African communities, from time immemorial, have always marked the transition of a person’s life cycle from the day they are born to the day they die. These important transitions are marked by unique celebrations that are generally referred to as “rites of passage.” While most of these rites of passage share a great deal of resemblance and tradition, the style of celebration varies according to one’s ethnic group.
Among the Fulani of West Africa, the “rites of passage” is essentially celebrated by flogging. The Fulani, a primarily Muslim people found in countries such as Nigeria and Senegal, celebrate the Sharo Festival basically twice a year to showcase the bravery of young Fulani men who are journeying into manhood.
The public ceremony that attracts many from all walks of life is held to prove the manliness of these young men and to show that they are now mature and may take a wife. Thus, a young participant would be continuously flogged by someone else, known as a challenger, but in the process, he must not show any signs of pain. And that’s the beauty of the festival. “Sharo”, after all, means flogging.
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Ordinarily, the first time the festival is held in a year would be during the dry season when guinea corn is being harvested. The second time is during the Muslim festival of Id-el-Kabir. Held in an open place such as a market square for a week, the festival begins with various performances by maiden dancers and tricksters, according to a report.
The highlight of the cultural event is the whipping session; young men accompanied by beautiful unmarried women come to the event grounds bare-chested, where they must bear the pains of the flogging ceremony. Usually, a participant is flogged by other participants of his age and size who are yet to be flogged. For a participant to prove that he has come of age, he must not scream or writhe in pain while being whipped. Rather, he should ask for more lashes and perhaps smile in the process.
Participants at the end of the day are left with scars on their bodies, but they regard them as signs of strength. The good news is there is mostly a referee who ensures that the ceremony ends without any life-threatening injuries. Various accounts however state that participants do silently recite mantras during the flogging ceremony or undergo a traditional fortification process ahead of the rite.
In all, friends and families regard boys who are able to complete the ceremony as men and are allowed to marry the woman of their choice.
Last year, the Zamfara State in northwestern Nigeria held the Sharo cultural festival after a gap of eight years. The festival took a long break after bandits started ransacking communities in the region. Over 30,000 people including government functionaries and Fulani leaders attended the festival that was organized for repentant Fulani bandits as part of a peace process.