Traditions: Africa’s Rites of Passage

Fredrick Ngugi October 25, 2016

From time immemorial, African communities 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.”

These rituals are significant to Africans as they mark the important stages that every person goes through in life and the societal expectations of the individual during each stage.

Maasai Warriors Initiation Ceremony

Maasai warriors during an initiation ceremony. Photo Credit: YouTube

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.

Here are some of the common rites of passage in Africa and how different groups celebrate them.


Children are an important part of African society as they are seen as the custodians of the traditions of their people. With the high levels of child mortality seen in certain countries, many communities often go all out in celebrating children and protecting them from evil spirits.

In Namibia, the Himba people never leave the newborn child on its own or even put him or her down for fear that it may be stolen by some malicious spirits.

Birth Rite in Africa

A Himba woman from Namibia kisses her infant. Photo Credit: Pinterest

The Wodaabe people of Niger avoid naming the child until his or her 12th birthday with the hopes that the child won’t be identified by the spirit of death.

In Kenya, the Maasai tribe bestow the responsibility of naming a newborn child on community elders who must select a name immediately following birth.


As the child grows up, he or she has to be initiated into adulthood through a circumcision ritual. In the past, many African communities practiced female circumcision, which has since been criminalized in many countries across the continent. Although some tribes still practice female genital mutilation, many have adopted new practices that are less harmful to girls.

For boys, circumcision is almost unanimous across the continent. Although different communities celebrate this rite of passage differently, it involves the removal of foreskin from a boy’s penis and is often done by village elders who use the ritual as an opportunity to pass down key traditions to younger generations.

Rites of passage in Africa

Ugandan teenage boys preparing to undergo circumcision. Photo Credit: Daily Uganda

In Kenya, a number of communities still practice male circumcision, whereby the initiates are taken to a secluded place, usually in a forest, where their foreskins are removed by an appointed circumciser who uses a special knife for the procedure.

Among the AmaXhosa people of South Africa, male circumcision is referred to as “ulwaluko.” It is considered a teachable moment that prepares boys for the enormous responsibilities of manhood.

The initiates are called “abakhwetham,” which means a learning group. Following the initiation ceremony, the initiates are taken to a secluded place away from their homes, where they spend at least eight days recovering. The traditional surgeon is referred to as “ingcibi.”

In Zambia, the Lunda people refer to the rite of passage as “mukanda.” It is considered the most powerful, awe-inspiring experience that every man must go through. The Lunda people are very proud of the mukanda custom and any man who has come of age and is uncircumcised is considered a woman.

In urban settings, parents prefer to take their boys to professional medical doctors for the procedure.


In Africa, marriage is an important affair that many communities consider as an invaluable spiritual experience. While Westernization may have eroded the majority of traditional African marriage practices, some communities still practice them.

Traditional African wedding

A traditional Zulu wedding in South Africa. Photo Credit: Pinterest

Among the Wodaabe people in Niger, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, and Nigeria, women select their preferred husbands and lovers. The tribe is popular for its traditional seven-day festival known as “yaki,” where men decorate themselves and dance in hopes of attracting the attention of a potential mate. Wodaabe women are allowed to marry more than one husband.

Among the Surma people in Ethiopia, marriage is usually arranged after a stick fighting contest in which young men thrash each other mercilessly with sticks to prove their readiness to become husbands. Girls who are ready to get married sit around and watch their potential mates cane one another into submission.

Each girl selects her favorite fighter in the contest and sends him indirect messages through friends and relatives to express her interest. Women who are beautiful, hardworking, and cheerful are often the first selected as wives.

In most African communities, wedding ceremonies involve feasting, animal sacrifice, dancing, and blessings.


Death is viewed differently depending on the community. While some tribes believe death is the end of a person’s journey through life, others believe that those who’ve passed on are simply resting.

Dancing with the dead in Madagascar

Dancing with the dead in Madagascar. Photo Credit: Nigeriana

Other communities believe that the spirits of the dead are always watching over them.

This disparity in belief highlights the diverse ways in which different African communities handle the deceased.

Among the Yoruba people in Nigeria, the dead are buried with a horde of items including food, clothes, and fowls. Other tribes in Nigeria bury their dead alongside spears, shields, pans, and pots to ensure they’ll have all they need in the afterlife.

In South Africa, special rituals are performed at the deceased person’s home before burial. All pictures are turned to face the wall while all mirrors, windows, and reflective surfaces are covered to ensure the dead can’t view them.

The person’s bed is also removed from their bedroom and a night vigil is held in his house by relatives and friends.

Last Edited by:Charles Gichane Updated: October 27, 2016


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