Images of African Rituals


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African dancers from Benin performing in 2008 < >
Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher youtube on African rituals; look at the intro and then follow some of the links
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In West Africa, as in contemporary America, social gatherings included rituals of friendship and welcome.
Okonkwo always greeted his guests, especially the elders who came to call on him (or discipline him)
by breaking a kola nut and offering palm wine. The tree that bears the kola nut is native to west Africa.
The nut is a mild stimulant, "has a bitter flavor and contains caffeine. It is chewed...[and]...often used
ceremonially...or presented to guests" ("Kola nut"). It was an integral part of sacred rites, used
in naming ceremonies, weddings, coming-of-age celebrations, and funerals.

image source < http://en/wikipedia/wiki/Kola_nut >

As you know from the African art images and from Things Fall Apart, ritual played and plays an important role in African social and cultural life. Similarly to the West, both boys and girls go through rites of passage, either individually or as a group, that mark their "coming of age" or achievement of adulthood. Rites and ceremonies also accompany courtship and marriage, seasonal events, and death. Below are some descriptions and images of African customs or rites of passage. Consider, as you view the pictures, not how exotic they are, but the elements of commonallity with the western customs that accompany coming of age, marriage, death. The graphics and narrative come from Cultures on the Edge. All of the photographs were taken by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher. As the images and much of the textual information are under copyright protection, these pages may only be viewed and used for an "in-house" Castilleja assignment.

Coming of Age

The young Ndebele girl in the graphic to your right wears bead rolls and a tasseled apron that she will discard when she is initiated into adulthood. The Ndebele people are descended from and related to the Bantu-speakers who spread all over Africa from the area of present day Cameroon in a millennia long migration, made possible by their "farmer power," iron technology, and development of social and political hierarchies. The Ndebele live in present-day South Africa and Botswana. Did you see anything like this at the Cantor?

Follow youtube link as Zulu narrator explains the outfits worn by young women, and preparation for marriage
he also explains the role of cattle/bridewealth
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Zulu wedding dance (you can see in both of these excerpts how African ritual is
now geared to and for the tourist trade

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These Kroba girls from Ghana are on their way, with their "ritual mothers," to bathe in a nearby river in a ritual of purification where they will be cleansed in body and spirit. Kroba girls are not required either to go into lengthy isolation as part of their intiation or to experience female circumcision.

The Maasai and Samburu--People of Present Day Kenya and Tanzania

The proud Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania are primarily herders and pastorialists. Their physical structure is tall and lean, as you may have seen in the [terrible] movie, The Air Up There, starring Kevin Bacon. While adhering to their traditional lifestyle, many Maasai and Samburu people have bought into Kenya's and Tanzania's thriving tourist trade by performing traditional dances and ceremonies at the popular "safari tent camps" of the Serengeti and Maasai Mara grasslands. Swahili, a language composed of elements of Arabic and Bantu, is the common tongue in much of East Africa. To the right, a Maasai bride prepares to leave her family and join that of her husband. Tradition says that if she looks back, she will be turned to stone. Any Western connection or resonance here?
Maasai and Samburu boys and girls participate in "coming of age" rituals-- ceremonies recognizing and honoring the onset of puberty. The boy is having his head shaved as part of the ritual. Both boys and girls go through ritual purification as part of the ceremonial entrance to adulthood.

Follow youtube link for Maasai warrior rite of passage

Please skip the obnoxious commercial at the beginning (about 25 seconds)
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The Samburu are related to the Maasai;
National Geographic provides insight into the male coming of age ritual

this clip offers insights into the ceremony, performed for David's age set;
David honors his mother and begins a life separate from his family.
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One of the rites of passage formerly required of Maasai boys in their achievement of
adulthood and warrior status was to kill a lion. The government of Tanzania
no longer allows this practice. Watch clip

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Robin Wiszowaty, author of My Maasai Life, introduces herself on youtube
and explains her decision to live among the Maasai; she came to speak
to C&C classes in 2010.


As noted above, Maasai boys have their heads shaved in preparation for their "ordeal" with other members of their "age set." After their circumcision, they prove their manhood by going alone on a hunt, armed only with a spear or club, with the expectation of killing a lion. Sabore--a Maasai warrior--told us that actually they go "into the bush" on the lion hunt with their age mates. The "hats" that these young men are wearing were made from the lion's mane by their mothers.

Images of the Maasai Mara, Serengeti and Maasai people
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In the graphic immediately to your right, the young Maasai woman is preparing to go into seclusion, probably with her "age group." In the "Bundu Hut," she will learn her duties as an adult and be circumcised. In the far right, she has been covered with red ochre dye.

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and voices against the practice of female circumcision;
the clip below supports what Sabore told a group of seniors during Global Week, 2010

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Courtship and Marriage

This Surma man from Ethiopia has been beautified by having himself painted with chalk to signify his readiness to marry. He will then demonstrate his valor and strength in a gigantic, ritualized, ceremonial stick fight with other young men to attract the attention of eligible young women and their families. The young Surma woman might be the one he has his eye on.



The Turkane girl from Kenya signifies her readiness for marriage by wearing the maiden's necklace of many layers with three pendants on the back. The fish has no particular significance.


This bride comes from the area of East Africa where Islam predominates; she has been in seclusion with her family in preparation for her wedding. On the day of the ceremony, the parents of the bride and groom will exchange gifts. The bride has had her body massaged with cocumnt oil; then she and other young women of her family or entourage will decorate their hands and feet with elaborate floral or geometric patterns with a dye made of henna and lime juice.


The mother of the bride prepares her daughter for the coming ceremony; she has massaged her daughter with ocher and perfumed butterfat; the ceremonial headdress (ekori) in this picture has been worn by previous generations of Himba brides.



The Himba people from Namibia are one of the few (15%) African societies that are matrilineal. Their life of mixed agriculture and pastoralism is being threated by drought and desertification. This photograph was taken on her wedding day; she has been heavily anointed with ochre (an earth dye) and butterfat; her marriage is an arranged one, and she will go to live with her husband's family. The Cantor Museum of Art at Stanford has a number of artifacts from Himba society.


This Zulu bride wears the traditional red headdress, supposed to be woven from her mother's hair. Zulu women formerly dressed their hair in a style similar to the look of the headdress. The Zulu, under their famous king, Shaka, forged a great empire and dominated much of southern Africa in the early 19th century; the Zulu impis (warrior batallions) under a later king, Cetswayo, defeated the British at Isandlwana. Like the Native Americans, the Zulu succombed to British treachery and superior firepower in the 1880s. The present Zulu Paramount Chief, Buthelezi, was a rival to Nelson Mandela in the struggle to end Apartheid and remains a political force in South Africa.

youtube video of a child bride in Chad

The Fulani people come from West Africa near the famous gold fields that so attracted the Portuguese in the 14th and 15th centuries. She has adorned herself with her "bridal wealth," her dowry, possibly inherited at the death of her mother. She wears gigantic solid gold earrings and a tiara or crown of amber beads.

Other Ceremonies

In Burkina Faso, the village prepares and decorates the home
of a newly married couple. Notice that everyone participates
and that the practical, pragmatic event is communal and ceremonial.

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These antelope dancers from Burkina Faso rest after participating in a Bobo spring festival. The dancers and people of the community "dance away" misdeeds and errors that they may have committed since harvest. The complicated steps, handed down over generations, cleanse the village and prepare the way for the sowing of new crops; the dance comprises a prayer to the Creator God to "bestow good crops, health, and general prosperity...." Go back to the [ Some Arts of Africa ] page to refresh your memory on the significance of antelope symbolism in West Africa. The dancers below whirl and spin, accompanied by flutes, horns, and drums, in a funeral ceremony; the dancers help to speed the soul of the departed to its final resting place and to prevent the soul from remaining in the village.

Coping with loss through ritual < >

Dogon funeral rites in Mali




"For many men in West Africa, scarring is a form of tribal initiation and a sign of bravery. Done with razor blades, the painful process begins at puberty and continues into adulthood. Each tribe has distinctive tattoo designes; this man's markings iindicate his village and his clan and include black magic symbols to keep away evil spirits".

< http://www.nationalgeographic....>

African burial customs < >


Beckwith, Carol and Angela Fisher. Cultures on the Edge. Online available.
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"Kola nut." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Online available.
< http://en/wikipedia/wiki/Kola_nut >


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