Georgina Fofana celebrates sisterhood with Ghanaian waist bead culture

·8 min read

Lombard resident Georgina “Gina” Fofana wants to get Chicagoland waisted — as in getting adorned with strands of decorative Ghanaian beads worn around the hips and waistline.

For the past year, the native of Ghana and teacher at East Garfield Park’s Learn Charter School Network’s Campbell Campus has been teaching women about the cultural significance of waist beads, traditions she learned throughout her life.

Through her company, Ayebea’s Charming Beads, Fofana encourages women to embrace themselves as they are. Under the moniker Jerk-N-Waisted, Fofana has been hosting bead gatherings (with a side of jerked chicken, plantains, Jollof rice, and cabbage) to spread this message and bring together a community of women. According to Fofana, females put waist beads on other females to connect and bond with one another.

“There’s a song in Ghana where a man asks ‘Who loves me?’ He responds ‘Himself, me,’” she said. “He asks other people who loves him, but he started by saying me.” Fofana says the same applies when it comes to women in America. “We got to start with us ... got to start with you.”

Fofana is adamant that waist beads are not about weight loss. Instead, Ghanaian waist beads are about love, self-care, sisterhood, beauty, empowerment and community. They are placed on women and youth in similar fashion to the Dipo ceremony performed by and for Krobo women in Ghana — a ritual that takes place when a girl gets her menses, wherein the women in her life celebrate the rite of passage by adorning her body with traditional beads and jewelry that have been passed down from generations.

“You won’t find a Ghanaian lady that has one strand of beads on or two or three. There’s usually more,” Fofana said. “I have 15 on right now. We believe that the more you have, the more beautiful it looks. The bigger beads have a different meaning; the different colors can represent the wealth or social standing of the family. I always wear bracelets that have some of those because I am a representation of my culture in this country. So, I wear a lot.”

Fofana helps customers choose beads that speak to them and then she ties the waist beads around their torso.

“It’s a symbol of feminine beauty,” Fofana said. “All my beads are named with intention. I make sure that the person who wears it has a way of having something that reminds them of themselves — their beauty, humanity, femininity. I want the waist beads to serve as a reminder, when things get chaotic for you to find that sense of peace and a sense of calmness.”

Other knowledge that Fofana drops on the masses:

  • Waist beads are much like undergarments, private — and shared only with significant others (not for public consumption);

  • There are different strands for women and girls;

  • Bead colors hold their own significance. Dubri is the color blue in Akan, symbolizing healing, harmony, truth and devotion. Ankaahono signifies self-confidence, courage and energy through the color orange. Tumtum or black translates to power, authority and protection. She named a strand of beads Adwo, which symbolizes one’s ability to keep our inner peace and calm when we are faced with difficulty and chaos. Fofana said the traditional beads serve as a reminder to keep one’s cool with things get hard.

Her favorite strand is the Yaa Asantewaa, a symbol of strength, bravery and resistance. Yaa Asantewaa was the Queen mother of Ejisu (a Ghanaian city) and gatekeeper of the Golden Stool, a warrior queen who fought back against British imperialism.

“I’m all about the strength of women,” Fofana said. “As Black women, we are called to do things and step up and make decisions or do things that men are not capable of doing. Asantewaa is my hero. I created a strand that honors her, women, our courage and devotion ... made from crystals and heart-shaped beads that glow in the dark because as Black women we always find a way to shine in the midst of darkness.”

Teacher Keisha Washington adorns herself with 20 waist beads and a few anklets that are former waist beads. At a recent East Pilsen Jerk-N-Waisted event, the mother of three, said she got her first waist beads from another business. However, Fofana provided her the historical knowledge of Ghanaian waist beads.

“After losing my sister from ovarian cancer, Fofana provided me some colors that symbolized strength. I said I want them all,” Washington said. “I wear them in symbolism of different things that I may be experiencing at that time in my life. Waist beads also help me embrace my figure. Instead of looking at any flaws, I look at all the great things my body does have to offer. When it comes to making me feel comfortable with my body, beautification, that is what my beads do for me. I started out with two. And that set is now on my ankle.”

Washington is on her third set of waist beads. When a change is needed, the waist beads are cut off and saved or repurposed for other female relatives. Washington has already placed her former waist beads on her teenage cousins, while offering affirmations in doing so: “You are beautiful. You are loved.” The same as when Fofana put her strands on her.

Washington makes sure that she speaks positivity into whomever she’s placing the beads on, much like Fofana. Washington may go to 21 strands because Washington wants to get a mother and daughter set to honor her 4-year-old daughter, Terri.

Having conducted a rite of passage for her daughter with waist beads, Fofana, a Loyola University alumna, is open to doing others, including Washington’s.

“I believe in the village and Fofana is a part of my village when it comes to raising my children,” Washington said.

Jarritta Jay Scott, proprietor of SKN by J. Scott, a brand of handmade whipped body butter, oils and scrubs, wears 13 waist beads. And she’s looking to get more. The Dolton resident laughs when she talks about how addicted she’s become to them.

“I got my first two from Fofana and I just kept wanting to add more,” Scott said. “It makes me feel more confident. When I look at myself in the mirror in the morning, when I’m getting dressed and it just makes me feel more comfortable about my midsection. I’ve struggled with having very low self esteem. And now, wearing these I know I’m pretty. I may be plus-sized, but I look good. You can’t tell me nothing different.

“It’s a new beginning of my attitude for me and how I look at myself. I don’t care how no one else looks at me. How I look at myself, I’m the best thing walking. My confidence is through the roof. This helps me to be more confident when I look at myself.”

What started as a personal passion that resulted in many a free gift to friends is now an idea that Fofana wants to build into a brick and mortar location within the next year. With waist beads ranging in cost from $11 per strand to $28 per strand, Fofana’s job is to tell customers how Ghanaian bead traditions are done, but not force others how to wear them.

“I usually suggest women start off with three strands because one strand you’re really not gonna see it, and because the number three has significance in Ghanaian culture,” Fofana said. “When feeding my daughter at her puberty ceremony, I fed it to her three times. When libations are made, it’s done three times honoring God, the earth, and our ancestors. There is significance in doing things in threes. They can add to them whenever they want to. They can take some off. They can switch.”

Born and raised in Ghana with waist beads being part of her entire life, Fofana reiterates waist beads are not a trend, but a tradition that spans time from being used in trade to serving as a tool for babies and their growth.

“I don’t want people to wear them because they see them on TikTok,” she said. “I want people to know the traditions before they wear them. It’s more of a self love type thing ... it helps beautify me as I am right now, learning to accept me in this moment.” With the momentum that her communal Jerk-N-Waisted parties are gathering, she wants her endeavor to be a safe space for women to come and not just buy waist beads, but sit among one another and talk.

“I will share my culture with you. You can share whatever it is that you want with me to unload. I’ll lend you that ear, so you can relax and go back home. I want to be that space,” Fofana said.

To book a gathering or consultation, reach out to ayebea@jerknwaisted.com or visit ayebeasbeads.com.

drockett@chicagotribune.com