Rites of passage in African cultures are traditional ceremonies or rituals that mark an individual’s transition from one life stage to another, such as from childhood to adulthood, or from being single to being married.
These rites are symbolic rituals that have been passed down from generations to generations providing a framework for individuals to navigate the major transitions in their lives and by reinforcing the values, beliefs, and traditions of their communities. They include birth ritual, initiation to adulthood, coming of age, marriage, funerals, etc.
Many African cultures have different rites of passage peculiar to them. However, they all follow the same three stages including : separation, transition, and incorporation. In the separation stage, the individual is separated from their previous identity or social group. In the transition stage, the individual experiences a liminal period of ambiguity and uncertainty. In the incorporation stage, the individual is reintegrated into their society with a new status or identity.
A typical birth ritual among the Ndebele -speaking people of Zimbabwe begins with the woman leaving her husband during her ninth month of pregnancy to go to her own parents’ home.
This constitutes the separation phase, which involves women preparing the room by polishing the floor with cow dung. After the room is cleaned thoroughly, no one is allowed into it until the mother is nearing the time for the delivery.
When the time approaches for birth, the liminal phase of the ritual begins. The pregnant woman is accompanied into the room by her mother and grandmother and any other women assisting in the childbirth. It is forbidden for any man to enter the room when a woman is giving birth, even her own husband.
Before touching the pregnant woman, the woman acting as midwife, usually the grandmother, washes her hands in water that contains herbs prescribed by a traditional healer. When the baby comes out of the mother’s womb, the midwife is the first to touch the baby by cleaning the blood off with the medicated water. The umbilical cord of the baby is then cut, but some of it is left hanging to its navel and tied with a string.
The midwife then washes the baby again in the medicated water. While the baby is sleeping, but before the baby is allowed to feed from its mother, a fire is prepared in the room. Specially selected herbs are put onto the fire, which is allowed to reduce to burning coals. The baby is then awakened and its head placed in the smoke from the fire containing the herbs. The baby may be held over the fire for over an hour before being allowed to suck from the mother.
The next day, the same process of putting the baby in the smoke from the medicated fire is repeated, and is continued until the umbilical cord falls off, which may take up to a week. After the umbilical cord falls off, the liminal phase ends when the baby is recognized as a person and given a name.
As a sign that the mother and baby have been incorporated into the community, people outside the room are called in to celebrate the birth by bringing gifts; only after this is the father of the baby allowed to see his child.
To complete the ritual, the father is given the piece of umbilical cord, which he takes to a place near the homestead and buries, offering thanks to the ancestors and asking them to protect the new baby.
After these events, the father, mother, and baby return to the father’s home, fully reincorporated into society in their new status as parents with a child.
Source: (Cox, 1998).