Family Rites

Every African family is involved in one way or another in the rituals that sustain the community. In fact, without the accompanying rituals, a society cannot last long. This entry examines several rituals of ordinary African life.


The human cycle of birth, growing up, marriage, and death is marked all the way with religious observances in Africa. Birth is a time of huge rejoicing. In many cultures, there is a period of waiting before the celebrations begin, making sure first that the baby is healthy and strong enough to survive. The Akamba of West Africa wait 3 days before slaughtering a goat, at which point the child is named. The Gikuyu in Kenya have a period of 4 to 5 days of seclusion for both mother and child, where only close relatives can visit.


Because almost all African names have a clear meaning, naming a child has huge significance. The name chosen may be influenced by circumstances of the birth—if it rained, the child's name will reflect that. The child's features may prompt the name to come from an ancestor or recently deceased member of the family. The name will be given some time after the birth. The Akamba choose a name on the third day, whereas the Wolof in coastal Senegal choose a name 1 week after birth.


The move from childhood to adulthood in traditional societies is carefully marked and charted. Most ceremonies involve an element of withdrawal. Boys or girls are taken away from the community for a period of instruction. The Akamba and the Massai in East Africa are just two groups where circumcision of the boys is the central rite of passage.


Marriage is another sacred rite of passage, but one involving all the community. Traditionally, a man or woman will marry someone known and approved by both families. If the man is married already, then his first wife or wives will be consulted. Traditionally, polygamy was not encouraged unless the man was rich enough to support his wives in a decent fashion. Taking a girlfriend in addition to having several wives was frowned upon by the community.
The Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria and Krio in Sierra Leone have a prewedding ceremony, in which the intended bride is kept hidden when her fiancé comes to see her. He calls for her, and her family keeps producing different women, who are often old. The fiancé spots the mistake each time and each time calls for his intended. Eventually, she is produced with much excitement.


There are a variety of different customs associated with death. Many of them are concerned with the transition of the soul and laying the soul of the dead person finally to rest. Considerable thought is devoted to burial places. Some bury their dead underneath the compound or house. For others, it is important to remove the body to a burial ground some distance away.



  • burial
  • wives
  • rituals
  • naming
  • Africa
  • births
  • soul


Related Entries

Further Reading

  • Kenyatta, J. (1962). Facing Mt. Kenya. London: Heinemann.
  • Murphy, J. (1988). Santeria: African Spirits in America. Boston: Beacon.