The Relevance Of African Rites Of Passage

by Duke Magazine

Traditionally, African ethnic groups used a complex ceremonial system to convey cultural principals and ideology, as well as the facilitation of the adolescent to adulthood transition. Presently, these rites are referred to as rites of passage. Rites of passage are critical in nation-building and African socialization. Specifying the contrasting stages of an individual’s development; as well as their relationship and role in the community. It is the promoting of social symbols that give a community its identity and integration of the person into something greater than themselves.

Foundation of Identity

Rites of passage act to preserve the collective immortality as a symbol of an ongoing community, as well as guidelines for transitioning from one sphere of responsibility and stage to another. The hierarchies of values of the community confirm the personal development of an individual. As the person assume each stage, this allows the person to better evaluate one’s maturation against the collective standard. The African rite of passage provides the individual with the very foundation of his or her identity.

Prepared for Responsibility

Males are prepared for responsibilities in their communities as men, and females are prepared for their responsibilities as women, without confusion of sexual or gender identity for they are consecrated through the rites of passage.

The initiation process and details differ largely amidst societies; various masks, dance, song, test, body marking and tattooing have been employed as ritual symbolism and verification. The emphasis varies by culture; some focus significantly on toughness and bravery whilst others on practical education or spiritual concepts. The first of these rites an individual experiences is the rite of birth.

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The Birth Ritual

The birth of a child is the strengthening of a community, and thus marked with great rejoicing, a couple has been blessed; ritual celebration and festivities laud the child’s arrival to ensure the baby is healthy and live a long and happy life. More importantly, the child’s official existence begins with his or her naming as part of the birth rite of passage known as the naming ceremony. Naming ceremonies vary widely among African ethnic groups.

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Naming Ceremony

The Akamba people name a child after 3 days. A goat is slaughtered as an offering to the ancestors, who are responsible for fertility. The Akan people name a child on the eighth day after birth. The Yoruba name new arrivals on the eighth day as well. The Hutu ceremony takes place on the seventh day. Regardless of the timing of the ceremony, it is noted as the first and foremost social experience. Through the naming ceremony, one is acknowledged as a member of the community. Traditionally all community members are involved in the naming ceremony because the child belongs to the community as a whole and thus responsible for its proper development and insertion within the society. The individual’s next rite of passage is the rite of adulthood.


In Western culture, adult status is marked by achieving the age of 18 or 21, or perhaps high school graduation. There is no formal guidance for the transition from child to adult. The Child is expected to magically transform into adulthood. Contrarily, African societies systematically initiate girls and boys. Initiations are taken out of the community away from the daily routine, to be instructed on the responsibilities of adulthood to include the taboos and the rules; moral instruction and clarification of one’s specific role or position within the community.

Igbo wedding ceremony of Southeastern Nigeria


The marriage initiation is the third major rite of passage; it represents the joining of two families. It marks the union of a male and female to procreate and perpetuate life. Traditionally, a person was not considered an adult prior to having married and had children. This is due to the emphasis on building families and communities. Individuals often fall in love quickly, and out of love equally as fast as they recover from the euphoria of relationships born of the love at first sight phenomena, or simply lust as a primary motivating factor. The focus is on the individual as opposed to the collective.

Ndebele Elder


The fourth major rite of passage is the rite of Eldership. The elders represent the wisdom and tradition of the past. In traditional African culture, there is a distinction made between an elder and an older person. An older person has simply lived a longer life than most, but not deserving of high praise and respect due to the person’s life having not been a positive example within the community. An elder conversely is someone given prestigious status in African culture due to his or her courage, commitment, contributions, sacrifices, wisdom and overall positive example having lived a life of purpose.


The final rite of the five major African rites of passage is the rite of Ancestor- ship. This rite concerns the transition into the spirit world. This could be considered an extension of the previous elder/older distinction, the status one held during life is carried into the afterlife. All traditional African societies believe when a person dies, this does not end all communication with the living. African philosophy from virtually every culture are in agreement, the spirits of deceased individuals remain living within the community. As the distinction of elder/older classifications remain after death, as the elder in death becomes a respected and revered ancestor, someone to be remembered and emulated. These ancestors wield great power and can often be called upon during uncertainty and trouble to help ensure a favorable result. 

Colonial Effect

Colonialism affected many traditional African rituals; many have been distorted and misused. We now see many of the problems common in western culture also emerging and becoming common amidst African people. In many Western cultures, the boundary between adulthood and childhood is viewed as a status upon arriving at a specific age as opposed to being related to a specific set of responsibilities within the society. African societies who have rejected or grown away from traditional rites of passage, as a result, the youth are prone to confusion, chaos, uncertainty, and loss of focus as well as identity to the larger community.

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