The Massai warriors arriving at the Eunoto Ceremony

Anthropology: The Diverse Cultural Rituals Among African Tribes

The continent Africa is home to some of the richest culture and ancient traditions in the world. It is made up of numerous countries and tribes. Each of these tribes share a similar foundation while preserving their individualistic culture. A core part of African culture are the rituals and festivals passed down from generation to generation. These cultural traditions define a tribe member’s life; what they wear, how they act, what they eat, etc. Some examples of cultural rituals include: beadwork, dancing, masks, and hairstyles. These are all trademarks of each independent tribe, and contribute to their overall identity and relationship with each other. Moreover, Africa’s diverse cultures have influenced many other nations in the world. Therefore, in order to understand the African continent’s immense global reach, it is important to explore the heart of its different tribal rituals.

What Can We Learn From Cultural Rituals?

Rituals are defined as religious or solemn ceremonies that consist of a series of actions in a specific order. In general, rituals stem from culture and traditions. They have the power to emotionally move us, and to motivate us into making particular life choices. Through rituals we can build a foundation for the community, while also creating and strengthening an identity. Historically, people used the bonds made through rituals to create ties of kinship needed for survival in unfamiliar terrains. In addition, cultural rituals gave a sense of structure and hierarchy within civilizations.

By defining their place in the world, rituals eventually led to early forms of worship such as paganism, animism and totemism. Interestingly, the oldest known acts of human ritual originated from a cave in the Tsodilo Hills, Botswana, about 70,000 years ago. These hills were also referred to locally as the “Mountains of the Gods”. Moreover, because it was understood that communal identity is created and shared through experiences, ancient rituals were absorbed into new forms by religious leaders. The general consensus was that the more intense an experience is, the greater the bond that is created; thus sharing traumatic initiation rites was believed to strengthen communities. Coming of age rituals were particularly crucial as they were thought to be powerful in creating identity and marking the move away from childhood and into adulthood.  Furthermore, rituals tend to reflect the diversity of human experience. Something that is perceived as normal to one culture is completely bizarre to the other. An example of this will be seen in the following sections as we dive further into the different African tribes.

African Tribes and Rituals

A map of the African continent and surrounding lands
A map of the African continent and surrounding lands credit: geology.com

To the rest of the world, Africa remains an otherworldly nation. Its rich culture varies from country to country and tribe to tribe. While to some the cultural traditions of this continent may seem strange or different, African tribes hold a completely unique way of life. They participate in several forms of artistic expression. Many of which use their physical forms as tools for self-expression through dance, clothing, and art. Additionally, community is a strong theme in these tribes, people come together through different forms of tradition. The rituals performed define the way a tribe member goes about their life, from long-term goals to day to day grievances. Any reservation people might have about African culture simply stems from ignorance. Therefore, it is crucial to explore the ritualistic culture of different African tribes.

Zulu of South Africa

The Zulu tribe people standing in cultural clothing
                                                   The Zulu people Credit: pinterest.co.uk

The Zulu people are a Nguni ethnic group within Southern Africa. They are the largest ethnic group in the region with an estimated 10 to 12 million people living in the province KwaZulu-Natal. The Zulu tribe originated from the Nguni communities, who were known to take part in the Bantu migrations. The people take great pride in their cultural ceremonies such as the Umhlanga, or Reed Dance, and their various forms of beadwork. The artistic skills needed to participate in the production of beadwork are vital in the identification of the Zulu people as a whole. The beads  also act as a form of communication between the tribe members.

History, Language and Religion: A Short Introduction

Originally, the Zulu tribe was a major clan in what is today Northern KwaZulu-Natal. During that era, the area was occupied by numerous Nguni clans. These clans were also known as the isizwe people/nation, or the isibongo, which referred to their family or clan name. During the Bantu migrations, Nguni communities had migrated down the East coast of Africa over centuries. As the nation began to develop, the leader, Shaka, brought the clans together through his divisive military strategies and skills. His rulership over the clans brought a cohesive identity for the Zulu.

The official language of the Zulu people is IsiZulu, which is a Bantu language that is part of the Nguni subgroup. This is the most spoken language in South Africa as more than half of the Southern population is able to understand it. Many Zulu people are also fluent in Sesotho, Xitsonga and other of South Africa’s 11 official languages.

Today, the Zulu population predominantly believe in Christianity. However, they have also created a syncretic religion that combines the values of its previous belief  systems.

The Umhlanga Event

Zulu tribe women in colorful clothing dancing
                                  The Reed dance of the Zulu people credit: CNN.com

The Zulu people celebrate an annual cultural event that was established in 1984 called the Umhlanga or The Reed Dance. This event regularly takes place in the royal capital near Nongoma, and is performed by young women from different parts of the kingdom. These women commonly perform for the monarch and all of his guests. The entire purpose of this event is to promote a conservative outlook on sexuality as it encourages pride in virginity and to restrict sexual relationships. In addition, the traditional attire worn by performers and guests at this event consists of different forms of beadwork. This event is also used as a public platform through which the King can speak to his subjects and discuss the political issues arising in their nation.

Beadwork

colourful beadwork necklace of the Zulu tribe people
                                        Credit: pinquest.co.za

For the Zulu people, the creation of beadwork originates from the times of war. This type of beadwork is known as iziqu, or medallions of war. As it is often worn as a necklace, this particular style of beadwork is displayed in a criss-cross formation across the shoulders. It was assembled by the warriors and thought of as a symbol of bravery. In addition, before the use of glass became popular with the Zulu, beadwork was made of wood, seeds and berries. It was after the arrival of the European colonizers that glass became a trade material with the Portuguese, and soon became abundantly available.

For many of the Zulu people, beadwork is a form of communication. When one wears multiple beads, it is a sign of wealth. The more beads a person has, the wealthier they appear. Further, beads can even convey details about a person’s age, gender or marital status. However, context is necessary in order to read people’s beads properly and effectively. Similar to language and accents, some designs of beadwork can depict different translations compared to other areas of the region. Therefore, in order to understand what a person is trying to say through their beadwork, one must be familiar with the local vernacular. For the most part, beads are worn for important ceremonies such as weddings, or coming of age ceremonies. It can be a colourful mark of decorativeness or a symbol for the people. The Zulu associate beaded elements with their costumes as a mark of finery or prestige.

To the Zulu tribe, beadwork is a crucial part of every ritual as it is a constant reminder of a member’s place within the clan. It is worn by all men, women, children of any age and the significance of it varies depending on the stage of life an individual is in. It can be worn when people are having a romantic affair, or are in the process of courting someone. It can also be given as a gift to someone you have a romantic interest in. It is thought that men who wear a lot of beaded necklaces are highly desirable as these are gifts from other women.

colourful Zulu tribe beadwork
                                                             Credit: dreamstime.com

The different colors of beads hold different meanings depending on where they originated from. Therefore, due to this variety, miscommunication is common and inevitable as there is no one standard color system across South Africa. For example, in some areas, green beads represent jealousy while in others they symbolize grass. The role of beadwork in rituals such as the Reed dance is vital as it not only brings a festive air to the event, but also symbolizes the messages of virtue to the people.

San or Khoisan of Southern Africa

A man from the san tribe holding a bow and arrow
       The San people hunted with wooden bow and arrows. Credits: South-Africa-tours-and-travel.com

The San people are the oldest occupants of Southern Africa. They have lived there for around 20,000 years. The term “San” is used to refer to the varied group of hunter-gatherers living in Southern Africa that share historical and linguistic connections. Previously, the San were also referred to as “Bushmen”, but this term has been largely abandoned since it is deemed derogatory. Within the San tribe there are multiple groups that have no collective name for themselves. Historically speaking, the San have a long and unfortunate history of poverty, social rejection and a decline in their cultural identity due to the discrimination their group faced. However, the San have also been at the center of attention of many anthropologists as they have superior survival and hunting skills. Their wealth of indigenous knowledge of Southern Africa, along with other rich traditions, left them with a certain amount of spotlight from the media.

The other common name for this tribe is Koisan. This is a blend of the Khoikhoi and the San people. These two groups shared similar languages and cultural habits but were not homogeneous people. In fact, these two groups generally remained in isolation from each other and used various different means to survive off the land. Moreover, neither is related to the Bantu tribes, as the San are descendants of their Early Stone age ancestors. Clans and other family groups followed seasonal game migrations between mountain ranges and the coastline. They commonly made their homes in caves, or in temporary shelters. Interestingly, these nomadic people do not domesticate animals or cultivate crops despite their intensive knowledge of both. Additionally, the San people have no formal authority figurehead, they govern themselves through group discussions and general consensus.

Animals such as the Eland are one of the more important creatures needed for ritualistic practices. The San tribe consider it their most spiritual animal and it appears in the following rituals: Boy’s first kill, Girl’s puberty, Marriage and the Trance Dance.

The trance dance of the San people
                             The trance dance of the San people credit: thoughtco.com

There is such a heavy emphasis put on boys learning to hunt and provide within this culture that there is an entire ceremony dedicated to the concept. A ritual is held where a boy is taught how to track an Eland, and once the boy has shot the animal with an arrow, he becomes an adult. During a girl’s puberty ritual, a young girl is isolated during her first menstruation cycle. In the meantime, the women of the tribe perform the Eland Bull Dance where they imitate the mating behavior of the Eland cows. A man usually plays a part in this dance too. He acts as the Eland bull with horns on his head. This ritual is believed to keep the girl beautiful, free from hunger or thirst, and overall peaceful. As a part of the marriage ritual, the man gives the fat taken from the Eland’s heart to the girl’s parents as a form of dowry. While in the Trace dance, the Eland is thought to be the most powerful animal and the shamans aspire to possess the Eland’s power and strength.

One of the most important rituals among the San people by far is a dance that aims to heal the members of the tribe. The great “medicine or healing dance” and the rain dance are rituals in which everyone actively participates. During this ritual, the women sat around a fire and sang as they clapped their hands. Then the men then danced around the women in a clockwise direction and vice versa. The name of this dance is derived from the sheer intensity the dancers achieve when participating. They enter a trance-like state and are believed to be transported to the spirit realm where they can plead for the health of the sick. The Sans widely believe in this ritual as a remedy for the severely sick in their groups.

Man performing The healing dance by San people
                                  The healing dance by San people credit: krugerpark.co.za

Overall, the harsh exterior of the San people allowed them to survive the extreme climate of the Kalahari desert in which they are now mostly present. Today, the San people have to adapt many political, social and economic strategies to survive in the modern world. They still rely on many of their ancient practices and tribal rituals but have been forced to make some compromises. While the culture and traditions of the San people is vastly fascinating and enriching, it may soon only be available in museums. It is likely that the San people will soon go extinct and their traditions, rituals and culture will become a part of history journals.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Learning about the different ritualistic cultures among African tribes gives us some invaluable insight into the lives of the people. It allows us to understand the level of importance and influence these traditions held within tribes. From a historical standpoint, the cultures and resources of this continent greatly influenced every other nation in the Western world. For example, the United States’s relationship with Africa precedes American independence. The monetary profits made from the trans-Atlantic slave trade helped kickstart the Industrial revolution. Additionally, the labor exploited by enslaved Africans and their future generations laid the economic foundation for the nation. Even today, the increase in African American communities within the U.S enriches American culture. Thus, studying different African tribes and their rituals is a vital part of understanding world history. It plays a great role in the construction of society as we know it today. Additionally, in order to recognize the subtle influences of African rituals in art, literature and politics, we must evaluate the heart of its numerous cultures. Furthermore, by studying different aspects of African culture, you become a more informed global citizen.

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References:

Bone, A. (2016, June 27). Why rituals are still relevant. Retrieved 2021, from https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/voices/culture/article/2016/06/27/why-rituals-are-still-relevant

Hofmeyr, A. (2018, December 30). African Tribes – African Cultures & African Traditions. Retrieved from https://www.africanbudgetsafaris.com/blog/african-tribes-african-culture-and-african-traditions/

Kwach, J. (2020, August 13). 12 famous African tribes – culture, rituals and traditions. Retrieved from https://briefly.co.za/48023-12-famous-african-tribes-culture-rituals-traditions.html

Morton, R. (2013). African Ceremonies: PASSAGES – African Ceremonies – Google Arts & Culture. Retrieved from https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/african-ceremonies-passages/QQJgfgg2

The San People. (n.d.). Retrieved 2021, from https://www.krugerpark.co.za/africa_bushmen.html

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