The Modern Day making of Kiffa Beads in the Town of Kiffa - Mauritania

In December 2005, after a 4 year absence, my return visit to the town of Kiffa - in the southern Sahara Desert of Mauritania - at long last yielded the opportunity to record the actual making of these fabled  powder glass beads. My grateful thanks go to Ghayda and her family for their kind hospitality and for showing me the way.

I was told that there are approximately 100 ladies in and around Kiffa who can and do make the modern-day varieties of Kiffa beads. There are modern Kiffa to be found in the markets throughout West Africa, but not in the great abundance as some three to four years ago when they were being produced and traded by the sack-full.

Quality is by no means anywhere near the fine workmanship and delicate designs of the early beads, produced anything up to 100 years ago, which are commanding an even greater price than ever before. Despite an estimated 40% of their population being below the poverty line (The World Factbook), Mauritania, with its new military council government following a bloodless coup in August 2005, now seems to consider itself to be a budding 'oil rich state' with frequent local media announcements of fresh discoveries of oil and gas off the coast, intending their country to be at the forefront of its development in Northern West Africa. Consequently all international currencies ( Pound, Euro and Dollar ) have devalued by approximately one fifth against their own Ouguyia currency in the last six months. The honest dealers' prices have only risen a little in that time .. but even after friendly and intense bargaining, the exchange rates make buying any first quality beads in Mauritania a very expensive proposition nowadays.

Although the production methods remain almost exactly the same, the variation in the materials used makes a great deal of difference to the final appearance of the modern beads, as compared to older beads. The remarkably skilled ladies, who were responsible for Kiffa bead production from the beginning of the 20th century, have sadly passed on .. leaving many younger ladies still as skilled in making the beads by traditional methods, but seemingly unable to reproduce such fine intricate decoration with smooth finishes of old.

More thought and possibly .. with the co-operation of my new friends .. some experimentation on my next visit, might unravel the mystery as to why subtle Kiffa bead decoration seems impossible to be reproduced in modern times. If it were possible, I am sure that the fine designs of old would still be being produced today, as all concerned in their production and sale know the enormous difference in value between old and new ..
but none are ever seen.

I hope the following pictorial description of modern-day Kiffa bead-making will be of interest and promote further interest in these unique beads.

 Ghayda, her sister and approximately 23 other ladies  have formed themselves into a co-operative, which strangely has no name. It is purely and simply for them to be able to club together to afford to buy the glass bottles, new beads, supplies of charcoal and Gum Arabic in wholesale quantities, at cheaper bulk prices ( most probably from Nouakchott or Dakar wholesalers ) which are then divided into smaller quantities and shared out between them.

Be assured that these ladies and their families have little money to spare .. they are living in and around the town of Kiffa which, although the second largest town after Nouakchott, is hardly a metropolis of West Africa .. surviving on the usual meagre subsistence culture of a Saharan settlement with a small additional income derived from their bead-making. Beads are made to order to resupply those sold by a friend or family member amongst the dozen or so bead-selling ladies to be found in the market .. or to supply travelling bead dealers who will take them to other markets inside and outside Mauritania .. but locally they are paid precious little for their skills, the same as with most producers of artwork in Africa.

No Kiffa-making factories, no unified mass-production of beads, no workshops .. just a few families with one or two lady members who have learnt the skills using very basic materials and tools .. working in the shade of their tented homes in their normal living areas.

Step 1 - Making the Core Bead
A clear glass bottle is placed under a plastic bag ( for safety ) on the ancient concave grinding stone and broken into small fragments with a round-topped stone. In the bowls can be seen previously finished spherical core beads of different sizes, awaiting decoration or firing. To the right are new plain coloured beads, awaiting grinding into powder for the different colours of the decorations and a plastic kettle containing gum arabic diluted with water .. finished beads are shown below left.

The bag is removed and the glass fragments are further ground into a fine powder.