Beads of the baTonga of the Zambesi and Lake Kariba.


A baTonga woman's backskirt decorated with beaded chevrons

The baTonga (or baTonka as they are sometimes called) are one of the most interesting minority tribes in Southern Africa and are very different in language and culture from the two majority tribes of Zimbabwe – the Matabele and the Mashona.

The baTonga are fishing folk who originally lived on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River, in what was then called Sothern Rhodesia, but when the river was dammed at the Kariba Gorge in 1960 to create the Lake Kariba – the largest dam in Southern Africa – their land was flooded and they were forced to resettle. Some now live on the shores of Lake Kariba, while others crossed to Zambia on the other side of the river.

A Barbara Tyrrell painting. The kneeling woman wears a beaded skirt while the standing owman wears an older style black hide skirt ..

Both the well known South African artist Barbara Tyrell and a white Rhodesian soldier who visited baTonga territory in the 1970s noted that around 40 years ago the baTonga were still living a tribal lifestyle. The women wore their traditional bead skirts and were bare breasted, and men and women alike had their cheeks scarred, removed their two front teeth, and pierced their noses to insert a stick through the septum. This self disfigurement apparently began when the slave trade was at its height in the latter half of the 19th century.  Aggressive neighbours working for Arab slavers would raid the Tonga, capture them and sell them into slavery – and it was hoped that by disfiguring themselves, they would be less attractive to the slavers. (They were not alone in this, other tribes also resorted to scarification, removing teeth and even inserting lip plugs to reduce their attractiveness to slavers).

Small beaded front apron of the type worn by both women in the drawing. The checked patter nis very popular.

Traditional baTonga women’s dress is distinctive and unique. It consists of two garments – a small cache sexe in the front and a larger back apron, both traditionally made form dark blue indigo trade cloth. The only other items regularly worn were bead belts and necklaces and coiled wire wristbands, plus one other object that was unique to the baTonga – . the little head pad that consisted of a ring of grass covered in cloth, with cowry shells attached around one surface. These rings were actually attached to  the hair and worn  permanently to protect the head when water pots were carried from the river on their heads.

A man's panel ecklace in a zigzag pattern.

The small front skirt was often beaded in small alternation checks or zigzag rows of red, white and blue beads, while the back skirt was decorated with evenly spaced rows of fan-shaped lozenges of red, white and blue beads. The back aprons are made in various sizes, possibly because their owners tended to increase in girth with age, or possibly because the larger skirts could display more beads, and therefore carried more status.

The skirts themselves must be a fairly recent (mid to late 19th century) innovation since trade beads and even trade cloth would have been extremely scarce in this remote area before this time. Barbara Tyrell’s always accurate paintings show one old baTonga woman wearing a black hide apron which probably preceded the beaded cloth ones. 

If the beading of these back skirts in fan shaped lozenges is a fairly recent custom as it appears to be, it was remarkably uniformly  adopted, since the aprons are instantly recognisable even though  quite a few variations were possible in terms of colour substitution – green for dark blue, for example, or the inclusion of a little yellow. One quite noticeable distinction is the row of beads that sometimes edges some skirts- perhaps this is a fashion from one side of the river only, since Lake Kariba effectively divided the baTonga into two populations in two countries.

A cowry shell head pad sewn into the hair as a base for steadying loads on the head

I addition to the distinctive skirts and fore aprons, baTonga women wear beaded neck rings, girdles and headbands, as do baTonga men. They are very skilful  at creating round  geometric neck rings which are made by winding cloth tightly round a thick length of copper wire and covering it with beads. Men often wear a small cloth panel neck ornament decorated with beads  in the same patterns as the women’s cache sexe but much smaller, and necklaces which have the sae decorative element  worn over the chest and the back of the neck are also popular and unique to the baTonga.

The wearing of traditional baTonga costume is dying out, (along with scarification, nose plugs and missing front teeth), and old skirts like the ones shown in this post are getting very hard to find.  At the same time, as with other tribal costumes in Southern Africa, baTonga dress can be modernised as a political statement of cultural identity. I have an outfit from the 1990s which covers a lot more flesh. It is beaded in the traditional colours and patterns, but also includes a fore skirt and a cape.

I am currently offering four examples of baTonga bead work for sale ,  to see them visit

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