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All Dolled Up
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 significance:

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.


Discussion Questions:
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 made?

• 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 their efforts.