As western values continue to shape the world, Africa has long fought to preserve its customs. The continent is home to a dazzling number of diverse countries, tribes and traditions. These traditions signify and celebrate life, death and coming of age. They are portals to the spiritual realm, where mortals converse with their gods and ancestors. They display the continent’s long standing artistic achievements of colourful aesthetical beauty and craftmanship.
In light of this, here are 10 of the most interesting African rituals:
Bull Jumping, Hamar Tribe of Ethiopia
The bull jumping of the Hamar tribe, found across the Omo Valley in Southwestern Ethopia, is a rite of passage which signifies the transition from being considered a boy to man.
The three-day long ceremony usually takes place in October or November and requires young boys to run across the backs of ten castrated bulls. Both the boys and the cows are smeared with dung for protection. If they succeed, they are considered worthy enough to own cattle, get married and raise children. If they fail, they can always try the next year.
Otjize, Himbu Tribe of Namibia
Otjize is a deep red paste used by the Himbu tribe, found in Northern Nambia, that gives the women instantly recognizable beauty.
The paste is a mixture of butter and ochre and gives the women of the tribe a deep reddish overtone to their skin. It is used as make up, skincare and haircare and is considered the ideal beauty standard women strive towards.
Gerewol Festival, Wodaade Tribe of Chad
The Gerewol festival is a courtship ritual held by the Wodaade tribe of Chad. It is a widely revered annual tradition which sees the men of the tribe enter a beauty pageant in order to be chosen by a suitable lover.
The men go to great lengths to impress. They spend hours applying elaborate make up using grinding chalk, red ochre and battery acid. They dress in eye catching, brightly coloured traditional attires with custom beads and feathers.
The men proceed to dance for hours to make their mark. All of this is done to emphasize their beauty and facial symmetry as the women of the tribe value aesthetical ingenuity above all.
The Healing Dance, San People of Botswana
The healing dance is a trance dance performed by the San people of Botwsana, Nambia and Angola. It is considered one of the most significant religious practice in their culture. It is performed to heal those who are in physical and spiritual distress.
Usually, community members gather around a large fire as they sing and clap while the healers dance. The ritual goes on for the entirety of the night. At its apex, the healers enter a trance like state and feel a healing energy engulf them. In turn, the healers channel this energy to those with physical illnesses and draw out anger and quarrelling from the collective to ensure peaceful existence in the community.
Dama, Dogon People of Mali
Dama is a funeral ritual performed by the Dogon people of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. It is a two part custom that is used to guide the souls of the departed to their final resting places. It consists of a masquerade, wearing a village specific mask, who leads the people of the community in ritual dance.
The first part of the custom is the “yincomoli” ceremony in which a goud is smashed over the deceased wooden bowl, hoe and burial blanket as they enter their home in the family compound. The second part of the customs is the “danyim”. It is held several months later. During the “danyim”, masquerades perform ritual dances on the rooftops of the deceased’s compound for up to six days.
Nkanga’a, Ndembu Tribe of Zambia
The Nkanga’a is initiation and marriage ritual performed the people of the Mwinilunga district of Zambia. It is performed for each Ndembu girl as she reaches puberty. The ritual consists of three phases.
The first phases begins with the bridegroom exchanging arrows his soon to be mother-in-law. The second phase takes place the next day. The girl lies on the ground wrapped with a blanket under a mudyi tree while the women of the tribe dance around her.
Later on in the day, she is taken to a seclusion hut where she spends weeks being taught about Ndembu womanhood.
The third phase sees the initiate being placed outside the village, bathed, rubbed in oil, dressed in traditional attire and returned to the village where she dances for the members of the community. She is then taken to her new husband’s hut.
Lip Plates, Mursi Tribe of Ethiopia
Mursi tribe of Ethopia is widely recognized for its use of lip plates. It is said that a girl’s lower lip is cut by her mother or another community elder when she reaches the age of 15 or 16. The cut is held open by a wooden plug until the wounds heal which usually takes up to 3 months.
The plate is usually 12 centimetres or more, depending on the individual. The procedure is purely for aesthetical reasons and is voluntary. Many young girls happily do it in order to better integrate into their communities as they grow older.
Ulwaluko, Xhosa Tribe of South Africa
Ulwaluko is a traditional circumcision and initiation custom performed by the Xhosa tribe in South Africa. The ritual is to teach young boys how to transition into young men and the responsibilities of manhood.
It is held during late June or late November. During the process, the foreskin of the boy is removed by traditional means. Then, they spend 4 weeks in seclusion, forbidden from eating meat or bathing. After 4 weeks, the initiates run to the river to bath, burn their seclusion huts and possessions and receive new blankets. This signifies that they have become new men.
Kokuzahn Festival, Koku Devotees of Ghana
Koku followers of Ghana hold the annual Kokuzahn festival which is considered an event to enter the spiritual realm. Devotees are protected from harm by wearing fiber skirts made from alasi tree and smearing a paste made of palm oil, maize flour, and herbs on their bodies.
At the festival’s climax, the people spin faster and faster in accordance with the drums. They enter a trance like state in which they achieve oneness with God and experience ultimate joy. At the end, they collapse to the ground, in complete resignation to the power of God. When they emerge, they have no memory of what had happened and the things they did.
Spitting, Maasai Tribe of Kenya
The Maasai tribe of Kenya and Northern Tanzania use spitting to form communal bonds. It signifies endearment and is used in traditions, rituals, and customs.
For the Maasai, spitting is a sign of respect. When greeting, they spit on their palms before shaking hands. They also do this to agree a deal or bless another with good fortune. On wedding days, the bride’s head is share and oiled with lamb fat. Then, the father of bride blesses his daughter by spitting on her breasts and forehead.
Africa is blessed with a heterogonic make up which has seen several fantastical rituals preserved through oral traditions and cultural norms.
As we enter a new era of existence, it is imperative that we continue to celebrate our diversity and preserve these customs for future generations.
They are our anchor and foundation in the pursuit of building a society built on African values.