Top 11 Most See Cultural Traditions in Africa

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

Photo Credit: Andrew Rogers

Since festival season is around the corner, we want to highlight few outstanding festivals and traditions on the continent. With over 3000 languages and ethnic groups it’s not a surprise that Africa is the most diverse continent and has one of the most outstanding traditions that are still endured and honored. Every people is a treasure for humanity. The most vital societies that history has known have always been those characterized by great ethnic and cultural diversity. UNESCO defines cultural diversity as, “a defining characteristic of humanity and represents the common heritage of humanity and should be recognized and affirmed for the benefit of present and future generations.”

One of the beautiful things about exploring Africa is the opportunity or chance to witness or encounter these diverse cultures and traditions. So no matter which country you visit and depending on the season there’s a chance that you will get to encounter a culture or few that will inspire you or perhaps give you a better understand and perspective on things. This is were you get to appreciate and understand the true essence of traveling - it’s about the experiences and the seemingly unexpected moments that tend to capture our full attention and fuel our imagination and perhaps shift perspective for a better understanding of our differences. The fact is that, “better knowledge and recognition of our respective differences leads ultimately to better mutual understanding, with particular regard to those objectives we hold in common,” as stated in the UNESCO World Report, Investing in Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue.

So, here are few cultural traditions and their significance and meaning to the tribes and ethnic groups who hold them dare to their hearts, hence in making sure they are passed down from one generation to another no matter the changing times. We hope you get to learn and appreciate them for what they are and remove all judgements, preconceived notions, stereotype, biases and nuances.

Zulu Tradition

1. Zulu Reed Dance

Modern Zulu culture is heavily influenced by King Shaka Zulu’s kingdom, which established a dominant Zulu state and solidified its influence among the Northern Nguni people in the 1800s. Once a year, in the heart of South Africa's Kingdom of the Zulu, thousands of people make the long journey to one of His Majesty’s, the King of the Zulu nation's royal residence at KwaNyokeni Palace. Here, in Nongoma, early every September month, young Zulu maidens will take part in a colorful cultural festival, the Royal Reed Dance festival - or Umkhosi woMhlanga in the Zulu language.

For visitors to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa's most popular tourist destination, the Reed Dance festival offers the unique opportunity to experience the natural beauty and majesty of the Kingdom of the Zulu, combined with the vibrant spectacle of Zulu cultural life. The road to the Reed Dance festival runs north from the city of Durban, and winds through the green lushness of the North Coast sugar-belt, skirting through the Kingdom's world-renowed wildlife reserves of Zululand and Maputaland. Finally, it leads into the gently rolling hills and valleys of Zululand, a landscape rich with the silent memories of the heroic clashes of the Anglo-Zulu War, which took place more than 100 years ago.

Photo Credit: Steven McCurry

2. The courtship dance of the Wodaabe

Birds do it. Bees do it. We’re talking, of course, about a courtship dance. In the Wodaabe tribe of Niger, the human mating ritual takes a page from nature’s book. The Guérewol is an annual ritual and competition that sees young men dress up in elaborate ornamentation and traditional face paint and gather in lines to dance and sing. The goal? To get the attention of one of the judges – a marriageable young woman. In this particular tribe, the male beauty ideal is all about bright eyes and teeth, so men will often roll their eyes and bare their teeth to show off their sex appeal.

3. The lip plates of the Mursi

The Mursi tribe of Ethiopia is one of the last tribes in Africa where it’s the norm for women to wear large pottery or wooden plates in their lower lips. When a Mursi girl reaches the age of 15 or 16, her lower lip is cut by her mother or another older woman in the settlement. The cut is held open by a wooden plug for about three months while it heals. Mursi members are rather egalitarian – girls are never forced to have their lip pierced; it’s a totally personal choice. (Of course, 16 is the prime age for peer pressure no matter your culture, and this is often the reason girls opt for the lip plate.)

4. The bull jumping of the Hamar

Ethiopia’s Hamar tribe (also known as the Hamer tribe), made up mostly of pastoralists who respect and treasure their cattle, has a rather… athletic initiation ritual. Forget cow tipping – this tradition is all about the art of bull jumping. Bull jumping is a three-day rite of passage that all boys must partake in, and it’s extremely important for the dignity of both the initiate and his family. The initiate must walk over 15 castrated bulls that have been rubbed in dung to make their backs slippery (and the task that much tougher). If he fails, he’ll have to wait a whole year to try again. And if he succeeds? It means he’s ready to marry a girl of his parents’ choosing, and to raise his own children and cattle.

Photo credit: National Geography

5. The red ochre of the Himba

The women of this iconic Namibian tribe are known for their beautiful, red-tinged skin and hair. The reason for the rich colour? A homemade paste of butter, fat and red ochre known as otjize. Girls in the tribe start using otjize as soon as they’re old enough to care for their own hygiene. There has long been speculation around exact origins of the practice, with many people claiming it acts as sun protection or insect repellent. But the Himba tribe says it’s purely for aesthetic reasons – effectively a traditional make-up they apply every morning in the same way we’d slap on a lick of mascara and lipstick.

6. Spiritual Transcendence of the Mandinka / Mande Tribe:

Sometimes storytelling in artistic expressions like dance and rituals and performances for example have spiritual significances or be a form of spiritual transcendence. According to Prof. Misty Bastian & students, “the Mande people are very magical in nature. This can be mostly attributed to the nyamakalaw subgroup; an endogamous people who are born with the inherent ability to control nature. The power they are able to wield so well is called nyama. In fact, their name nyama-kala could be translated as handlers (kala) of nyama. The Mande see nyama as a hot, wild energy that is the animating force of nature. Nyama is present in all the rocks, trees, people and animals that inhabit the Earth. It is similar to the Western notion of the soul but is more complete than that. It controls nature, the stars and the motions of the sea. Nyama is truly the sculptor of the universe.” A popular performance and artistic expression the Mandinka’s in The Gambia has is the performance by a Kanguran and Ifanbondi. Kankuran is played by a man who takes on the role of an age-old spirit and guardian. He usually comes out during periods of male circumcision to cleanse and chase away evil spirits. He is a frightening and terrifying figure dressed in leaves and bark and red fibers from an oak-like tree called the Faare and carries a cutlass or machete and usually have a Jobo (guide, intermediary) between themselves and the people. The Jobo speaks for the Kankuran.

Ifanbondi on the other hand is more frightening and terrifying than Kankuran, commissioned to restrict and threaten the evil advocates during male circumcision. The safety of the newly circumcised is not left to the agency of God alone, but regulated by the inter-mediators of our humanly world, the Ifanbondis. Ifanbondi literally means in Mandinka someone who change into another form and are individuals who are said to be in Mandinka, (Kun Fanunteh) someone with seven sense or extra ordinary visions. Ifanbondis plays a part in helping restore calmness in situations to fight the all-powerful, night travelers (Witch’s), they are the antidotes of Witches. They can fight them spirit to spirits. Almost everyone in the village will not dare come out when Ifanbondi takes its form. There are significant differences between Kankuran and Ifanbondi. Whilst Kankurans discipline youths, and even adults, they cannot enter into the realms of the deep spirits. Also the Kankuran are social entertainers, whilst the Ifanbondis are not. The Kankuran can sing and dance, the Ifanbondi cannot even be identified let alone entertain the people and have spiritual knowledge. As the sayings goes, familiarity breeds contempt, no one knows who takes form of Ifanbondi, that logic is utilized by the elders in sensitively disguising or keeping the identity of the Ifanbondi a top secret. The Ifanbondi is usually someone from a different neighbourhood, but it can also be a native. The intention of both the Kankuran and Ifanbondi is rooted in abstruse mysteries and self-mortification.

Masaai Traditional Wedding

7. Maasai warriors in Kenya.

The Maasai people of Kenya and Northern Tanzania view spitting as a form of blessing and a sign of respect. Tribespeople use spitting to greet or say goodbye to friends, clinch a bargain or to wish someone good luck. Two friends greeting each other will spit in their palms before shaking hands. When a baby is born, family members will spit on the child to wish him or her a long life and good luck. Spitting is also customary on a daughter’s wedding day, where her father will spit on her forehead to wish her a blessed union.

8. The healing dance of the San

For the San people of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Angola, dance is considered a sacred power. An essential element of the San cultural identity is their healing, medicine dance & music, in which they use rhythm to heal both the individual & the collective. The medicine men have a supernatural potency within them called n/um that enables them to cure sickness. To activate this substance they dance & sing, creating sounds & a tempo that heats the n/um, causing it to rise up to their head. This evokes trance. The healers dance around the fire, chant and hyperventilate until they induce a powerful trance-like state. In this state, they are granted access to the spirit world (and are often able to walk over fire). The San healers aren’t just doing this to cure physical illnesses in their community – they also attempt to expel what they call “star sickness”, a force that causes jealousy, anger and arguments.

This family of San still practice a trance-dance that goes back to the first memories of their culture, making this the oldest form of trance music in the world. The collection of songs is an integral part of a San family, their culture & worldview. Enchanting & hypnotic, these include expressions of celebration, the recalling of memories, humor, & healing. Of all the tribal traditions, this one is arguably the most magical. This dance is the oldest form of meditation & enables participants to contact their ancestors by entering a state of !kia (trance). This spiritual state is accessible to all. It is an integral part of their lives, bringing the whole community together. !kia is to go into unconsciousness ('half death'), letting go of the spirit in order to commune with Gauwa (God). Tragically, after decades of systematic marginalization & dislocation, the modern world threatens these ancient people, their culture as hunter-gatherers, & their strange, beautiful music.

9. The wedding ceremony of the Ndebele

The Ndebele wedding ceremony is all about the bride – and her attire puts western white dresses to shame. This, in most part, is thanks to her future mother-in-law and the prettiest of all the tribal traditions. The groom’s mother creates a Jocolo for the bride – an apron made of goatskin and decorated with gorgeous, colourful beads. The Jocolo is worn by all married women at the wedding ceremony, and is representative of a mother surrounded by children. On their wedding day, the groom performs a ceremony in honour of his new wife, giving her thanks and credit for everything she’s done for him in their time together. The Ndebele tribe are renowned for their intricate beadwork and brightly coloured homes painted in striking geometric designs. The main element of Ndebele women’s wear is an apron. Girls wear small beaded aprons, while older girls wear isiphephetu, a beaded apron given to them by their mothers, and isigolwani which are thick beaded hoops worn around their necks, arms, legs and waist.

Married women wear longer aprons made of hardened skin that are lavishly decorated in geometric designs. They also wear isigolwani and copper rings called idzilla around the neck, ankles and arms. Girls and unmarried women traditionally do not cover their breasts, whereas married women cover their upper bodies with blankets in multi-coloured stripes or beaded designs.

Ndebele men wear animal skin aprons and beaded breast-plates or iporiyana which hangs from the neck. The iporiyana is a symbol of manhood and is given to a young man by his father after he has undergone initiation. Animal skin headbands and ankle bands are also worn along with a cape.

10. The Himba Tribe ‘Holy or Sacred Fire’Omuramba, Namibia

The Himba people are considered to be the last true nomads in the world believing in ancestor worship and connect to ancestors through a sacred fire kept alight continually in accord with a centuries old tradition. The Himbas are animists and their supreme being is call Mukuru. The way they communicate with Mukuru is through the holy or sacred fire. The smoke from the fire rises up to heaven allowing them to communicate with their ancestors who stand in direct contact with the supreme being. Next to the fire are logs of wood put on the sacred stone in order to feed the fire when needed. The chief and his family are responsible for keeping the fire ablaze. There is a holy line drawn which starts from the main entrance of the chiefs hut and goes straight passing the sacred fire to the entrance of the cattle enclosure. A cattle is use as a sacrifice.

11. Voodoo Ceremony in Benin:

Benin's religious practices include Christianity, Islam and Voodoo which is said to have originated from the Aja ethnic group. Considered sorcery or black magic as it is portrayed in the western culture. The country celebrates Voodoo Day in January 10th of each year, which is a public holiday, enacted since 1992; and there is also a national Voodoo museum. Voodoo, in Fon language means “spirit” is the spiritual force that an esoteric phenomenon of black magic, Voodoo is indeed a true religion. Voodoo is a traditional belief, a culture, spiritual way of life in Benin. It is often a misunderstood religion and in fact has nothing do witlies within all the expressions of nature. A unique god (Mawul), creator of all things is manifested to the world through multiple deities, representing the spirits of the the ancestors and the forces of nature. Ceremonies and rituals are used to invoke the gods and allow man to get in touch with the divine.

Through offerings and sacrifices, the gods are called to ask for advice, good health, wealth or fortune. It is the duty of the priests to sermon the gods so that they can manifest through possession of a human being. This possession is achieved through a frenzied dance to the best of drums and plunges the person into a kind of trance which manifests the divinity. The most important part of the ceremony is in fact the dance.

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