Incwadi Yothando: The Secret Love Language of Beads

Love among the Zulu people was a very private matter. A traditional woman will never say ‘yes,I love you’ because love must always be kept secret. Love messages are transmitted in a most confidential manner - through beads. This exhibition explores the language of beads within Zulu ethnic groups and the significance of keeping this sacred language  alive, while looking at some love letter designs we have in our collection

Amatikiti / NecklaceOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

Complex beaded “love letter” panel necklaces in Zulu society played a fundamental role in ritual courtship at a distance. Young girls crafted “love letters,”  to send to their potential suitors in order to attract the attention of young men who worked away. With the beaded “love letters,” young women could craft secret messages of love to a prospective suitor using colors and patterns understood only by the two of them.

Amaphoco / Love letter necklaceOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

It was considered a sign of great prestige if a male received multiple “love letters” sent from multiple young women, serving as a source of pride for his families and for himself among his peers.

Gcebesha / love letterOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

Incwadi / Love letterOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

Incwadi Yothando Ucu or Ubhala Abuyise means ‘one writes in order that the other should reply'.

Ipasi / Love letterOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

There is a misconception that every piece of beadwork is decipherable in the same way as written correspondence. However, the Zulu ‘love letter has a symbolic message associated with
certain types of beaded necklaces.

Ucu / Necklace by Khulekile MkhizeOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

At the beginning of the courtship between a young girl and boy after they have agreed to become involved with each other, the girl might start with an ucu (simple necklace) made of two strings of twisted white beads to which she attaches one beaded white ring, signifying she is a virgin.

Incwadi / Love letterOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

Color carries great symbolism for example a green ring means a  very young has nonetheless  accepted proposal. As the relationship progressesd she would another ring to show her love evolving.

Hemba Love letterOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

As soon as the man receives this kind of necklace, he will go home to hang up a white handkerchief as a symbol showing that he is in love. The girl does not give it to the man herself, this is all done via the older sister (iqhikiza).

Igcagcane / love letter by Hloniphile ZuluOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

A woman's second love letter features an abundance of red beads and a sprinkling of other colors, symbolizing longing/ At this point, the young man will remove the white handkerchief and replace it with a red one as a gesture of reciprocation.

Ithemba / Love LetterOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

With Zulu men frequently away, "love letters" evolved into communication tools for married couples, not just potential partners. Some letters included alphabetic beads, possibly influenced by colonialism as English literacy was taught in missionary schools.

Iincwadi / Love LettersOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

These changing “love letter” practices can in part be explained by the changing traditional family structure resulting from migrant work and provides a window in time to understand historical changes that transformed beadwork to meet social conditions.

Ithemba necklace / Love letterOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

Communication through beads was widely used by many spheres of Zulu society, an ethnic group notoriously known for speaking in few words. Love letters remain one of the traditions still practiced, yet not to the extent as it used to be.

Iqabane / Necklace by Mkhize NdlovuOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

While some love letters are easily readable with their colours and patterns, many remain a mystery to everyone except the two communicators.

Credits: Story

Paul Mikula
Similo Gobingca
Zinhle Khumalo

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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