Women's Initiation Rites In Africa

African female initiation ceremonies are rites of passage for girls entering womanhood, and are usually a public annoucement of the girl's eligibility for marriage.

Nearly every culture in the world ritualizes the important milestones throughout life. Birth, marriage and death are typically marked by special ceremonies. The final passage from childhood to adulthood also figures prominently among various ethnic groups worldwide. Hispanic cultures have quincineras for their daughters. Jews hold Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs for their children. And in America we celebrate with Sweet Sixteen parties.

In Africa, initiation ceremonies are rooted in deep, conservative traditions. For African females, ceremonies marking their entry into the realm of adults are also a public announcement to the community that she is ready to be married. African life revolves around the family and therefore female African initiation ceremonies tend to focus heavily on the preparation of young girls to be good wives and excellent mothers.

Young girls from the Krobo ethnic group, which is dispersed across Ghana, perform the Dipo ceremony. The official ceremony lasts about five days, but pre-ritual preparation requires three weeks. The mother of a young girl selects a "˜ritual mother' for her daughter. Like a favored aunt, the ritual mother prepares the young girl for her future role as a wife and mother. The young girl learns the art of cooking and household management (a skill she's been performing beside her own mother since she could walk), music, dance and beautification. The girl is encouraged to leave behind her jaunty, carefree childhood ways and adopt the stature of a woman full of dignity and grace.

The ritual mother will also school the young girl in the art of seduction. The ability to please a man in every way is an art taken seriously by Krobo women. A special string of beads may be worn loosely about her hips as a visual gift to her husband. This focus of seduction, however, does not necessarily lead to a high-rate of promiscuity. Any woman who lets a man other than her husband view her hip beads could be considered unfaithful.

Once the young girl has completed her three-week "˜finishing school', she is ready for the Dipo ceremony. Although the goal of the ceremony is to celebrate a young girl's new maturity, it is also a forum for attracting a husband. To afford the best possible selection, the girl will travel with her female mentor to nearby villages to perform the ceremony. She takes with her all the glass beads owned by her family. Glass beads represent wealth among the Krobo and the more beaded necklaces, bracelets and other adornments she wears, the more attractive she will be. Traditionally the girls would perform the ceremony wearing nothing but their glass beads, but today all girls wear a loincloth. The five-day ceremony consists of dancing, eating and merriment. Serious negotiations also take place as local boys and men begin to inquire after a girl's family. As Carol Beckwith stated in her book titled African Ceremonies, Krobo women are regarded throughout the continent as making the most suitable wives.

A similar dance takes place further south in Swaziland. Every year during the months of August and September, every eligible maiden from the Kingdom of Swaziland attends the Reed Dance, locally known as the Umhlanga. This eight-day ceremony marks the beginning of adulthood for Swazi girls, and also announces to Kingdom that they are ready for marriage. The ceremony, which is restricted to unmarried and childless girls, starts when the girls arrive at the royal home of the mother of the King of Swaziland. To protect the girls on their journey, reputable men from their home villages accompany them to the dance. Once they arrived at the royal compound, the girls are separated into younger and older age groups.



Within their groups they march to the nearby reed beds with long knives, cutting ten to twenty reeds a piece. Using plaited wild grass, they tie up the bundle of reeds and head back to the royal village by nightfall. The next day the reeds are presented to the King's mother as a sign of respect. For the next several days, the girls perform a series of songs and dances, in hopes of attracting the eye of a suitor. On the seventh day of the ceremony the King arrives to watch the girls dance. If he so desires, he will choose one girl from the crowd to be his wife. The King orders several cattle to be slaughtered from which everyone shares in the feast. On the eight day, the ceremony is complete and the girls return to their villages ready for marriage.

Some women initiation ceremonies are slowly disappearing. In Nigeria, young girls would be cloistered for weeks in an effort to learn the nuances of being a good wife. During this time, the girl would be fattened so as to add several dimensions to her frame. Many ethnic groups in Africa find heavy women attractive. Their corpulence provides a public statement of a man's wealth in that his wife has plenty of food and servants to do her bidding. Although a heavy frame is still admired among the Nigerian, and several girls will take great pains to increase their weight, the ritual fattening ceremony rarely takes place.

Another ritual that is fading, to the approval of many women's rights groups, is that of female circumcision. This practice is still quite common among the Masaai and Himba people of southern Africa. As in most African societies, a young girl is considered an adult once she is eligible to marry. For the Masaai and Himba, a young girl will not be suitable for marriage unless she undergoes the circumcision ceremony. Usually the ceremony is attended by the females of the girl's family. In a private room in their home or out in the countryside, an elderly matron cuts out the girl's clitoris with a razor blade. The procedure is also called female genital mutilation and has been condemned worldwide for its potential danger to young girls. African tribes still practicing female circumcision insist that the ceremony enforces chastity among females and is central to the initiation rights of girls entering adulthood. Supporters also cite that circumcision ceremonies continue to exist among males with little condemnation from human rights organizations. Himba males, for example, are forced to undergo a painful circumcision. They are absolutely forbidden to cry out in pain for fear of shaming their family, whereas females are encouraged to release their pain vocally.

Female African initiation ceremonies, much like their male counterparts, provide instructions to females on what society will expect of them as adults. Having imitated their mothers from birth, most girls are already fully aware of what will be expected of them as women. The ceremony, however, is the public expression of this expectation by the society - a positive form of peer pressure. In most cultures, the initiation ceremony is something a young girl eagerly looks forward to, prepares for, and honorably takes part in. In essence, the ceremony is the ultimate expression of her flowering womanhood.

Sources: www.thebeadsite.com, Swaziland National Trust Commission at www.sntc.org.sc/cultural

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