Ceremonies are special occasions that mark particular social, religious, or historical moments in a society's experience. In Africa, ceremonies play an important role in every aspect of a people's social life. One finds that ceremonies inaugurate an infant's entry into life, and from that moment forward the individual as a part of a group is moved from one ceremony to another in the communal experience.
There are three types of ceremonies: transitions, officials, and cultural. All of these ceremonies are infused with religious content. In the case of transitions, the individual is a special participant or observer in the collective recognition of birth, marriage, or death. When a child is born in African societies, the time must be marked by the community as a way of reaffirming the myths of the society. Family members come together with the members of the society to welcome the child into the world. There are rituals of passage as persons move from one age stage to the next or move from one social society to another and so forth. At marriage, the young people are welcomed into the state of matrimony. When a person dies, the community also performs a ceremony whose elaborateness is often dependent on the person's place in the society. But these transitions might be called natural markers during a human being's life.
Other markers are related to official duties, and there are ceremonies to mark the rise to office of a king or queen, the appointment of officers in the court, the elevation of a priest or priestess, and the recognizing of someone as a great hunter, musician, dancer, or farmer. These ceremonies mark appointments and elevations to office, and that is why they are referred to as official ceremonies. Then there are the ceremonies that are held in celebration of cultural moments in a people's history. For example, there are certain market days that call the people to perform a ritual on the occasion of those days as special because of history, the season, or tradition. All days are not the same, and the marker for distinction is the ceremony that goes with the day or days.
When it comes to cultural ceremonies, they are also grounded in the events and personalities that have become important in a people's history. The Shona people of Zimbabwe have special recognition of Chaminuka or Nehanda as a sort of memorial to their existence. The Yoruba always recognize Eshu, sometimes called Legba, when they are preparing a meeting. A ceremony in honor of the keeper of the ways is one way to signal the importance of an event—that is, the seriousness of the occasion.
One sees this pattern throughout African history and culture to the degree that is possible to say that “Africans are a ceremonial people” and mean that whether it is birth, puberty, official recognition, or holy days, the people have always just had a ceremony or are preparing for one very soon.
- Asante, M. K., and Nwadiora, E. (2007). Spear Masters: An Introduction to African Religion. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Mbiti, J. S. (1989). African Religions and Philosophy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.