in the world. In the following clip Khama III Memorial Museum curator Scobie Lekhutile talks about the process of collecting and creating beads:

The material is still used today by artisans such as Dikgwa Kaki Matlakola, who made this necklace and earring set which the Brighton Museum team purchased from the National Museum of Botswana’s annual Basket and Craft Exhibition. The eggshell beads are augmented with vegetable dyes (the light brown beads) and burnt decoration (the black beads).

earrings and necklace set made of ostrich eggshell beads
WAENT000148 Contemporary artisan jewellery by Dikgwa Kaki Matlakola, 2019

How do you like your eggs classified?

ostrich eggshell
BC425476

Willoughby also collected three ostrich eggs. In the decades since they were donated to Brighton Museum, these had been moved to the Booth Museum of Natural History as they were treated as natural history specimens. They have a different type of accession number to the rest of the collection for this reason. In fact, the thick eggshells would have been used as a sturdy container for liquids. A small hole was made and the contents removed. The shell could then be filled with water and sealed with a stopper made from a plant which had antifungal properties. This helped to keep the contents fresh for longer periods. These objects raise questions about how museums classify objects – should they be treated as eggs, or as containers?

Colour and craft

While ostrich eggshells have been made into beads for thousands of years, more recently Southern African cultures have become associated with beadwork designs which use brightly coloured glass beads to create patterns. The earliest examples of glass beads found in the region are from Indian Ocean trade, around 2,500 years ago. Later, traders from the Middle East introduced glass beads made in Europe, especially Venice. Arriving at ports in East and South East Africa, the beads were distributed inland to Botswana through local trade networks. 

 

While in Serowe, the team interviewed local beadworker Emily Botshelo about her craft.

Colours and cultural identities

leather clothing decorated in red and white beads
R4007/19, R4007/6

The colours and designs used in beadwork are associated with different cultures within the region. Two objects in Willoughby’s collection have distinctive beadwork decoration which is associated with Kalanga people. Key colours for the kalanga are red, representing blood, or life, and white representing purity. These are present in these two garments.

a selection of colourful beadwork

There are examples of beadwork styles associated with other cultural groups in the collection. The necklace above on the left, R4007/16, also collected in Bechuanaland by Willoughby, has a clear Xhosa influence in the colours and design. It has been featured in a display at Brighton Museum, curated by Tshepo Skwambane, as part of a Xhosa woman’s outfit. The middle piece, R4007/15, shows Xhosa, Kalanga and Tswana influence. The headpiece on the right, R4007/24, is typical of styles worn by !Kung people.

While some of these styles are associated with one particular group, other objects within the Museum’s collections demonstrate the mixing of cultures that is an important part of Botswana’s, and Southern Africa’s, history. 

colourful beadwork necklace
R1346/2

This necklace from Bechuanaland was purchased by the Museum from a Brighton dealer in 1913, but may have been made earlier. The colours and patterns show Nguni and Ndebele design influences and speak to the cross-cultivation of cultures and sensibilities in the country. 

These designs reflect cultural identity at a particular place and time when the objects were collected. While some styles endure, they may not always resonate for people who live in the region today. As Tshepo Skwambane explains ‘People have lost touch with those elements that … used to make up the cultural identities. They’ve been forgotten, and replaced by European understanding of culture, heritage and being.’

Contemporary affiliations: the Botswana flag

blue flag with a black and white horizontal stripeWhen Botswana became independent in 1966, a new blue, black and white flag was adopted. The black and white band in the centre of the flag represents both the coming together of different peoples and the stripes of the zebra, the national animal of Botswana. The pale blue represents rain, called ‘pula’ in Setswana. ‘Pula’ is also an expression meaning ‘greetings’ or ‘good luck’, as well as the name of the national currency. 

Today you can see the colours of the national flag reflected in beadwork accessories and clothing. These are bought by tourists, but also by the Batswana themselves, and represent pride in and affiliation with Botswana. These examples were collected by the Brighton Museum team during their trip to Botswana in 2019.

blue and white beadwork, a cotton textile printed with the Botswana crest
From left: WAENT000149.4 Necklace made by Guyapo Boitshepo; WAENT000149.8 kilt pin; WAENT000149.7 kanga wrap featuring the Botswana coat of arms, adopted in 1966, all purchased in Gaborone, Botswana, 2019

Rachel Heminway Hurst, Kathleen Lawther and Tshepo Skwambane, Making African Connections project

5 Responses

  1. John D Anderson

    Thank you. We saw some of this work when we lived in Botswana and worked in schools there 1993 to 6. We bought baskets and mats but not bead work. We saw in the salt pans drilled ostrich egg beads dating back thousands of years.

    I cannot remember how much beadwork they had in their Gaborone museum. I wonder whether this collection should at least in part be in Botswana. What do you think?

  2. Keitumetse

    Nice, succinct history on Botswanas ornaments nd traditional wear.. Ostrich egg shell use on beads etc pioneered by the native khoisan people..

  3. Nomvula

    My name is Nomvula Letsatsi dealing with people who suffere from Epilepsy and cronicle teaching them Skills development carpet, knitting, juwellari and beadwork. I want to teach other countries skills development from 206_until now.

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