By Godwin Eigbe
In most part of West Africa, coral beads are true signs of royalty. It adorns kings and members of the royal household. Nobles in many West African kingdoms distinguish themselves with beads.
The beads are of different varieties and come in various shapes, sizes and colours. In most kingdoms, any man sent a bead by the king is automatically made a chief while coral beads sent by a king or prince to a young single girl makes her his betrothed and she is bound by tradition to accept them. Also in many parts, commoners and royalties do not wear the same type or shape of beads.
Coral beads have strong presence in traditional marriages in many West African cultures. It is common to see a bride’s hair adorn with beads while she wear some as necklaces. In some culture, a beaded sleeveless blouse is worn by the bride. The grooms are not left out. Most cultures provide for a single long bead necklace dropping to upper abdomen while others allow for more.
In some kingdoms of West Africa, the bead you wear with accompanying staff of office tells your royal status. In some more, the cloak which in some cases is hand-weaved cloth is also of great significance.
In most African culture, a person is celebrated thrice. When he is born, when he gets married and when he dies. For burial ceremonies most cultures provide for the children of the deceased to wear beads over their black or white attire as the case may be, in honour of their departed loved one especially those who are elderly or of royal standing.
To ex-communicate or suspend a chief in some West African kingdoms from the Royal Council headed by the king, their royal beads along with their staff of office (if there is any) is taken from them. In others, the king can pronounce a ban on certain citizens forbidding them from using their royal beads which means they have be suspended.
In Benin Kingdom two types of beads are prominent; they are IVIE and EKAN which belong to the coral family PHYLUM COELENTERATA. EKAN has a sharp shining appearance. Though grayish, it reflects like a prism. IVIE the other species is described by some people as Precious Coral and is mostly won by Kings and Chiefs in Yoruba Kingdoms and Benin.
Coral beads are mined from coral stones in the oceans and polished as jewelries. The Mediterranean Sea was a major source of coral beads found in Africa between 1200 AD and 1800 AD. More recently the Sea of Japan has been found to have a lot of coral growth along its bed.
Oral tradition credits Oba Ewuare as the man who brought coral beads to Benin. About 1400 AD he had engaged the Portuguese and Spaniards, who are likely sources, in barter trade.