RITE OF BIRTH (/CHILDBIRTH) The Rite of Birth is the first of the major African initiation rites and it involves initiating the infant into the world through a ritual and naming ceremony. Nearly all African cultures hold that the infant has come from the spirit world with important information from that world, and is bringing unique talents and gifts to offer to the community. The infant, in fact, is believed to have been commissioned to come to the world and accomplish a particular mission or project, and often has a great message to deliver.
Therefore, it is the responsibility of the family and community to discover the infant’s unique mission through consultations with a diviner and to have rituals and a birth chart done. This is done to clearly determine the new community member’s mission in order to guide him/her through their life path. The infant’s name is given after the determination of the mission and it is a reflection of the infant’s personality or the life mission itself.
RITE OF ADULTHOOD The Rite of Adulthood is the second major initiation rite and it is nowadays the most popular among the set of rites. Most people today assume that “rites of passage” only refers to initiation into adulthood, and they are often not aware that adulthood rites are only one set of rites within a larger system of rites. Adulthood rites are usually done at the onset puberty age (around 12-13 years of age in many cultures) and they are to ensure the shaping of productive, community-oriented responsible adults. There is nothing automatic about youth being productive members of society, nor is there anything particularly difficult about transitioning from a child to an adult. This transition to adulthood is exceedingly difficult in Western societies because there are no systems of adulthood rites to systematically guide and direct the young person through this important stage in his or her life cycle.
In Western culture adulthood is seen as a status achieved at the age of 18 or 21, or simply when the person graduates from high school. Unfortunately, in most cases there is no fundamental guidance or transformation from a child to an adult that is required or expected. This “leave it for chance” approach to adulthood development is the root of most teenage and youth “adult” confusion, chaos, and uncertainty. When the youth reach a certain age, somehow they are expected to magically transformed into an “adult,” eventhough they often receive very little guidance.
On the other hand, African societies systematically initiate boys and girls. They often take the young initiates out of the community, and away from the concerns of everyday life, to teach them all the ways of adulthood: including the rules and taboos of the society; moral instruction and social responsibility; and further clarification of his/her mission or calling in life.
RITE OF MARRIAGE The Rite of Marriage is the third major initiation rite and it represents not only the joining of two families, but also the joining of the two missions of the new couple. In other words, the marriage rites are performed for not only the coming together of male and females to procreate and perpetuate life and the coming together of families, it is also an institution that helps both the husband and wife to best fulfill their mission and objectives in life. Unfortunately, in Western society a vast number of marriages fail as they are often based upon the couple “falling in love” and thereby entering the relationship in an unbalanced state. Individual often “fall in love” quick and “fall out of love” just as quickly, as soon as they recover from the emotional “love at first site” syndrome. African society, on the other hand, does not emphasize individual looks and lust as the primary motivation for marriage, but rather the basic focus is on building families and communities. The focus is on the collective more than the individual. A person is not generally considered an adult until they have married and had children.
RITE OF ELDERSHIP The Rite of Eldership is the fourth major initiation rite and it is an important component of the initiation system, because it is the elders who represent tradition and the wisdom of the past. In African culture, there is a fundamental distinction that has to be made between an “elder” and “older” person. An older person has simply lived a longer life than most of people, but it not considered one who deserves high praise and respect. This is because the older person’s life has not been a positive example for the community. An older person could be a thief or drunkard, an evil person, or could be someone who never married and had children, and thus these examples would certainly prevent a person from being considered a respected elder.
An elder, on the other hand, is someone who is given the highest status in African culture because s(he) has lived a life of purpose, and there is nothing more respected than living a purposeful life. The life of an elder is centered in the best tradition of the community, and is someone who has gone through all of the previous three rites, and is a living model for the other groups in the society to emulate. An elder is given the highest status and along with new infants because these two groups represent the closest links to the wisdom of the spirit world.
RITE OF ANCESTORSHIP The last of the five major rites is the Rite of Ancestorship, which concerns passing over into the spirit world. This final initiation rite is an extension of the elder/older distinction because the status that a person has in life is the same status that they bring with them when they pass on. There is virtually no African society that believes that when a person dies this ends all ties and communication with the living. Rather, African philosophy from one culture to another agrees that the spirit of the deceased is still with the living community, and that a distinction must be made in the status of the various spirits, as there are distinctions made in the status of the living.
One of the most important distinctions is the difference between an older person who dies and who is seen as nothing more than a “dead relative,” and a respected elder who passes on and is revered as an honored “ancestor.” The dead relative dies without honor and is someone who is not remembered as a great person or someone who should be followed or emulated. On the other hand, a respected elder who passes on becomes a respected ancestor and is given the highest honor. This group of ancestor wield great power and are often called upon in matters of trouble or uncertainty to help influence a favorable outcome. Thus, ancestors are respected elders who have passed away and who continue to serve as an extension of the family and community.