This post is titled 'Extreme Tradition? - 4 African cultures that will shock you!' ; it is ultimately asking the question of whether some African traditions do not fit in to societal standards and examples of what is deemed as 'acceptable behaviour'. It is important to make clear that in no way is this to place a label on a tradition - if we do not walk in their shoes who are we to tell them how to move. But hopefully, this post will illustrate how people of our society; me, you, anyone who comes across this, feel about the significance of cultural differences between the diaspora and native Africans... well hopefully that's what it does anyway!
As much as I personally like to identify with Africa, I will be direct and say that some of the following cultures really did shock me and leave me stunned, whereas some I felt were just, rather unusual... So of course, I want to know what everyone else thinks! We will explore 4 cultures belonging to various ethnic groups: their practices and the reasoning behind them. We must include a trigger warning, as some of the images or content may appear as disturbing, or sensitive to some. I may take this up as a segment on this blog if you guys enjoy it, though I have to warn you, it will be harder to get "more shocking" than these...
1] The 'Maasai' Tribe - East Africa
For the Maasai, spitting at or on a person is not considered a taboo like it would be here in the UK for example. In fact, it acts as a blessing for the person who the spit is aimed at because you are giving a part of you - spit acts as the essence of a person, so it is polite gesture to make. Look, everyone has different perspectives of which part of the body (or fluids) is more valuable.
Newborn babies are "blessed" with spit from others to wish them a good life. Parents often spit on their babies' heads to wish them good luck. Likewise if you speak with an elder and you are about to leave, they will spit on your head to bless your departure and protect you from any evil forces.
Not only does it make a good greeting and offers protection, spitting is also essential to the process of healing among the Maasai, for example: curing someone who is suspected to be a victim of bewitchment. The person visits a diviner or "oloiboni", who will read divinatory stones and bless the person, it also comes with a medicine of bush herbs to treat the bewitchment. "While uttering the words of blessing, the oloiboni sprinkles the medicine by spitting it onto the patient" (Talle, 1995: p.64), so we can see that spitting is regarded as important especially if it is being used to transfer a blessing from the diviner to a person who is said to be affected by witchcraft. It is important it comes from the mouth because the saliva is believed to be where humans hold much power.
Spitting is deemed as the highest form of courtesy among the Maasai, here are some other ways that spitting is used to "bless people" among the Maasai:
- It is a sign of respect, so often people will spit on their hands before shaking someones hand.
- At a wedding, the bride's father blesses his daughter by spitting on her forehead and her breasts.
Some have argued that the practice is very dangerous, because it increases the risk of spreading diseases. What do you think, do you understand it or do you think it is a bit *extreme* let me know. The twitter vote results are shown below:
2] The Banyankole Tribe - Uganda
The Potency Test
In the Banyankole tribe, located in Uganda, the marriage ceremony means quite a lot to the aunt of the bride. Maybe even more than to the bride herself... You know that old school tradition, where a man and a woman would get married and on their wedding night, you'd assume the couple would go off and "consummate" the marriage; and sleep with each other, for the first time. That's the old fairy-tale right ? Well here, this burden falls on the bride’s aunt. When a couple chooses to get married, the aunt has to have sex with the groom as a test of his “potency” and furthermore, she has to test the bride’s virginity. I can probably imagine what the latter test would look like (but I'd rather not).
Now is this extreme to do this? I highly doubt they are the only culture in the world that practice this type of thing involving family members of the bride. The Banyankole obviously go to the furthest length to test the potency of the groom, but similarly, there is a marital tradition in Cameroon where multiple women are paraded around a groom to be, but they are covered.
The groom has to pick his wife to be out of all the women, and is fined every time he chooses the wrong one. When I say "paraded", we have to be careful not to get this misconstrued; there was a video on Twitter from 2019, circulating once pertaining to this particular wedding dowry in Cameroon and it showed women from the brides family twerking on a groom to be and seeing if his manhood rises. What I can say is I think that video showed a more modern approach to the dowry, I suppose the concept is the same. but I have not read any more about women twerking over the groom; it seems more like a parade of marriageable, young women showing their assets to the groom with their faces covered so he can test his knowledge of his wife. If you have not seen the video I am speaking of, you can quickly view it here , watch 10 seconds from 1:52 (but make sure you come back to read!). That's my take, but if you are reading this and you're from Cameroon, please comment and let us know because I would really like to know if the tradition is actually like what the video displayed.
But back to the Banyankole; it is definitely not unheard of that sexual intercourse is performed during cultural rites of passage as tests of fertility, not only that but sexual taunts and gestures as tests of validity. Though some have categorised such as obscenity, it is undoubtedly a common tradition in various cultures of the world. As Stephens (1968: 416), who explores sex for ceremonial use across different cultures and states that "sexual intercourse outside of ordinarily permitted relationships" can take place to mark a certain ceremony; like marriage. So the sex with the aunt thing is extreme, but not unheard of.
3] The Chewa Tribe - Malawi
The Festival of the Dead
The Chewa community is a Bantu tribe from southern central Africa, and the largest ethnic group in Malawi. Just like many other African cultures, the Chewa ensure that they celebrate death with a fitting burial. Whether this consists of a ceremony or a ritual, something is always done to aid the deceased on their journey to "the other side"; becoming an ancestor.
This custom is known as the 'Festival of the Dead'.
It is important for us to have some background on the Chewa people, as before now, they are a group that I had never heard of. Moreover, I feel that their cultural belief system provides more context for the "shocking" part of this one [number 3]. Around the world, the Chewa people are most known for their masks, which vary in appearance and are supposed to represent a deity, similar to the notion of all African tribal masks. The masks feature heavily during the Festival of the Dead, because those wearing the masks are embodying an ancestor, someone that has passed to the other side or a deity; meaning a supernatural force and something that is no longer in the physical realm. Given that the purpose of such ceremonies, is to peacefully guide the deceased on their journey in becoming a figment of the Chewa supernatural realm, it makes sense why people would want to sport the masks for the day. Not only this, but the Chewa are well-known for a unique societal attribute; their "secret societies". A popular Chewa secret society are the 'Nyau' - or 'Nyao' meaning 'mask'. The group consists of initiated members of the Chewa and Nyanja (Bantu) community who are said to lead secluded lives, and are well-trained in concealing their identity. The Nyau were "supposed to embody the cosmology and religion of the Chewa - a Bantu people of central and southern Africa" (Fröhlich, 2017). So, as you can imagine the importance of masks in the Chewa community goes beyond ceremonial practice; and masks are actually immersed in their core belief system. Some have referred to the Nyau as a cult, that dates back centuries, but the association is closely related with Chewa and Mag'anja people who came to Malawi, with their origin being the Congo area" (Fröhlich, 2017).
For the Chewa, it is said that when a person dies, the corpse is to be taken to a sacred place and the throat is to be cut open. Water is then poured through the hole, and squeezed through the stomach until it comes out of the anus. This process is repeated until the water comes out clean. The water is then collected and used to prepare a meal for the whole community.
For the Chewa, the belief is that when a tribe member passes away the whole village must show up to the burial, as death is not believed to be caused by natural circumstances and is said to be the work of a witch. The logic is, that those who might have killed a person would be too scared to attend the funeral.
Are we shocked yet?
4] Igbo Tribe - Nigeria
Widowhood in Igboland
It is a common custom among the Igbo's to find widows subjected to humiliation to prove that she had no involvement in her husband’s death. This cultural tradition is practised particularly in the five Igbo states in South-Eastern Nigeria namely: Enugu, Anambra, Abia, Ebonyi, and Imo states. The experience of becoming a widow in Igboland has been described as one that "violates the fundamental human rights of women through culturally prescribed seclusions" (Mezieobi and Iyamu, 2011). An example of the shift and dullness that comes into practice for a widow is how for instance, it is said that wives of kings in some communities "must mourn their husbands for seven years before they are buried and another one year after their interment" (Jannah, 2017). So a woman cannot marry or look do as much as look at another man for 8 years after her husband has passed. But this is not even the most unfair treatment that widows are said to receive. The widow who is not of a high status in society, can be commonly subjected to specific and rather foul punishments; such as:
- forcing her to drink the water used in washing her husband’s corpse
- shaving off her hair
- seizure of husband's properties
- physical absue
- starvation unless she is fed by another widow
- forced to take a bath on her husband's grave
In the worst case scenario, where a widow has been accused of causing her husband's death, that is when the ritual of drinking the water that has been used to cleanse the husbands corpse would be performed. This would be followed up with the widow taking an oath, that if she is accused of being guilty of killing her husband, she will die within two years... If she lives after two years then it would become apparent that she is not guilty for the alleged crime. Many of the crimes done toward widows are to "show the widow that she has lost her freedom" or for the widow to "show signs of severing her relationship with her dead husband" (Cain, 2018).
Widows are said to be tangled in the societal neglect and unjust treatments due to the loss of their partners. Much treatment of widows depends on what her status is after the loss of her husband. So, if she is already a successful woman with her own assets and wealth, it would be harder to chastise her for being an unmarried women whose husband died. The women who are the most vulnerable in society, are often the most common victims of the abuse. It is a completely different quality of life for widows in Igboland as "they have been made victims of ritual practices in a situation neither created nor could control" (Odimmegwa, 2010). For long now, writers of Igbo heritage have called for social justice for women in their community, accusing the widowhood tradition of being outdated. Chidili (2005) states that "widowhood is just one of such age-old traditional values that needs investigation with a new aggiornamental lens", while Odimmegwa adds, it needs more than "any kind of evolution, it needs "revolution" "(Odimmegwa, 2010: p3). Many people accuse this cultural tradition as being outdated or old fashioned. This does not allow generational progression of human rights for both women alike - if women who are victims of loss of their spouses to be treated as second class citizens.
However, it is important to note, that such maltreatment tends to be resolved "through the intervention of appropriate authorities like family unions, kindred (Umunna), village councils or town unions, on their merits" (Jannah, 2017), so this is not being totally ignored and there is some forward thinking being displayed by certain individuals who care. In a world where widows are often protected, encouraged and nurtured by those around them, I do find this treatment of women totally shocking, what do you guys think? If you are from any of the mentioned states, have you witnessed or known of any stories similar to this?
That is the end! I hope you enjoyed this blog post? Learned something new rather... I think it is important for us not to look at any African culture from a place of ignorance , but I like that we can identify some things that might take us aback a little bit and make us say "woah, that might need to change", you know? Did you find any of these four "extreme" at all, I'd love to hear opinions, and whether you guys want a part 2 of this.
Don't forget to follow me on Twitter @ssozinha__ for more threads, and also follow our instagram: by.ssozinha
While you're here, subscribe to this blog!
Thank you for reading.
Cain, K., (2018) 'Igbo Cultural Widowhood Practices: Reflections on Inadvertent weapons of retrogression in community development'
Chidili, B., (2005). 'Provocative Essays on the Practice of Religion and Culture in African Society'. Fab Anieh Nigeria Limited.
Jannah, I., (2017) 'Widows: some harmful practices they experience in Igbo land' - obindigbo.com
Mezieobi, S & D., and Iyamu, EOS., (2011) 'Widowhood Practices among Igbos of South Eastern Nigeria as a Betrayal of the Fundamental Human Rights of Women'
Stephens, W.N., (1968). A cross-cultural study of modesty and obscenity (Vol. 9, pp. 405-51). Technical Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography.
Talle, A., (1995). 'A child is a child: Disability and equality among the Kenya Maasai'. Disability and culture, pp.56-72.
Odimmegwa, A.O., (2010). 'Widowhood and the dignity of womanhood in Igboland: A pastoral challenge to the discipleship of the Roman Catholic Church in Igboland'. Fordham University.