The manner in which different African cultural groups perceive and use land influences their agricultural rituals. In those societies that rely heavily on agriculture for both their sustenance and economy, compared with herding peoples, the rituals surrounding agriculture are central to the people and the most elaborate. They are sacred rites that secure the communities' continued survival.
In many cultures, the agricultural cycle, along with its accompanying weather, mark time and define the year: planting, harvesting, the dry season, the rainy season, followed by planting again. The names of months found among the Latuka people—“Let them dig!” “Grain in the Ear,” “Dirty Mouth,” and “Sweet grain”—show how agricultural cycles influence everyday time reckoning. People traditionally keep track of their ages in terms of how many agricultural cycles they have lived through. Children are named according to these cycles, such as Azmera, a female name from Ethiopia meaning harvest, and Wekesa, a male name from the Luya of Kenya meaning born during harvest time.
Agricultural rites can be divided into three general categories: those for the planting, maturation, and harvesting of crops. Planting rituals prepare the ground, seeds, tools, and people for the upcoming growing season to ensure the crop's success. Maturation rituals occur once the crops begin growing and address factors that can keep crops from ripening properly, such as not enough, or too much water, insects, or animals. Harvest rituals give thanks for the crop and are the most festive occasions. All of the rituals in the agricultural cycle acknowledge and propitiate various spiritual forces involved in the producing of food. This entry describes rites in each cycle and looks at related mythology.
The Three Cycles
Rituals in preparation for planting are regarded seriously in communities that rely on agriculture because the proper timing and performance of the rituals are the difference between an abundance of crops and hunger or between survival and death. Timing planting rituals involves complex observations that include celestial bodies such as the moon and stars, the behavior of animals, insects, water, and air. Plantings are initiated when the outcome will be most favorable, not for the sake of one of these particular events. For example, the position of the moon can be a key factor in planting; however, if the conditions with water or the behavior of animals are not favorable, planting will not occur just because the moon is favorable.
Preparation also includes securing permission to plant. The Bobo ask permission from nature spirits and their creator god Wuro before planting because they believe that every act that takes something from nature has a negative impact. Wuro is responsible for nature's balance. Masks are used to chase evil from the community and purify the land. These rituals last for 3 days. In Senegal, sacrifices of millet cake are made in the evening. If, on the next day, the cakes have disappeared, the land can be cultivated. If not, the land must not be used for cultivation.
Sometimes restrictions are placed on people in the community. Among the Ik of Uganda, women are forbidden from felling any trees, burning grass, or quarreling before the planting lest an animal be slaughtered for the transgression. One restriction or taboo found in many cultures, such as the Dogon and Ndebele, is that cultivation and burial cannot happen on the same land.
Planting rituals include special attention to seeds. The Ik gather seeds from each family. The men gather on a nearby hill, plant a tree to symbolize the passing of the year without problems, and the communal seeds are sown. Among the Dagara, each household brings sample seeds to the house of the chief of the earth shrine. Some seeds are known, such as millet, corn, and groundnuts (peanuts); others are not to be named. They are magical seeds. Naming them would destroy their power. They do not grow into plants, but help the other seeds.
The priest of the Earth shrine takes a single seed from each family's basket and places it on the Earth shrine. The following day, this ceremony would be repeated by men at their farms in the presence of their families. The women would then plant the seeds. The Lozi assemble at sunrise at an altar of sticks and clay. Each household places seeds, hoes, and axes on a dish on the altar. The chief then performs a ritual asking for blessing of both the seeds and the implements used in planting and harvesting. The Akamba, Gikuyu, Shilluk, Shona, Sonjo, Lozi, Lunda, Nuba, and Tikar have rituals to bless seeds and work implements. Other communities offer animal sacrifices when it is time to plant.
After seeds are planted, it is important that they mature to plants and produce crops. Rains and protection from birds, insects, and animals are important factors. Rains are needed to both nourish the seeds and prevent birds from digging them up and eating them. Sacrifices are made by the Akamba and Gikuyu if there is a delay in the rains. After the communal seeds have been planted, Ik women present beer to the male elders who are waiting on a nearby hill. As the women proceed up the hill dressed in traditional goatskin skirts with leg bells, they sing joyous songs for the rains to fall. Once they reach the elders, the senior elder takes a symbolic sip, and then the other elders do so according to seniority. This is followed by communal dancing. In Burkina Faso, appeals are made to the ancestors to address caterpillars and crickets.
These rituals often mark the New Year, which is a time of thanksgiving and joyous celebration. In Swaziland, the 6-day-long Festival of the First Fruits of the New Year, or Incwala, is an important holiday in which the King bites and spits out specific plants and fruits of the first harvest. This signifies that it is now time to partake of the harvest.
Yam or New Yam festivals are similar rituals that occur throughout the continent because of the importance of yams in the diets of many groups. During these festivals, farmers bring their yams to chiefs who then offer them to deities, ancestors, elders, and clan heads before they can be eaten. Sometimes raw yams are offered to the ancestors and cooked ones for the living. An Ibo tradition requires the eldest male of the community to offer newly harvested yams to deities and ancestors first. The elder then eats the first yam. After these rituals, people are now permitted to consume the new harvest. It is taboo to eat the new harvest before these rituals are performed. During this time, old yams are discarded and contests are held for the biggest and best yams.
Once food supplies have been secured for the coming year, communities can afford a little merrymaking and the affirmation of relationships. In Ghana, at least 57 harvest festivals are held from late July through early October with these themes. The most widely observed among the Ga is the Homowo festival, or “hooting at hunger.” One family celebrates Homowo before all the others. This signals the start of the season. It is a time for family gatherings, gift giving, purification, rituals, meals, dances, and honoring the ancestors. Debt payments cannot be demanded nor can legal proceedings be initiated. On the eve of Homowo, people stay in their houses while the ancestors walk the streets. The Ga king sacrifices a sheep. The next morning, a ritual meal of fish stew and corn dough is prepared and given to the ancestors along with libations. Then the living family members eat. Afterward, the Homowo dance is performed. The next day, those who died the previous year are mourned by the women, and family and friends exchange wishes for the year.
In addition to cultivation for physical nourishment, there are ritual cultivations of crops. The cultivation of millet among the Ga is associated with the kpele gods, maize with the ancestors, and yam with otu gods, chiefs' thrones, talking drums, and twins.
The Yoruba divinity Osanyin brought all of the plants to Earth with their rich and varied shades of green and colorful flowers. In doing so, he also brought to the Earth beauty and sacred, which did not exist before. He also brought animals, but is more regarded for plants. One day, Ifa asked him to weed a garden; Osanyin began crying because the weeds he was asked to remove were beneficial as medicine. Since then, Osanyin is known as the doctor in the kingdom of Olodumare.
The Dogon say the sene seed is the first plant life and it carries with it elements from the first creation by Amma. Thus, sacrifices made to the sene tree bring good to all vegetation.
- Asante, M. K., and Nwadiora, E. (2006). Spear Masters: An Introduction to African Religion. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
- Mbiti, J. S. (1990). African Religions and Philosophy. Oxford, UK: Heinemann.