In Africa, there are five main initiation rites that are essential to human growth and development. These rites are not to be taken for granted for any reason. From time immemorial, the initiation process has been a fundamental mode of transformation and has remained a central element of the traditional culture. These rites are:

  • Rite of Birth
  • Rite of adulthood
  • Rite of marriage
  • Rite of eldership, and
  • Rite of ancestorship

A rite simply means a ‘set of rituals’ performed according to the prescribed customs and rules. Some of these rites have extensive ceremonies than others. So, let’s reflect briefly on each of them:

Rite of Birth

This is the first among the African initiation rites. It is composed of initiating the infant through a naming ceremony. Most African traditional societies believe that a newborn comes from the spirit world with a message from the gods or ancestors.

They are seen to be bringing new talents and gifts to the community. The new born is celebrated to have been sent to the world to fulfill a particular mission or project.

It is the sole right of the immediate family or community to do a birth chart, perform some rituals and consult a diviner so that they can discover ahead of time the unique attributes of the newborn. Oftentimes the newborn is named after determining what he/she would be or the purpose the child has come to fulfill in the world.

Rite of Adulthood

This is the second and most popular of the initiation rites. In some traditional African societies, most people believe that the ‘rites of passage ‘only refers to the initiation into adulthood.

Adult rites are performed at the dawn of puberty between 12-13 years in most cultures. This rite helps in shaping the productive capacity of the person into a responsible adult.

During the initiation process, the young initiates are taken to a different corner of the community, away from the busy everyday life and are tutored on the components of adulthood such as their social responsibility, moral instruction, further clarification on their calling in life or mission as well as the rules and taboos of the society.

Rite of Marriage

This is the third major initiation rite, which entails the joining of two people and two missions of a new couple. This is an institution that encourages procreation and perpetuation of lineage. It is also a union that encourages the new couple to fulfill their mission in life.

In African traditional setting, a person is not considered an adult until the person has gotten married and had children. Thus, the primary motivation for this rite of initiation is building families and communities.

Rite of Elder-ship

The elders represent the wisdom and tradition of the past. This is an important initiation system. In African traditional culture, there are certain criteria one must fulfill before they could be referred to as an ‘elder’ or an ‘older person’, one deserving of high praise and respect.

The person must not be a thief, drunkard, unmarried, evil person or someone who doesn’t have a child. Lack of these attributes will make the person ineligible to be considered to a respected elder.

The rite of eldership is initiated on a person who had gone through three previous initiation rites. The person must be a living model for others.

Rite of Ancestor-ship

This is the last of the rites; it is an extension of the rites of eldership, and it is given to someone who has gone to the world beyond. Virtually, no African society believes that when a person dies, he/ she have lost touch with the community or with the living. 

When a respected elder dies, he/she is given this title as a mark of respect and honor. An ancestor is someone who has died, and who has continued to maintain a quality relationship with the family and community.

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