Africa, the cradle of humanity, is known for being the most geographically diverse place on earth. The 54 countries each contain numerous tribes with their own distinctive cultures and idiosyncrasies. Needless to say, some unique traditions have evolved across the continent over the years. From spittle-laden blessings to ritualistic wife stealing, there’s a lot to learn. Read on to find out 7 unique traditions from across Africa.
Cultural traditions in Africa
1. Spittle-laden blessings
In most parts of the world, spitting at someone is considered an extremely disrespectful act. However, among the Masaai tribe in Kenya and northern Tanzania, spittle is perceived as a positive thing. The Masaai people spit on their hands before shaking hands to convey a blessing to the other person. Family members spit on a newborn to bless it with longevity and luck. On wedding days, the bride’s father will spit on her to bless her union.
Spittle is also used when clinching a bargain or making a deal. When two long-lost friends meet, spit will again be used as a form of bonding between the two. This unexpected change of the narrative surrounding spittle in other parts of the world by the Masaai is the source of curiosity for many. However, it comes to show how the stories we attach to inanimate things – like spittle – come to shape our value systems.
2. Masks for macho men
In many Muslim countries, it is common for women to veil their faces. However, among the nomadic Tuareg people of the Sahara Desert and the Sahel zone, it is the men who cover their faces while women are free to show theirs. Tuareg men don indigo-colored veils – known as “Tagelmust” – to protect themselves from the sun and sands, as well as signal affluence, dignity and manhood. Young Tuareg boys first wear their veils after their male rites of passage into adulthood. The veil is also thought to protect the wearer from evil spirits from the afterworld, called the “Kel Eru.”
This is such an important piece of clothing that many men also wear them at night or while eating, and take it off only in the presence of close family members. As the indigo dye tends to leach into the men’s skins, it has given the veiled Tuareg men the ubiquitous name, the “blue men of the desert.”
3. Fat and fabulous
In the Western world, many people try to “get in shape” before the holiday season or make New Year’s weight loss resolutions. But among the Bodi tribe in Ethiopia, Ka’el – or Bodi Lunar New Year – is the prime time to put on weight. For several months prior to the big day (pun unintended), Bodi men live in isolation while striving to fatten themselves up on a diet on cow milk and cow blood.
They compete for the coveted title of ‘fattest man’. This would bring the individual not only lifelong glory but also greater chances of finding a spouse. This extraordinary pageantry has men showing off their engorged bodies with pride. A complete reversal of beauty standards found in many other parts of the world!
4. Old is gold
Among the Samburu tribe of north-central Kenya, societal hierarchy and decision-making are based on a system of gerontocracy. This is where elders occupy the top of the social strata. Only with the blessings of the oldest members of their society can younger members make big life decisions. The elderly leaders have the power to keep young, unmarried tribe members considered adolescents well into their thirties, arrange their marriages, and even curse them for any disobedience. The phrase, “I can’t wait to grow up” has never rung truer.
5. Women’s choice
The Woodabe tribe of Niger in West Africa practice betrothal at birth. This means that one’s spouse is pre-decided and it must be a cousin from the same lineage. However, they also practice a unique tradition of ritualistic wife stealing. During the Gerewol Festival, elaborately dressed Woodabe men bust out their best moves to impress a woman and (hopefully!) steal her from her current husband. If he is successful, she automatically becomes his wife and he will be lauded as a hero in their society.
However, more interestingly, the term ‘steal’ is actually a misnomer. The women have the ultimate power to choose who they most desire as their second husband. They actually look on curiously to see which Woodabe man will steal their heart with their beautiful maquillage and captivating moves.
6. Just beat it
Speaking of marriage traditions, the Fulani tribe takes things up a notch. In a tradition called Sharo, Fulani men who are hoping to find a wife compete against each other to see who can take the most beating. The young men are flogged and caned to test their strength and endurance. This is how a potential groom proves his worth to his would-be wife. The Fulani people take pride in their cultural values of hard work, discipline and courage. So they think it completely natural that pre-marriage rituals ensure that their young men can uphold those values before starting families of their own.
While undergoing the ordeal, the man is not supposed to whine or cry. Instead, he should ask for more strokes to display his resilience.
7. The itch you just can’t scratch
In Kenya, a superstition that endures even among the urban populations to date is that an itchy palm indicates that an unexpected windfall is about to come your way. For this reason, if your right palm itches, you’re advised not to scratch it lest you scrape the loot away. However, as a consolation, you are allowed to scratch your left palm. In other parts, it is believed that scratching the itch on your right palm on wood can actually attract greater fortune.