Thursday, November 27, 2014

There are numerous examples of tribal cultural practices or traditions around the world that range from interesting to bizarre. Take the Dani tribe of Indonesia for example. While not as commonly practiced today, when a family member dies the women historically cut off a finger below the knuckle to satisfy ancestors. By western standards this custom would be considered strange and barbaric even.

However, cultural relativism suggests that what might find to be right or wrong varies drastically from one part of the world to another. Moreover, the concept asserts that these traditions or practices should be understood (not necessarily condoned) in terms of an individual, tribe or community’s own culture. 

That said Africa too has some fascinating tribal customs. Fortunately the three featured in this article are tame by comparison. No loss of limbs here.

The groom wears a veil

There are numerous accounts of the origin of the bride wearing a veil. These range from symbolising virginity and purity to protecting her from “the evil eye”. What isn’t commonly known is that all self respecting Tuareg men of North Africa wear a veil (head cloth). He may not be seen by anyone he respects or deems socially superior. Interestingly, both young Tuareg men and women wear a veil for initiation or marriage. In the case of the latter, it shows that their social functions are the same.

When spitting “hellos” is expected

In many western cultures children are taught that spitting is rude and unhygienic even. In Kenya and Tanzania, the Maasai spit as a form of greeting. They quite literally spit their “hellos” and “goodbyes”. Men also spit on newborn babies and announce that the infants are bad. They believe that if they show approval, the baby will be cursed. Another common practice is for a Maasai warrior to first spit in his hand before shaking that of an elder. Fathers also spit on their daughters shaved heads and breasts on their wedding day as a blessing and a symbol of good fortune.

Sons raised by uncles

According to an African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child”. In the Songo tribe of Northern Angola, sons are sent to live with an uncle on the mother’s side at the age of five or six. While some modern societies might consider a mother “giving up” her child as unthinkable, the custom has a specific purpose. Tribal chiefs inherit their leadership position through matrilineal lines. The biological parents don’t disown their child entirely and are still involved in important milestones and ceremonies.

Stones and glass huts

The terms “traditional” and “modern” or “western” are often loosely used for a comparative look at how societies co-exist in the world. While there are vast differences in cultural belief and practices on both ends of the scale there are clear similarities too. Take for example the family unit playing a central role in functioning traditional and modern societies. Also, while something like spitting a greeting might be odd, before passing judgment, perhaps consider that there are western practices viewed as unnatural by more traditional tribal cultures. For example, at what point did modern society become more concerned about the individual than the wellbeing of the community?

 For more on African culture and tradition:
The Living Art of African Storytelling
How To “Read” African Beads
Why African Dance is Integral to Traditional Culture
Fun With Djembe Drumming at GOLD
What It Means to 'Throw The Bones' in African Culture

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