Artisanal Beadwork from the Ndebele Tribe

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I saw intricately beaded dolls in many of the arts & crafts stores in South Africa and found out that they were created by the Ndebele tribe.  The Ndebele, a small tribe in the Northeastern part of South Africa, are known for their distinctive beadwork and their colourful houses.

ndebele dolls

Beadwork is used as decoration for their clothes. Women can show off their skill at beadwork through the intricacy of their patterns.  Beads were introduced to the Ndebele by European traders in the late 19th century.

ndebele dolls

Ndebale dolls, made from wire with beaded clothes, are used in certain rituals of the tribe. They come in different sizes.  There are four main types of dolls:

  • The Sangoma doll is considered a protector and a communicator with the spirits.
  • The Ceremonial doll who is given by a young man to the woman he wants to marry. These dolls are made by the mother of the prospective groom. He lays it outside the house of his intended and if she takes the doll inside, she accepts his proposal.
  • The Initiation doll which represents the style of a married woman. with their aprons. The aprons are intricate and tell such details as how many children the woman has.
  • The Linga Koba doll has two long rows of beads representing the tears of a mother whose son is undergoing the traditional ceremony which recognises them as men. She has tears of sadness for losing a boy and tears of sadness for gaining a man.

Ndebele dolls are now not only important culturally for the tribe but exported as a much-needed source of income.

ndebele dolls

Interestingly, although the dolls are all female, the society is patriarchical.  Women create these dolls as a way to make money when there are few other money-making opportunities available for them.

Ndebele woman
Steve Evans

During the mid-twentieth century, when the Ndebele moved from grass huts to more permanent structures, they started painting their homes. The patterns are colourful and evidence a strict geometric form. Many of the designs used for the walls come from their long tradition of beadwork.

ndebele house
image credit: Jerome Bon

I, of course, couldn’t resist buying several of the dolls which are now proudly sitting in my living room.  You can buy them online as well through several websites such as this one.


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