Published in the “Daily Guide” on July 14, 2012
By Ryan Schoeck
In Asuafua, in the Ashanti Region of Ghana, David Opoku’s family has been running a small bead-making business since the early 1800s.
“For 200 years, bead-making has been in my family, in this village,” Opoku said. At 27, Opoku, along with his sister and seven other family members, has grown up manufacturing traditional glass bottle beads under the supervision of his elders at the Asamang Co-operative.
“I learned from my mother and my uncle, and they learned from their parents,” he said. Opoku’s mother, Maame Gyaama, who presides over the family’s business, has taught her family’s specific bead-making techniques to her children.
The small concrete building that houses Asamang’s glass bottles, molds* and other supplies used for making the beads is tucked away behind the village’s church. A clay kiln used for firing the beads is located nearby, under a thatched roof just off the back porch. Opoku explained that their process starts in the building, where they crush bottles and other scrap glass using a mortar and pestle. Once the glass has been ground into a fine powder, a ceramic binding agent—imported from the United States—is introduced to the powder. The mixture is then ready to layer into the clay moulds.
The Asamang Co-operative uses two types of disc-shaped moulds for their beads: Krobo and Meteyi. Krobo moulds form beads vertically, while Meteyi moulds form them horizontally. Cassava stems are placed into the center of each stamped mould before the glass powder mixtures are sifted in. The stems, he said, burn off during the firing stage, creating the beads’ center holes. Opoku said that the glass they use at Asamang is collected from the area, with each bottle’s original colour affecting the overall appearance of the beads after the firing stage. After the moulds have been filled with assorted glass powder mixtures, they are then placed in the kiln for several hours, or until the particular glass mixture used has been fused. Specifics regarding details in the manufacturing processes, however, were not disclosed. Opoku remained tight-lipped about the exact temperatures used for various glass powders, as well as the colourant applied post-firing.
“Everyone has a trade secret,” said Agatha Ofori Sampong, the Ghana Tourism Authority’s information officer. She said that while different villages throughout Ghana continue producing traditional, recycled-glass beads, each family employs slightly different manufacturing methods. “Their income depends on it, so they protect their secret ways of making them,” she said.
Uses of Beads
Sampong also said that the beads produced in the villages have many uses. “We use beads for necklaces, buttons and for decoration.” She explained that the bead-making craft is still important to Ghanaians because beads are also used as a means of expression. “It’s part of our tradition,” she said. “Different colours signify different moods and feelings. The colours red and black are used for funerals and mourning. White is used to celebrate, or for a birth. And gold can be used to show off!”
And while certain villages in the Ashanti Region are still producing beads the old-fashioned way, the majority of their business now comes from tourists and visitors. With the rural population in the region currently listed as 48.7 percent, making it the second most urbanized in the country after Greater Accra Region, traditional bead-making is not as prevalent as it once was. According to Ghana’s regional statistics, only 12.2 percent of the region’s economic activity comes from manufacturing.
But despite the numbers, Asamang continues to be a destination for those interested in the traditional bead-making trade. And as part of the next generation of bead makers at Co-operative, Opoku said he knows the importance of preserving his family’s craft. “I have the responsibility of providing for my mother and the family.”