The Wonderful Beaded Dolls
of Africa’s Ndebele People
Known for their colorful and distinctive culture, the Ndebele are
one of the smallest of seven tribes in South Africa. The Ndebele
and the Zulu are descendents of the Nguni, an ancient group of people
who lived in the Great Lakes area of East Africa, and the Ndebele
speak a language similar to that of the Zulu. Their homeland is
in the northeastern part of South Africa, where they live in a homestead
or cluster of huts called a “stad.”
The Ndebele proudly declare their identity by painting designs on
the exterior and sometimes the interior of their walls. The Ndebele
began painting their walls in the 1940s. Prior to that, they lived
in grass huts. Their designs are exceptional due to their spontaneity
and originality, which is achieved within a strictly geometric format.
The painting is done freehand, using brushes made from chicken feathers.
Many of the designs that the Ndebele use on their walls, originated
with their early beadwork traditions. While there is no conclusive
theory regarding the introduction of beads into the culture, it
is believed that the Ndebele have used beads for a long time. Czechoslovakian
glass beads were introduced by European traders and adopted by the
Ndebele during second half of the 19th century.
Beads are used to make and decorate clothing. Women traditionally
wear beaded aprons, the style of which indicate a woman’s
marital status as well as whether or not she has had children. Bracelets
and waistbands are made with beads as well. The uniformity of the
rows of beading and the delicate, yet dense, use of the beads is
a testimony to the skill of the artist. In addition to their striking
beaded clothing, Ndebele women are distinctive in appearance because
their legs and neck are completely encircled in rings.
The Ndebele women also make dolls that display the clothing they
wear during various rituals. The dolls are made by hand and beaded
with skill. The dolls’ legs are made of wire, representing
the rings that woman traditionally wear around their ankles. There
are a variety of dolls, each of which carries different cultural
The Sangoma doll represents a revered protector
of society and is known for her good judgement. She is believed
to be able to communicate with the spirits. The head is covered
with fabric. Yarn is used for the hair. The neck rings are made
of metal. Beads are used to embellish the body.
The Ceremonial doll is given to a young woman by
a young man who wishes to announce his intention of marriage.
The Initiation doll wears the traditional dress
of a married woman. Her head is embellished with a crest of beads.
The style of her beaded apron signifies that she is a mother.
Linga Koba. Every four years, hundreds of Ndebele
boys spend two months at a secret location in the mountains undergoing
Wela, their initiation from boyhood to manhood. During
this time, the mother of an initiate wears “Linga Koba”,
meaning long tears, represented by the two strips of beads expressing
the dual emotions she feels, tears of sadness for losing a boy and
tears of joy in gaining a man.
Adapted from the poster series titled questionArte
by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC (Item # 1000 $62.00)
What is it that the Ndebele women express through the dolls
that they make?
• How is it possible that an artwork can show us the feelings,
ideas, or beliefs of an artist?
• Do makers have to feel something in order to express feelings
in the artworks they make?
What was the purpose of the Ndebele dolls when they were
• Was it used to teach people something?
• Were they used as part of a celebration or ceremony?
• What evidence do you have to help you imagine its purpose?
From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
“Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art
in general, can be the most satisfying activity associated with
learning about art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as
they examine and investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations
about meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of
discussing important questions about art. They learn about their
own art-making as they consider what they have accomplished through