While many tribal cultural traditions are well understood and replicated in popular culture in the west, such as ‘First Nations’ North American’s and tribes in the Middle-East, African tribal traditions still – for the most part – remain shrouded in an air of mystery and are so often misunderstood. Here we take a look at 10 African cultural traditions that will increase your understanding of the continents historical culture and traditional values.
Although not wide spread like it once was in Africa, the kidnapping one woman by men who want them as a bride still does occur in pockets throughout the continent. The Latuka tribe – found in modern day Sudan – are one tribe who still practise this. But there is a process and certain ‘rules’ around it: For a start, you cannot just go off and kidnap any bride who takes your fancy. Instead, the elders of a family will go and ask the bribe to bes father for her hand in marriage. If the father agrees, he then ritually beats up the suitor as a sign of his acceptance of the marriage! However, if the father disagrees and does not condone the marriage, the man might well forcefully kidnap the bride and marry the woman anyway, though this will likely cause tribal disputes that can turn quite ugly…
African Tradition: Circumcision; The Khweta Ceremony
This is a very contentious and controversial topic both throughout Africa and the rest of the world, with many Human Rights watchdogs calling on the practice of circumcision – especially female circumcision – to be banned. However, in Southern Africa there is a ceremony called Khweta that is practised by several tribes and is how a young boy proves his transition from childhood to manhood. When the boys are deemed of age they are sent to spend several days or weeks in a circumcision lodge during the winter months, where they are put through various trials, tests and rituals – many being rather dangerous – such as continuous dancing, which ends in the final ritual of circumcision.
This is another one which may seem grotesque to our Eurocentric values and social norms, but in Kenya and Tanzania the Maasai tribes use spitting as a way of showing respect or a way of blessing something or someone. For example, men spit on newborn babies to say they are bad in the belief that if they praise a baby, it will be cursed. It is also extremely common for Maasai warriors to spit on their hands before they greet and shake the hand of an elder as a sign of great respect.
This tradition is found in Southern Ethiopia in the tribe known as the Ethiopia Hammer Tribe. It draws attention from the few hardy tourists who brave the long arduous journey to the deep south of the country to see it, and the spectacle is said to not disappoint. In order for adolescence to prove their manhood, the young boys must run, jump and land on the back of a bull before then running across the back of several bulls that have been lined up. They usually do this several times in the nude, and it often has the added bonus of impressing potential single girls…
In the Pokot tribe in Kenya – as well as many Maasai tribes in Tanzania – wealth is measured by how many cows a family has. Indeed, the Maasai have to pay dowry’s numbering dozens (occasionally hundreds) of cows to the family of the woman they want to marry. This means that quite literately the number of woman a man can marry is determined directly by how many cows the man has to pay for their dowries!
Another tradition based around attaining a wife is found within the Fulani tribe who are predominantly found spread over numerous West African countries, called Sharo. Sharo occurs when the problem arises of two young men who want to marry the same woman. To compete for her hand in marriage, they fight each other with bare fists and no weapons are allowed. The men must at all times during the fist fight suppress signs of pain and the one who takes the beating without showing signs of pain can take the wife!
Not for the squeamish, this is a tradition practised by the Chewa people of Malawi. When a person within the family dies, a family member will take the body into the woods and slit it’s throat, and then force water through it until all the blood is drained from the body. This is seen to cleanse the body ready for the afterlife. It is done by squeezing the corpses stomach until the red blood runs clear.
African Tradition: Women Cannot Grieve the Death of Elders
This tradition is found in the Southwestern Congo among the Suku tribe who honour ancestors and elders when they die with a ceremony held in the clearing of a forest. Here, great gifts and offerings are bought, but unfortunately outsiders and all women are forbidden to attend, making it a purely patriarchal death ceremony. It must be very tough on the female family members.
Now this is something not just attributed to certain African tribes, because all across Africa ‘African Handshakes’ hold a special significance and go far beyond the simple handshakes Westerners are accustomed to. When shaking hands in Africa, the other hand is placed on the upper arm as a display of respect: Because showing respect is one vital and wonderful point of Africanculture.
Finally, everyone who has ever been to Africa will undoubtedly be aware about how much of a central role dancing has in pretty much every aspect of life in Africa: Yes. African’s simply love to dance! Getting married? Coming of Age? A Friday night? Even a funeral? Yes, these are all reasons for African’s to dance. Dancing runs through the culture and life blood of the continent and always has done. Nothing really beats that stirring of the soul with the beat of the African drums and the dust being whirled around by spinning and dancing feet. From the classic Maasai warrior dance, where Maasai jump as high as possible and as straight as an arrow, to lavish initiation ceremonies by the Chewa people of Malawi who dress up in elaborate masks and as animals and spirits, if you ever find yourself in Africa for whatever reason, going for or watching a dance will be a must do!