I recently learned about the tradition of Mali Wedding Beads and wanted to know more, so I researched it. The Mali wedding necklace is called "Don Don Sole", and the tradition is to present it to Mali brides for their wedding day. Like many African Trade Beads, these multicolored, bulb shaped, glass beads were originally made in Czechoslovakia and later traded to Africa. The beads were re-threaded on twisted cotton in Mali so that they swivel completely around the cotton cord.
Collectors of fine African Trade beads categorize them by the region in which they find them or where they are most commonly worn. I was lucky enough to run across a contemporary first-person account (from a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to a village in Mali) of a wedding in which this type of necklace was used, and here's the story.
In Mali, marriages are almost always arranged. It is very costly for the family of the groom, because he has to present the bride's father with large amounts of kola nuts. Kola nuts are a traditional stimulant – they are chewed and spit out. As a gift, they are a symbol of respect.
Weddings take place in April and May because of the economy in this village. Their main cash crop is potatoes, which are planted in December and January; once they are harvested and sold, families can repay their loans and use the leftover money to build houses and pay for weddings. The wedding ceremony is composed of two parts – a civil ceremony at the mayor's office in the morning, and a religious ceremony at the mosque after the two o'clock prayer.
The wedding the Peace Corps volunteer had the privilege of witnessing began around 10:00 a.m. The members of the tribe drove across the village in a caravan of motorcycles, honking as loudly as possible. They converged at the mayor's office -- all the brides and grooms, and their various family members, crowded into the conference room. Many children from the village gathered in the courtyard, hanging in the windows to watch the proceedings.
The couples were lined up in the order they would be married. When it was their turn, they sat at the head of the table next to the two officials from the mayor's office who did the paperwork. They would record the names of the bride and groom and their parents, date of birth, and which village they came from. They recorded the dowry (always 10,000 CFA, or about $20, to be paid to the bride), and whether the couple chose the options of polygamy of a polygamous or monogamous marriage; the witness asked the secretary and her host father, the former mayor, if anyone had ever chosen monogamous, and they both said no.
As the brides waited, they covered their faces with veils. Our friend eventually realized this was because most of them were crying. When it was their turn, they had to take the veil off, and they all managed to stop crying except one, who cried through the whole process This was especially sad because crying is regarded very differently here – it's really serious, and in general, adults just don't -- though it should be noted that the girl brides were all 16-18 years old.
The grooms each had a folded piece of cloth over one shoulder; the bride's father's older brother gives that to him as a sign of his approval. Once all the important information was written down, the official would ask the groom three times if he wanted to marry the bride, then ask the bride three times if she wanted to marry the groom. He also talked about polygamy, then asked both if they agreed to such an arrangement. When he was done, the bride, groom, and a witness for each signed the documents (actually fingerprinted because most were illiterate). The witnesses were not their parents, who did not come to the mayor's office, but a brother of their fathers. Then the couple went into the mayor's office, where they were give advice before they left.
Afterward, celebrations were held at both the bride's and groom's families' houses. Groups of men and women were sitting separately, and people came by to greet the family and say blessings. And eat. After the 2:00 prayer, the women went to a hut outside the mosque, where private religious ceremonies were held.
In Mali, women may legally marry at age 18 and men at age 21. The marriage code does allow girls under age 15 to marry with parental consent or special permission from a judge. Women's rights organizations have opposed this provision as contradicting international conventions that protect children through the age of 18. Underage marriage is a problem throughout the country, with parents in some cases arranging marriages for girls as young as nine. Many girls, often even below the age of 13, have lost their lives because of medical complications resulting from early marriage. Medical specialists have noted that child brides were often the victims of female genital mutilation, which exacerbates the possibility of complications from infection and childbirth. Family law favors men, and women are particularly vulnerable in cases of divorce, child custody, and inheritance rights, as well as in the general protection of civil rights. Women have very limited access to legal services due to their lack of education and information, as well as the prohibitive cost. For example, if a woman wants a divorce, she has to pay approximately $60 to start the process, a prohibitive amount for most women.
Mali BeadsSuch facts make the custom of wearing the beads even more poignant. African girls often wear beads and triangular glass talismans braided into their hair to bring protection as well as to symbolize fertility. Blue beads represent the purity of the sky; white ones are for health; and violet represents a dove -- the symbol of gentleness and love. Bead work continues to unite Africa; it artistically communicates cultural, religious, political and social values in a symbolic language. It also unites brides across continents as a symbol of art and love.