Change in traditional society (status, rites of passage)
Rites of passage play a central role in African socialization, demarking the different stages in an individual’s development (gender and otherwise), as well as that person’s relationship and role to the broader community. The major stage in African life is the transition from child to adult when they become fully institutionalized to the ethics of the group’s culture. Rites of passage are for this reason critical in nation building and identity formation.
Historically, in addition to the recurrent daily and seasonal patterns of African life and community,great ritual distinction is placed on the nonrecurring moments of personal life.
These moments, which have been happening since the beginning of time, mark times of new beginning and transition from one life stage to another for the individual by dramatizing the transience of individual existence, while highlighting the social symbols that give the community its identity and integrate the person into a larger sphere of meaning.
Rites of passage thus serve a double purpose; preserving the ongoing community as a symbol of collective immortality and permanence as well as providing a clear and guided means for transition from one life stage and sphere of responsibility to another.
They thus confirm the hierarchies of values of the community and project an ideal sequence of personal development the individual can look forward to and upon reaching each stage, evaluate his or her maturation against a collective standard.Rites of passage thus serve a double purpose; preserving the ongoing community as a symbol of collective immortality and permanence as well as providing a clear and guided means for transition from one life stage and sphere of responsibility to another.
African initiation rites link the individual to the community and the community to the broader and more potent spirit world. Initiation rites are proven to be a necessary extension of many communities and are as necessary and natural as are arms and legs are a natural and necessary extension of the human body. Rites of passage provide the African with the foundation of his or her being: Identity. Sexual identity and the roles of gender identity are enshrined through rites of passage:, The males are prepared for their responsibilities in the community as men, and the women prepared for their responsibilities in the nation as women– with no confusion.
The process and details of initiation differ among societies; song, dance, masks, various tests/ordeals, tattooing, etc. have been utilized as verification and ritual symbolism. And emphasis varies by society, some focus on bravery and toughness, others spiritual aspects or practical education.
These rites are critical to individual and community development, and it should not be taken for granted that people automatically grow and develop into responsible, community oriented adults– Manu Ampim
The bonds between initiates usually last a lifetime. No matter the ritual, the underlying purpose remains the same; fundamentally dealing with transformation and guiding the person from one stage/ maturity level in life and development to the next from birth to death and beyond.
Nearly all African cultures believe that the infant has come from the spirit world with important information from that world and is bringing unique talents and gifts; indeed, a unique purpose, mission, message or project to offer to the community and thus a reason for celebration. Therefore, the Rite of Birth is the first of the 5 major rites and involves initiating the infant into the world through a ritual and naming ceremony. It is the responsibility of the family and community to discover through consultation with elders and/or diviners to determine this mission. This can be accomplished through rituals, birth charts etc. It is important to clearly determine the new community member’s mission in order to successfully guide him/her along their life path. Naming of the infant is seen as an important part of the birthing rite, as it is believed that names have a spiritual vibration which affects the person as an infant, into adult life and beyond. The infants name is given as a reflection of its personality or life mission. When an infant’s name reflects his/her life purpose, it serves as a powerful tool and reminder of his/her life’s work as whenever their name is called, it is a steady reminder of their mission.
Birth and Naming Ceremonies
Only then will the rejoicing start. In fact, and more important, the child does not officially start existing until he or she has been named as part of his or her birth rite of passage, that is, the naming ceremony. Among the Akamba people, a child is named after 3 days. A goat is then slaughtered as a token of appreciation for the ancestors who are responsible for human fertility. Until then, both mother and baby are expected to remain alone in the home. Regardless of when the naming ceremony takes place, what is underscored is that existence is first and foremost a social experience. Although one may be born in the physical realm, one’s existence starts only when one has been acknowledged as a member of a community. Through the naming ceremony, a new human comes into being as it becomes integrated into a community. Only at that point is it considered to exist. Thus, the fundamental assertion in the naming ceremony is that existence is a corporate experience, not an individual one. The names given to the child further assign him or her a place in the family, the community, and the universe. This is why all community members take part in the naming of the child, because the child belongs to the whole community and because all have a stake in its proper insertion in the society.
Infant Baptism is practiced in the majority of Christian churches A popular name by which baptism are known is ‘christenings’. This is derived from ‘Christ-naming’, since it would be when the child would be given his/her Christian name publicly. As in other African cultures, the parents, godparents, relatives and friends will be present for the joyous occasion. The parents and godparents make a promise to bring the child up in the Christian faith and the godparents repeat vows on behalf of the baby. When the parents have named the child, the priest takes water from the font and pours it over the baby’s head three times, baptizing the baby in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The Rite of Adulthood is probably the most commonly acknowledged among the set of rites and many confused people assume “rites of passage” only refers to initiation into adulthood not realizing or understanding that adulthood rites are only one set of rites in a larger system. In many societies adulthood rites are done at the onset of puberty and are used to ensure proper shaping of responsible, productive and community-oriented adults as there is nothing automatic or magical about transitioning from a child to a fully functioning and productive adult. As previously mentioned, this transition is becoming exceedingly difficult particularly with African people in western societies because there is no clear set of rites to systematically guide young people through this important stage in his/her life cycle. Clearly, this “hope and pray” approach to adulthood development is at the root of many of the problems affecting our youth.
On the other hand, as we will explore below, many strong African societies exist today who systematically initiate boys and girls into adulthood by process to make stronger men and stronger women inside of the communal civilized context. This is done in a myriad of ways, and often includes seclusion from the community and concerns of everyday life for various periods of time.
Children are taught the necessary skills for adulthood including among other things; problem solving, rules and taboos of the society, social responsibility, what is considered appropriate behavior for women and men and can receive further clarification of his or her purpose or life mission. Oftentimes, successful completion of the rite of adulthood is publically celebrated with a “coming out ceremony” or reintroduction to society.
Often, much attention, emotion and politicking is placed on circumcision as a part of adulthood rites in African societies, particularly circumcision of women. What is lost during this debate is that it is not the only aspect of becoming an adult and while with modernization it is necessary to revisit the purpose and effects of such “controversial” rituals; this should be done only through African agency.
As children mature physically and therefore sexually, a special puberty rite of passage, initiation, is meant to help them move smoothly from childhood into adulthood. The purpose of initiation is, above all, educational. Through initiation, young adults further learn about the traditions and expectations of their community and will therefore be able to contribute to the maintenance of social order.
They must die to their child self in order to be reborn into an adult self, one characterized by greater knowledge of the world, deeper consciousness, insight and wisdom. The notions of symbolic death and resurrection are central to the initiation process. Also, those undergoing initiation must take a vow of secrecy. Initiation rites vary from community to community. However, they follow a general pattern. The first step is the separation of a group of adolescent novices from their usual surroundings to be secluded in an isolated place away from the community. There, they will be tested and taught by elders. The testing usually involves demonstrating physical endurance, mental strength, and intelligence. It is often the time when males are circumcised and females excised. They must undergo the whole operation without showing any sign of fear and without expressing any discomfort. Failure to demonstrate fortitude would bring shame and dishonor to them and their family.
After the period of seclusion is over, the initiates are reincorporated into their community, and this marks the time of their rebirth. Their hair may be shaved off, their old clothes may be thrown away, and they may receive new names, all symbolic gestures indicating that they have become new, mature individuals. The reunion of new initiates with their family and community is a collective festive time. All rejoice now that the new initiates are ready to assume their new place in the community.
One of the responsibilities and prerogatives associated with the completion of initiation is marriage. Initiation, in fact, prepares the young adults for marriage. Indeed, in most African societies, one can get married only after having been initiated. This is often the time that young people receive information and instruction regarding marriage, sex, family life, and procreation. Among the Masai, for instance, the Eunoto ceremony, which lasts for a whole week, is the rite of passage that marks the transition from childhood into adulthood for the males. It is an elaborate ceremony that marks the end of a relatively carefree life and the beginning of greater responsibilities. The initiates are then expected to watch over the community’s cattle (which are highly regarded as God’s unique gift to the Masai), participate in cattle raids, and kill a lion. At the end of the Eunoto ceremony, the young man’s hair is shaved, thus formally indicating the passage to manhood. In addition to having their hair shaved, they also have their skin painted with ochre in preparation for marriage. They then marry and start families. Those who have slept with circumcised women are denied this rite of passage, as in Masai culture this is taboo.
Various forms of surgical and ritual operations known as circumcision are performed on human sex organs throughout the world. In Africa, it is an old practice. Erroneously believed by many people to be of Israelite or Islamic origin, circumcision actually predates the births of Jesus Christ and Muhammad.
In African countries, the age at which circumcision is carried out varies considerably among ethnic groups and families and is dependent on religious affiliations and, in some cases, on personal preference. It can be performed at any time of human development, as early as at birth or as late as at adult age. Although today circumcision is performed for the most part by physicians or RNs, it is embedded in a wide range of cultural contexts and is quite different in mode, rationale, scope, significance, and effects. Indeed, depending on whether the ritualistic surgical operation is performed on a male or a female genital, the word circumcision takes different meanings and connotations. Until recently, the term circumcision, was used to refer exclusively to the surgical operation performed on male genitalia. This original meaning is still carried in several African languages. Conversely, the term excision for a long time was used to name exclusively homologous surgical operations performed on women. However, what is known as female circumcision nowadays has taken many dimensions in shape and techniques to the point that the word excision is used to name only one of the different types of female circumcision.
In traditional Africa, clitorectomy was performed for social as well as spiritual reasons; the practice denoted that the female was making a transformation into womanhood. The practice was instituted at the onset of puberty, incorporating two age ranges for the female candidates: 7 to 15 years and 15 to 19 years. Other spiritual notions reveal that the practice was related to the duality of males and females and the need for gender differentiation.
Therefore, clitorectomy functioned to eliminate the male aspect in females. It reinforced the cosmological ideas that acknowledged the dual or androgynous nature of the Gods. The act was much more than an operation on the flesh, removing what are considered the traits of the opposite sex; without it, people could not marry or have socially sanctioned sexual activities, nor could they have access to the secret or hidden information that gave them the right to function as adults.
Thus, clitorectomy symbolized the death of the girl and the emergence or rebirth of a new person–the woman. As a result, females were believed to experience greater fertility and more live births. As a spiritual ritual, clitorectomy ceremonies were performed as a significant rite of passage for females. It has been described as an archetypical activity of the ideal feminine. Clitorectomy was considered a highly meaningful act that signified the sacred symbolism of feminine fertility. It was generally performed in sacred ceremonies by traditional female healer/practitioners or wives who held high social status.
African weddings are a spiritual and social family affair and involve the combining of two lives, two families, and even two communities . There are many different wedding traditions in the African continent and no two are exactly alike but they all share core values from Kemet to now.
Traditionally, the Rite of Marriage represents not only the joining of two families and even communities; it also represents the joining of the two missions of the new couple. This means that in addition to performing marriage rites for the coming together of male and female to procreate, perpetuate life, and join families it is also an institution to help the husband and wife to fulfill their mission and objectives in life ensuring that they are working together towards the same end. A very high value is placed on marriage in African society and because the focus is on the collective, it is not uncommon that full social standing and adulthood can only be achieved by marriage and in some societies marriage is not recognized fully until the wife gives birth.
Unfortunately, a vast number of African marriages in western cultures fail due to; short-sightedness or absence of mutual goals, being based on “falling in love”, lack of a focus on building a family or the end result for the community and thereby entering the relationship in an unbalanced state. When a marriage rite is performed in an African society it does not emphasize looks or lust as the primary motivation for marriage, but nation building and community. In traditional African society, marriage is a rite which is celebrated, respected and held in high esteem.
Marriage is widely acknowledged throughout the African continent as one of the most critical moments in a person’s life. This is the case because marriage is intimately linked with procreation. In fact, the main, if not only, purpose of marriage is procreation. In most African societies, marriage is not deemed complete until a child has been born. Likewise, a man is not a full man or a woman a full woman until they have given birth to a child.
Marriage creates the context within which children are conceived and born, hence its critical significance. Getting married and having children is a social, moral, and ultimately spiritual obligation and privilege. Likewise, one’s refusal or failure to get married and have children is largely incomprehensible and certainly quite reprehensible as far as the African community is concerned.
Marriage, from the standpoint of African religion, is never simply an affair between a man and a woman, but an event that involves at least two families. African families are normally quite large because they include several sub-units. The whole community has a stake in the marriage and will be involved.
Because marriage is a most serious affair, young men and women are thoroughly prepared for married life. Young men and women are taught about the responsibilities of married life and educated about sex and procreation. Many rites and rituals are performed as part of the wedding ceremony. Of particular significance are rituals meant to purify or bless the couple. Among the Yoruba people, for instance, the oldest woman in attendance will spray gin (which is closely associated with the ancestors) on the couple and other relatives to bless the new union. Among the Bemba people of Central Africa, a woman about to get married is given a clay pot by her father’s sister. Because the main purpose of marriage is procreation, the clay pot stands for the womb that is expected to be filled and blessed with many pregnancies. A similar ritual can be observed among the Shona people of Zimbabwe, when the paternal aunt hands a clay pot full of water to the bride to bless her with a fertile marriage. Water is intimately associated with fertility in Africa. Among the Hutu, on the day of her wedding, a woman’s body is smeared with milk and herbs to cleanse her from her previous life and make her pure. Among the Ndembu, the bride walks backward into her husband’s house. An old woman who is instructed in matters related to sex and marriage accompanies her and presents her with beads, which symbolize children, to bless her with fertile marriage.
Scarification | Tattoos | Piercing
- Three key marks of distinction are found in Africa. Scarification, Tattooing and body piercing. In most African societies they are distinctive aspects of culture and the rites of passage and identify of a group. In all cases they double as a form of body adornment.
- Scarification is the practice of piercing the skin with a sharp object in a controlled way on various parts of the body in order to create marks of distinction. This can be done with a knife, glass, stone or even a coconut shell and it is common to apply c
- austic plant juices, ground charcoal, ash or gun powder after cutting in order to provide emphasis.Traditionally, scar patterns were made by skilled practitioners and this skill is passed from generation to generation.
Scarification, in African culture communicates gender, age, social status and many other messages to the community who knows what these powerful messages mean. Additionally, traditional scarification is believed to have healing powers, enhance beauty, and is an important part of ethnic identity and rites of passage to mark stages in the life process such as puberty and marriage. Scarification can be observed across the continent. Without scars a person was often considered ugly, antisocial, cowardly or poor. Men in Africa often wear scars received during initiation, or sometimes as a sign of bravery after having killed an enemy. Among the Barabaig of Tanzania, boys’ heads have been cut so deeply that they sometimes show up on the skulls. Because scars are considered attractive, they are often cut in such a way as to emphasize the contour of the face or body. The Tiv of Nigeria, for instance, mark along the cheekbones with long, linear scars as an emphasis to the cheekbones. Though there are various reasons and meaning behind the marks, many African children receive their first markings during infancy and/or early childhood during their “outdooring” or naming ceremony.
As an example, over the course of one’s lifetime, Betamarribe individuals (of Benin) will receive sets of scars at distinct periods in the life cycle. Betamarribe society is divided into distinct age grades which identifies each group for the remainder of their lives. Age grades determine marriage and ritual prerogatives, dress, scar patterns, what type of work one does and for men, participation in war and the hunt. Traditionally among the Betamarribe, the first scarification is performed by an odouti (scar master) when a boy or girl reaches 2-3 years of age. This signifies initiation into the community, and the elders say that a child without these markings is not human and if they don’t receive the cuts, or if a child dies before he/she is able to receive their “tribal markings”, they are not Betamarribe in the eyes of the ancestors and therefore, are not buried in the village cemetery.
When it is time, a divination is held to determine the scar pattern for the Betamarribe child by casting cowrie shells into a water pot. Sometimes a piece of charcoal is placed in the divining pot for purification. It is said that the spirit of the child controls the way the shells will fall. The child is placed on a bed of leaves and cutting begins at the temple.
Once complete, the child’s facial orifices are thoroughly cleansed and cleared as the odouti utters a prayer to the spirits of the ancestors asking for their protection for the child and shea butter is applied to the wounds as an anti-inflammatory and to promote healing. As a final ritual action, the odouti spits charcoal on the cuts to keep away evil spirits that may have been attracted by the flowing blood.
Additional marking for girls and boys traditionally happens between 7-12 years of age, though girls receive an additional series of vertical cuts on their backs at this time. In an attempt to further symbolize gender lines and differentiate them from boys, Betamarribe girls around the age of 15 receive incisions on the lower part of their abdomen near the navel, near the kidneys, and designs on the buttocks. After having all of these traditional scars, the girl is considered an adult and allowed to marry. Just before marriage Betamarribe women receive another set of scars on their shoulder blades and the pattern is enlarged once she becomes pregnant with her first child.
Among the Dinka in South Sudan, forehead scarification for boys only, happens around the age of 13. Youth demonstrate their bravery in front of their peers and elders by remaining stoic during the process. Anyone who cries or resists the process will lose face in the community. In order to mark important events, the Nuba girls of Southern Sudan undergo scarification, usually from their breasts to their navel. After times such as first menstruation or the birth of her first child additional scarring on her back, legs, arms and neck take place. Nuba men wear scars on their torsos and arms, usually as part of an initiation ritual. According to Sudanese artist Bahreddin Adam; “This is the way of all Sudanese—northerners and southerners, Muslim and Christian and animist.” Members who choose not to scar can face discrimination because they are considered to have abandoned their traditions.
Among the Yoruba, the patterns on a woman’s body are called kolo and are considered to be a test of a woman’s bravery. By exhibiting her willingness to bear pain, a woman with kolo is asserting that she is strong enough to endure the pain of childbirth.
Young Ga’anda girls in Nigeria, beginning at age five receive their first scars and by the time they reach adulthood (around aged 15-16) will have received a series of eight patterns. The scar patterns, called hleeta, signify that Ga’anda women are considered suitable to marry. Forehead scars are given when the girl’s future husband pays her parents her brideprice in addition to an elaborate pattern of dots which form lines, curves, and diamonds on her shoulders, arms, belly, legs, back of neck, back, and buttocks. The Ga’anda, like a number of other African ethnic groups including the Betamarribe (once known as “the naked people”), are abandoning scarification rituals thanks to disapproval from authorities, a declining interest in arranged marriages, and adoption of western styles of dress which obscure their elaborate markings. So the intricate markings that once signaled that men and women had reached marriageable age are rarely seen today.
The oldest evidence of tattooing is found on the mummy of Amunet, priestess to Goddess Hathor (2160-1994 BC). No male mummies in Egypt have been found to have tattoos which has lead some to speculate it to be a symbolization of fertility in woman. However, in Libya, male mummies have been found with tattoo images related to sun worship and in the tomb of Seti I (1300 BC), men were found with tattoos of the fierce Goddess Neith, who led men into battle.
In Islamic societies permanent tattooing is disallowed so henna takes the place and has a ceremonial role especially worn at weddings. While in the West extreme body marking or modification is taboo, subtle are also common place such as ear piercing and tattooing. Unlike in Africa these
- markings serve a solely aesthetic role and in the case of tattooing sometimes serve to dis-identify from the majority group. In Africa all practices usually are done for inclusion, not exclusion.
In Zanzibar and Pema, henna is used to decorate the soles of the feet, ankles, palms and nails in order to make a woman look more attractive before her marriage ceremony. The more complex the design, the more attractive she is considered. For the next week, she is adorned in her finest and most current cloth and adorned in jewels and gold, this period is called “giving henna it’s deserved rights”. Afterwards The Zanzibar bride is sent to her somo (teacher) where she is taught how to please her husband and is decorated with more elaborate henna designs. Men are restricted from seeing the bride during this period. According to Swahili customs, it is taboo for unmarried girls to decorate themselves with henna as married women do. This is so she does not tempt a main considered to be the domain of the elders as this is disapproved by society.
In the Christian Bible book of Genesis, Abraham provides a ‘shanf’ (which translates in Hebrew to ‘nose ring’) to Rebecca who marries his son. In Islam, it is permissible for women to pierce only their ears in order to enhance their beauty though to pierce any other part of the body is considered mutilation of Allah’s creation and therefore forbidden as is all piercing for men. Among other African societies, piercing (of the ears lips and nose) and stretching (with objects such as straw, wood, plates and even bone) are a part of initiation into adulthood and preparation for marriage . This is witnessed in the Djiinja culture’s betrothal rite in which the man who is to marry a Djiinja girl begins to transfix her lips by piercing and inserting a blade of straw which is later replaced by a plug of wood, a disc, and eventually a plate as a sign of ‘possession’ by the husband of the now woman.
Lip piercing is also seen among the Mursi and Nuba of Ethiopia as a rite of adulthood. The Dogon, of Mali practice lip piercing in order to commemorate Noomi, the ancestor spirit who gave them the power of speech. In Chad, piercing of the upper labret is a sign of manhood. Both men and women among the Masai and Fulani tribes engage in ritualistic earlobe (and cartilage) piercing and stretching to mark the stages of life.. Once pierced and stretched, the Masai are able to hang intricately beaded jewelry through the stretched holes for adornment during traditional ceremonies, including circumcision for both men and women. Even ancient male Egyptian royalty has been discovered to utilize piercing rituals.
Though taboo in western culture; extreme piercing, stretching and even scarification and teeth filing are becoming increasingly popular among the younger generations. Subtle tattoos and ear piercing are more commonplace with some African American babies having their ears pierced as young as 6 weeks old! Unlike in Africa, these markings serve a solely aesthetic role and in many cases serve as a means to dis-identify from the majority group. In Africa, these practices are usually done for inclusion, not exclusion.
People participation is the highest evolved form of governance, but it has one stringent condition: That the people be full educated and informed, and mature to be productive participants. In traditional African context some sort of rites of Passage existed to assess people’s viability to contribute to different areas of the society.
Elders are responsible for continually contemplating the good and the right. Because of their Eldership status, they are not– or should not be—driven by personal interests or individual rewards. They cannot be tempted or influenced by appeals to favoritism or personal desires. The status of Eldership places them above the needs of manipulating, of “getting over” or “what’s in it for me personally?” Although male and Female Elders have distinct responsibilities in traditional life, in general, as Elders, they share in the responsibility of correcting imbalances, maintaining peace, and revitalizing community life. Their singular goal is to guide and guarantee the cooperative good and collective advancement. The judgments and decisions of the Elders are always consistent with their community’s cultural integrity and directed toward Truth and Justice.
Elders were and are the guardians of the culture, traditions, and history of the people. Integrity, generosity, wisdom, articulateness, subtlety, patience, tactfulness, gratefulness, and being listened to and respected by others are all qualities of an Elder. Understandably, with Eldership, one’s status and value in the community rises. Although the primary work of the Elder is to advise, guide, and oversee the living in community, their fundamental value and purpose lies in teaching the young what it means to be human. The Elder knows the traditions, history, values, beliefs and cultural laws that are inviolate. Accordingly, the experience and wisdom of the Elder is readily sought and freely shared with others. Elders are charged with the task of understanding both the material and spiritual requisites of life. In fact, to have Elders live with you, and for you to have available their daily guidance, is considered a great blessing and advantage. It is thought to be an honor to even be in the presence of an Elder. They serve as a link between the past and the present while guaranteeing that our way of life is extended into the future.
As Elders, both men and women devote themselves to the higher responsibility of utilizing the collective to guide and direct the permanent ascension of the community and to channel it’s vital life force (spirit). The utilization and understanding of the natural spiritual power of the community is, in fact, perceived as the “wisdom of Eldership”. This is an all-consuming task. To do this, Elders are generally not involved in the survival struggles of life. They devote themselves to the full-time pursuit of wisdom—the understanding and application of high values and traditions of the community and the spiritual meaning of being human. In effect, the Elders “work” was and is to synthesize wisdom from long life experiences, to connect the visible (material) and invisible (spiritual) realms, and to formulate all into a legacy of the good life for future generations.
Elders, like young people, are considered to be a full part of African communities. Although they may be physically weak, they are considered in Bậntu and Akan societies, for example, to be a powerful social force. They are spiritually strong and wise enough to maintain the cohesion of the community, but they are also able to build the moral foundation of the community’s youth and the generations to come.
Wade W. Nobles and Mwalimu J. Shujaa *Source: Encyclopedia of African Religion
The final of the initiation rites concerns the soul passing into another continuous phase of existence, the spirit world, and is an extension of the elder distinction because the status that a person has in life is the same status that they bring with them when they pass on. In African societies there is little distinction between the sacred and the secular. The spirit is a part of the All and therefore when a person dies it is believed that communication and ties with the living continues. Because African philosophy from one culture to another agrees that the spirit of the deceased is still with the living community, distinction must be made in the status of the various spirits, as there are distinctions made in the status of the living. So we see a notable difference between an old person who dies and is seen as nothing more than a dead relative; without honor and will not be remembered as a great person nor is someone who should be followed or emulated vs. a respected elder who passes and is a revered and respected ancestor given the highest honor. This group of ancestor wields great power and is often called upon in matters of trouble or uncertainty to help influence a favorable outcome. So a true ancestor is a respected member of the African community who continues to serve as an extension of the family and community, often acting as a go-between between earthly and spiritual realms.
African societies present hundreds of myths about the origin of death. There are no myths in Africa though, about how death might be overcome and removed from the world. However death is thought to have originated, every time a person dies, his or her death is due to a cause. The cause of death is significant. Death can be caused by lightening, trees, poison, drowning, warfare, and various forms of accidents. When death is caused by sickness, there are two broad types: normal and unclean. The cause of death will determine the rites and rituals that are to be performed.
Death in many African cultures, marks the beginning of a new mode of existence characterized by a higher level of spirituality. It is also the time of the ultimate test: whether one will become an ancestor. This, of course, largely depends on how one conducted oneself while alive, but it also depends on the performance of the necessary funerary rituals. It is usually the children’s responsibility to perform such rituals, hence the imperative necessity to get married and bear children.
Death is thought of as a journey to the ancestral world. Those undertaking that crucial journey must be prepared for it. This explains why oftentimes a dead person will be buried with different objects to assist them, such as weapons, tools, food, drink, and even money to be presented as a gift to the ancestral spirits. Before being buried, however, the corpse must be prepared: it must be washed and entirely shaved and the fingernails must be cut. The body may be dressed as well. In some communities, the body is buried within the compound; in others, far enough away. Although rules differ between communities, there are always strict prescriptions on how a dead person should be handled. Failure to comply with those prescriptions and perform the required funerary rituals will have terrible consequences: the spirit of the deceased will be condemned to spiritual vagrancy, unable to access the ancestral realm. In return for being condemned to such a cruel and unenviable fate, the wandering spirit will most likely create havoc for its family and the community. It is therefore imperative for the living, for their own sake, to make sure that all eligible dead receive proper treatment when they die. However those who lived undignified lives such as homosexuals, thieves, murderers, witches, and troublemakers, or died in an undignified manner (e.g. by killing themselves) will have disqualified themselves for proper burial rituals. This may extend as well, in some communities, to people who died childless. Those may be taken into the forest for vultures and other beasts to devour them.
Rites performed at the burial are intended to sever the links with the living. Women, especially, wail and weep to lament the departure of the dead person in some societies, recall the good things that she or he said and did, and offer reminders that the deceased lives in the spirit world. Contrasted with Islamic Africa which expects expression of one’s grief to remain dignified: Islam prohibits the expression of grief by loud wailing (bewailing refers to mourning in a loud voice), shrieking, beating the chest and cheeks, tearing hair or clothes, breaking objects, scratching faces or speaking phrases that make a Muslim lose faith.
Among the Mende people, upon dying, and to access the ancestral world, a person must embark on a most critical journey that involves the successful crossing of a river. To assist the recently deceased individual, the living must perform certain rituals, known as tindyamei. Of particular relevance here is the sacrificing and offering of a chicken at the gravesite 4 days after burial for a man, 3 days for a woman.
In almost all African cultures, of all religions,it is expected for ladies to cover their hair with either a veil or other head tie as a solemn extension of condolence to the bereaved family. Women who attend African funerals often put extra care into arranging their mourning head ties, as the large gatherings also serve as a time to market oneself as a respectable potential wife.
Among the Ewe people, funerals are also taken most seriously. They are dramatic, socially binding and extravagant affairs, spanning over 1 month. There are six phases to a Ewe funeral:
- Amedigbe: the burial of the body (treated with herbs for the sake of preservation) 2-3 days after dying.
- Ndinamegbe: the main mourners are received 1 day after the burial has taken place.
- Nudogbe: a wake-keeping day, usually 4 to 6 days after the burial.
- Yofogbe: a day after Nudogbe, lineage rituals are performed and gifts are offered to the family of the deceased, especially to help with the costs associated with the funeral.
- Akontawogbe: 3 days after Yofogbe, donations are estimated
- Xomefewogbe: the final cost of the funeral is established; attending a funeral and contributing to its expenses is a socially important obligation in Ewe society.
In addition to performing the appropriate burial rituals, certain taboos must also be observed so as not to displease the dead person. Among the Hutu, close relatives of a newly deceased person may not engage in work or sexual intercourse during the period of mourning. When mourning is over, the family organizes a ritual feast, and all activities resume normally. Likewise, a Luo man who just lost his wife must wait until he can sleep in their conjugal room or be around other women. It is not until he has dreamed of making love with his wife, which may take quite a long time (sometimes several years), that he is allowed to use the conjugal bedroom again and live a normal life. Until then, he must sleep in another room and sometimes even outside on the veranda.
Among the Chewa people, when a woman passes away one of her pots is broken and buried with her, thus signifying the end of her life. This is also done when a woman from Burkina Faso dies. Her pot is broken as an analogy for her now broken and lifeless body.
All across the Continent, the relationship between the living and their ancestors is a dynamic and reciprocal one. It is not uncommon, for example, for ancestral spirits to visit their living relatives, to whom they appear in dreams. Ancestral spirits might pay a visit out of care and protection, but also out of displeasure if they feel neglected or offended. When a person or a family experiences misfortunes, for example, death, illness, or barrenness, the ancestors are immediately suspected of being responsible. It is therefore quite important for the living to please the ancestors by honoring and remembering them. This can only be done through living an ethical life. This is also the only way to become an ancestor, the supreme goal and reward of life.
Ancestors are venerated; they are not worshiped. Libation and the offering of food to the ancestral spirits are rituals and rites performed to express the esteem and feelings of hospitality that people hold for their ancestors. These acts reflect the firm belief that Africans generally have in the existence of an unbroken relationship that exists between the living and the Dead.
In West Africa, the Akan and Yoruba are among those who believe that not everyone who dies becomes an ancestor. There are conditions that must be met. A person’s conduct in the world of the living and the manner of his or her death determine admission into the ranks of ancestors. In the case of the Akan, special ritual preparations are made by the maternal lineage of the deceased to facilitate passing of the spiritual personality. First and foremost, however to become an ancestor one must have been an elder. Ancestors are, therefore, separate and distinct from other spirits who are endowed with immortality. Becoming an ancestor requires that one live one’s life from the beginning in anticipation of the end. Eternal existence becomes possible after one has first achieved perception as an elder. As ancestors, elders have achieved the highest state of existence. They exist with God, but unlike God, they cannot create or the created order. Ancestors are dynamic. They can reincarnate via their spirits to help people.
Ama Mazama *Source: Encyclopedia of African Religion
Orthodox Christians in Africa as well as Muslims, follow very stringent burial rites. They are similar in that when near death, those around him or her are called upon to give comfort, and reminders of God’s mercy and forgiveness. They may recite verses from the Bible/Qur’an, give physical comfort, and encourage the dying one to recite words of remembrance and prayer. It is recommended, if at all possible, for a Muslim’s last words to be the declaration of faith: “I bear witness that there is no god but Allah.” The differences between the two, following death are outlined below.
Christians will sing hymns with rites ideally being performed at the church temple with the coffin positioned at the middle of the temple. However exceptions are possible and this rite can be performed at the funeral home’s chapel or in the cemetery chapel. A dish of boiled soft-shell wheat or barley sweetened with sugar, honey, raisins or other dry fruit is prepared by relatives of the deceased and candles to symbolize the “Light of the World” are distributed. The coffin is carried–feet first–into the church for the burial service and placed in the center, facing the alter. The coffin is opened and an icon of Christ or the patron Saint is placed in the hands of the departed. A wreath with the Trisagion printed on it is placed on the forehead of the departed an a hand-cross is placed in the coffin near the head of the departed. Candles are distributed to the worshipers who, receiving the light from the priest, hold them lit throughout the service until near the end. After the Dismissal and “Memory Eternal,” friends come to say a last good-bye to the departed. They may kiss the hand-cross which is set on the side of the coffin or the icon placed in the hands of the departed. The closest relatives should be given an opportunity to spend several minutes with the departed alone. Then the coffin is closed and carried out from the church to the hearse. The choir sings the Trisagion, and the bells are rung slowly. The funeral cortege proceeds to the cemetery where a short grave-side service of entombment is sung by the priest. Since pre-Christian times, it has been customary to mark the place of burial by the erection of a grave mound. The Christian Church has adopted this tradition, beatifying the grave mound with the the Holy Life-giving Cross, which may be depicted on a gravestone or elevated over it. The cross on the grave mound is placed at the feet of the buried Christian, so that he will be facing the Crucifix. When the monument is placed on the grave, the relatives of the departed invite the parish priest to the cemetery for The Rite of Blessing of the Cross.