Wearing a brightly-coloured wrap-around dress, Sonia ambles through the crowds at a market in a popular neighbourhood of Lome, a string of tiny red beads dangling from her hips.
“I’m very comfortable wearing waist beads. But it is also a way of attracting men,” says the 24-year-old hairdresser, a coy smile playing on her lips.
In the Togo capital, the fashion for wearing
strings of beads around the waist — an ancient tradition known as ‘djonou’ in the Gulf of Guinea region — has made a comeback in recent years.
Favoured by young women as an object of both beauty and seduction, the djonou also has a spiritual aspect, guaranteeing the wearer the protection of her ancestors.
Some say it can even cure pain in the kidneys.
When worn from a very early age, local lore says the djonou can help bodily development by enhancing the fullness of young girls’ hips.
Over the years, this ritual has fallen into disuse as other, more Western beauty practices took hold, such as the fashion for lightening the skin through creams or wearing makeup.
But many still swear by the power of what is tantamount to a visual aphrodisiac.
“What is currently attracting men is the djonou, especially when the colours are well chosen,”
explains Afi, a 29-year-old shoe seller.
Once worn only in private for the secret pleasure of a husband, by which a woman would send erotic messages depending on the colour or the position, the modern equivalent is meant to be seen in public.
Many are delighted at the djonou’s comeback. Yet some more conservative Togolese are less than pleased that this formerly hidden adornment is now worn openly in an undisguised attempt to allure.
“I often wear my beads when I’m on a motorbike taxi,” Afi says as she sits in front of her stall at Hedzranawoe market.
“I wear four or five strings of beads in two colours around my waist, slightly above the top of my trousers with a cropped top. Many men look at me admiringly,” she says unabashedly, And she’s not alone, with most agreeing that the beads increase a woman’s appeal.
“I can’t go out without wearing beads on my hips,” admits 23-year-old Laetitia who is sitting nearby.
“I have many types in different colours. The ones I wear most are the ones which emphasise my curves when I go to the pool.”
There is a huge variety of different beads on sale at markets across the capital with the cost varying according to quality, size and the number of beads used. Most bead sellers have stalls at Agbadahonou market, including Tanti Abla who is one of the
biggest bead merchants in Togo. “It’s a great source of pride for me to see our
young women taking up this ancient fashion,” says Abla, a woman in her 60s.
“In order to ensure the most effective seduction, a woman must devise a djonou which suits her skin colour and her figure. Medium-sized seed beads that are yellow are advised for women with fair skin. Women with dark skin must use white or
orange,” she says.
“Curvy women must chose small beads.”
But beauty has a price: each djonou costs
between 5,000 and 30,000 CFA francs — the
equivalent of between 7.5 euros to 46 euros ($8.50-$50).
“Women of a certain class can sometimes spend 50,000 or even up to 70,000 CFA francs (75-105 euros/$85-$120) for just a single djonou,” she says.
Even if they are no longer worn for their healing properties, these long strings of beads apparently still bewitch.
Like many men in Lome, motorbike taxi driver Kodjo Badakou said he was delighted to see a return of the beaded waistline.
“I find my fiancee even more beautiful every day she wears a djonou,” he told PALM.