Some African tribal traditions are a mystery and a fascination for most of the modern world. Tribal communities sometimes live without many modern comforts the rest of us have. Here are 16 fascinating traditions from several African tribes.
This article was first published Jan. 1, 2014.
In the Sudanese Latuka tribe, when a man wants to marry a woman, he kidnaps her. Elderly members of his family go and ask the girl’s father for her hand in marriage, and if dad agrees, he beats the suitor as a sign of his acceptance of the union. If the father disagrees, however, the man might forcefully marry the woman anyway.
This Southern African ceremony is practiced by several tribes and is how a young boy proves his manhood. When they are of age, boys are sent to spend several days or weeks in a circumcision lodge during winter, where they’re put through rigorous and often dangerous tests and rituals such as continuous dancing until exhaustion, and circumcision.
Lobola is an ancient and controversial Southern African tradition in which the families of a bride and groom negotiate how much the groom must pay for the bride. All negotiations must be done in writing — never by phone or in person. The two families cannot even speak until negotiations are complete.
Members of the Maasai tribe in Kenya and Tanzania spit as a way of blessing. Men spit on newborns and say they are bad in the belief that if they praise a baby, it will be cursed. Maasai warriors will also spit in their hands before shaking the hand of an elder.
In order to prove their manhood in the Ethiopian Hamer tribe, young boys must run, jump and land on the back of a bull before then attempting to run across the backs of several bulls. They do this multiple times, and usually in the nude.
The Ahaggaren Tuaregs of Algeria are part of a larger group of Berber-speaking Tuaregs. In their culture, the men wear veils almost all the time. However, they can take their veils off when inside family camps or while traveling.
In the Gio tribe in Ivory Coast, each wife has her own small house that she lives in with her children until they are old enough to move out. The children never live with their fathers.
In the Southwestern Congo, the Suku tribe honors ancestors and elders, when they die, with a ceremony held in the clearing of a forest. Here, gifts and offerings are brought, but outsiders and all women are forbidden to attend.
When male children reach age 5 or 6 in the Northern Angolan Songo tribe, they are sent to live with their uncles on their mother’s side. This is because chiefs inherit their position through matrilineal lines.
In the Pokot tribe in Kenya, wealth is measured by how many cows a family has. Most Pokot people are either “corn people” or “cow people”— meaning that’s what they cultivate on their land — but all Pokot people measure their wealth by cows. The number of women a man can marry is determined by how many cows he has.
The Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania have strict policies against killing wild animals. They keep cattle and livestock, but leave wild animals untouched. In fact, each clan is associated with a specific wild species, which they often keep close to them and treat as a clan member.
The Himba people of Northern Namibia cover their skin with a mixture of butter fat and ochre — a natural earth pigment containing iron oxide — to protect themselves from the sun. For that reason, the Himba people often appear to have a red skin tone.
The San People of Botswana are hunter gatherers who were evicted from their ancestral land in the 1950s. They were forbidden to hunt and forced to apply for permits to enter reserves. The San switched to farming but they continued to gather herbs for medication and plants for food. Deprived of the ability to hunt, San numbers dwindled.
The Fulani tribe live in many countries in West Africa and follow a tradition called Sharo. Sharo happens when two young men want to marry the same woman. To compete for her hand, they beat one another up. The men must suppress signs of pain and the one who takes the beating without showing signs of pain can take the wife.
The Chewa people are one of the largest indigenous groups of Malawi but live throughout Central and Southern Africa. When a person dies, one family tradition involves taking the body into the woods, slitting the throat, and forcing water through the body to cleanse it. They do this by squeezing the corpse’s stomach until what comes out the rear end runs clear.
When a girl becomes a teenager in the Surma tribe of Southern Sudan, she begins the process of lip stretching. The girl has her bottom teeth removed to make space for a lip plate, which is increased in size annually.