12 Incredible African Tribal Traditions

Africa is the origin of about 3000 tribes. With so many unique groups comes quite a few fascinating tribal traditions, with each population generally having its own language (or dialect of a language) and culture. Here we take a look at 12 incredible African tribal traditions and where they are from.

1. Wodaabe – Gerewol

At the end of the rainy season near Lake Chad, Northern Niger, Wodaabe people come together for a Cure Salee, the “Festival of Nomads.” At the centre of celebrations is Gerewol, a male beauty contest and courtship ritual. Young men — traditional herdsmen — wear full makeup, jewellery and their finest clothes and stand in line to await inspection by female onlookers. White teeth and white eyes are highly prized., so participants will grin broadly and pull all manner of expressions in the hope of attracting attention. It’s flirtation en masse, in the hope of winning a night of passion with one of the judges.

2. Mursi – Lip Plates

Circular lip plates called Dhabi a tug ion are worn by some Mursi women near Jinka in Ethiopia’s Omo Vallet. They are one of the few tribes that continue the practice in East Africa, but archaeologists have discovered lip plates in the region stretching back 30,000 years, says anthropologist Dr. Jerome Lewis of University College London. “It’s a body modification that people find beautiful,” he says. “It’s also very striking and a distinctive way of marking your difference from other people around you”.

The bottom lip is pierced with a wooden peg inserted, which is replaced with larger pegs therefore. Once the hole us big enough the first of a succession of ornamental ceramic saucers are inserted, stretching over a period of years — one example from the neighbouring Surma tribes measured 19.5cm wide 

3. Himba, Otjize

Women of the semi-nomadic Himba tribe in northern Namibia are famous for their reddish hair and complexion. It’s the result of otjize, a paste of butter, fat and red ochre, applied daily to their hair and skin. It was once speculated that the otjize served as form of sun protection and to ward off insects, however the women say its purely for aesthetic reasons — which makes sense, given that HImba men don’t take part in the practice. 

4. Hamar – Bull Jumping 

Herdsmen become hurdlers in the Omo Valle, Ethiopia. Young men of the Hamar tribe, one of many in the valley, prove their manhood by jumping on prize bulls and then running across their backs — all while naked. The purpose? It’s a coming of age ceremony, and only when the participant has traversed the bull run four times will he be allowed to marry. Slip and you risk a hard fall: “because it’s a manhood initiation ritual, [failure] is likely to affect the perception of someone’s manhood and that of course can have all sorts of dire consequence.” Adds Dr. Lewis.

5. Xhosa – Ulwaluko 

In Eastern Cape, South Africa, young Xhosa men take part in a coming of age initiation called Ulwaluko. The youths, known as abakhwetha, are first circumcised without aesthetic, before being sent away from their village and into the bush, with minimal supplies and wrapped in a blanket. Wearing white clay on their faces, initiates will fend for themselves for up to two months, living in a structure built by the village’s adults community specifically for Ulwaluko. Upon their return they are no longer referred to as “boy” and receive a new blanket. The initiation has not been without its criticism, due to complications and malpractice surrounding the circumcision process.

6. Chewa – Matriachy

Women of the Chewa tribe may not be quite on equal footing as men, but they do hold the key to one thing; inheritance, descent and succession for the Bantu-Speaking tribe, spread across Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique, is matrilineal, with property and land inherited patriarchal in the sense that men are still at the apex of power, “explains Lewis. “People have an assumption that matrilineal societies are somehow favourable to women — and they are certainly more favourable than some of the extreme matrilineal societies — but they’re not societies that give women equal power.

One thing Chewa women are shut out of is the Nyau brotherhood (pictured), a secretive society who can channel spirits and perform a ritual dance called Gule Wamkulu around harvest and at weddings and funeral.

7. Maasai – Spitting 

Spittle is an essential part of life for the Maasai of East Africa, as it acts as a blessing. “People have different views about where the power and essence of somebody resides, “explains Lewis. For some, “Spit represents an essence of you as a person.”

To spit is “a way of blessing people by giving something of yourself, your own power to someone else.” It starts at an early age, when newborn babies are spat on to wish them a good life. “If you leave a place, elders will come and spit on your head in order to bless your departure, and that whatever you do you’re safe and kept well,” adds Lewis.

8. San – Healing Dance 

The san of South Africa, Botswana, Angola and Namibia are, according to some researchers, the world’s oldest people. Their hunter-gatherer culture stretches back tens of thousands of years, and integral to it is the trance dance, also known as the healing dance. Historically an all-night affair, the practice brings the while community together, led by healers and elders dancing around a fire, chanting and breathing deeply until they induce a trance state. It offers the chance to commune with ancestral spirits of the departed and for healers, cure sickness within other dances.

Lewis says that this tradition is under threat; “in some places in Southern Africa the San now perform their traditional culture exclusively for tourists, because they’ve been forced out of all their territories as hunter-gatherers by conservationist organisations. This means that by extension… these performances are not the original initiations but a facsimile or them.”

9. Bantu-Speaking tribes – Lobola 

A feature of marital affairs for many Bantu-speaking tribes in South Africa. Zimbabwe and Swaziland, lobola is practiced by, among others, Zulu (pictured). Lobola is also referred to as “bride wealth”, with the prospective groom’s family negotiating with the bride’s for her hand in marriage. The dowry comes in many forms, including money, but some choose cattle. There were reports in 1998 that Nelson Mandela (of Thembu Lineage) paid the marital lobola of 60 cows to the family of new wife Graca Machel.

“It’s the cause of much conflict.” Says Lewis, “because in order for a man to get married he must provide often quite a substantial head of cattle, and so he’s in indentured labor to his father until the hero he’s caring for is big enough. “In societies that are cattle based, men tend to marry in their mid-forties, he adds, explaining that “there’s always a backlog of women who are available but unable to marry” because men of a similar age have not yet raised the required bridal wealth

10. Tuareg – Tangelmust 

Tuaregs are the only tribal communities in which men wear veils instead of women. The tangelmust, a wrapped headdress up to eight meters in length, is ubiquitous among the “blue men of the desert.” The name does not allude to the muslin headdress, dyed with indigo, but rather because the dye gradually leeches out into the skin of the wearer. Tuarengs use the tangelmust for practical reasons; it protects from the sun and sand, but men will still wear them at night, and even during meals. Men cover their faces with the tangelmust in front of strangers and women, while women are free to show their faces.

11. Bodi – Ka’el Obesity Pageant

Every June or July in the Omo Valley, Ethiopia, Ka’el — the Bodi lunar new year — takes place. With it comes an extraordinary show of pageantry. In the months before the events men live in isolation and drink to excess a mixture of cow milk and cow blood for months in order to become vastly bloated and overweight. Each call will present an unmarried male to compete for the title of fattest man — and with the glory, the greater chance of finding a wife. With stomachs swollen, balance and fatigue can be an issue, but once the event is over, contestants return to their normal size in a matter of weeks.

12. Dassanech – Recycled Jewellery

“It’s important to remember that ‘tradition’ doesn’t mean ‘the same’, “says Lewis, “cultures will adapt and add elements all the time. “A perfect example of this is the Dassanech tribe, another group found in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley on the border with Kenya. Rubbish of all manner, but particularly bottle tops, have begun to be recycled by Dassanech women, who weave the metal caps into vibrant jangly headdresses. Other women have adapted broken watched and trinkets for similar purposes — and a sure fire way of getting yourself noticed.

More Stories
The Modjadji: South Africa’s Rain Queen