Bassari Boys’ Initiation, Senegal
Initiation into adulthood for Bassari males of southern Senegal occurs between the ages of fifteen and twenty and takes place over several months. In the sacred forest, the boys undergo the deaths of their childhood identities through a series of harsh rituals, and they emerge from the forest behaving like infants. During this limbo period lasting a week, the boys are treated as unable to fend for themselves and are cared for by a group of ritual guardians, who carry, feed, and clean them, and even lay them down to sleep. This simulated regression recreates a state of purity, from which they will emerge as adults ready to assume mature roles in the community.
Bwa and Bobo Masquerades, Burkina Faso
The Bobo and Bwa of Burkina Faso see nature as a benevolent entity, and for them it is the mistakes of humanity that upset the natural equilibrium established by the creator god, Wuro. They take great care to maintain the harmony between Wuro, man, and earth through a series of ritual masquerades, which are believed to purify the community and chase away evil. Carved and painted in the form of animals and bush spirits, the masks of the Bobo people of Burkina Faso represent the nature spirit, Do, who functions as a mediator between man and the creator god, and offers atonement for human misbehavior.
Yoruba Gelede, Nigeria
The Gelede masquerade, a rich spectacle of drama, poetry, and drumming, plays an important role in the lives of the Yoruba people of Nigeria and Benin. Performed by male members of a ritual cult who have been trained in the arts of masking from the age of four or five, the Gelede masquerade offers a comedic, often farcical, spectacle that belies its more serious social and spiritual function. The dancers are concealed both in puppet masks that lightheartedly represent traditional proverbs and in intricately carved animal masks that remind the audience of the dangers of ignoring social position and natural order in the world.
Yoruba Egungun Masquerade, Nigeria
The ritual of Egungun, a word literally meaning “bone” or “skeleton,” honors the ancestors of the Yoruba people of western Nigeria and eastern Benin. It takes place once a year at a month-long festival. The Yoruba believe that all spirits must be summoned back to earth to advise the living and re-balance the cosmic order upset by human transgressions. The visiting spirits enter the bodies of members of the secret Egungun masking society, who wear masks and vibrant, lavish costumes.
Baganda Coronation, Uganda
The Baganda people are the largest ethnic group in Uganda. They pledge loyalty to the kingdom of Baganda, which originated in the fourteenth century with the unification of many clans. The installation of H.R.H. Ronald Mutebi II as king, or Kabaka, took place in 1993. One by one, the elders of the fifty-two Baganda clans prostrated themselves before the king, and he was presented with two spears and a shield symbolic of his role as protector of the kingdom. Around his shoulders were tied four robes of office—a leopard skin, a calf skin, and two bark cloths. Later in the day a second coronation was held in an interdenominational religious service, during which the Anglican bishop placed a gold crown on the head of the new Kabaka.
Reed Dance, Swaziland
Swaziland, a small kingdom in southern Africa, is governed by the Swazi monarchy and its parliament. At the head of traditional Swazi society is King Mswati III, called the Lion, and Queen Mother Ntombi, known as the She-Elephant. They are considered the embodiment of the nation; their health and prosperity are seen as relating directly to the nation’s well-being and the fertility of the soil. The Reed Dance serves as an annual reminder to the Swazi nation that its people all come from the same root, the ancient stock of their ancestors. The ceremony provides an opportunity for unmarried women to express their allegiance to the Queen Mother and for the king to survey his female subjects with a particular view to finding wives among them. The Swazi believe that it is the king’s duty to support as many wives and raise as many children as possible.
Fulani Sallah Festival, Nigeria
A ritual show of leadership and authority, the Sallah Festival at Katsina in central Nigeria is held annually at the end of Ramadan. At this time, the Fulani ruler, known as the Emir, appears with his retinue of mounted noblemen before the town’s Hausa and Fulani inhabitants. Dressed in their most extravagant robes and riding richly caparisoned horses, they proceed along a historic route that links the sacred space of the mosque’s communal prayer ground and the secular space of the palace, reflecting the Emir’s dual role as the religious and political leader of the region. Each year thousands of riders parade through the old town, paying their respects to the Emir.
Ashanti Silver Jubilee, Ghana
The Ashanti kingdom of Ghana gathered vast wealth over the past three and a half centuries by controlling the region’s gold mines. The kingdom’s gold heritage was never more magnificently displayed than in August 1995, at the Silver Jubilee of the late King Otumfuo Opoku Ware II in Kumasi. A yearlong celebration in honor of the monarch’s twenty-five-year reign culminated in a royal procession that lasted for more than six hours. The king and hundreds of dignitaries, chiefs, and royal attendants filed into a huge arena before some seventy-five thousand loyal subjects, displaying the most extravagant collection of gold regalia to be seen anywhere in the world. The procession symbolically reaffirmed the wealth, power, and solidarity of the Ashanti nation.
Senufo Funeral Rites, Ivory Coast and Mali
The Senufo people of the Ivory Coast and Mali believe that after death, the spirit of a deceased person, when strongly attached to the mortal world, may linger around the village in which he or she lived. Fearing that this will bring adversity to the community, villages conduct a protracted funeral rite to exorcise the spirit from their midst and send it to the afterworld. There, as a respected ancestor, the deceased will benefit both family and community.
Dogon Funeral Rites, Mali
Believing that all living beings and matter have spirits, the Dogon people of Mali say that when a person dies, the spirit becomes detached from the body and has the power to disrupt the order of the world. Ritual acts must, therefore, be performed to restore balance. Once every twelve years, the Dogon hold a collective funeral called the Dama honoring all those who have died during that time. Three days of masked dancing are the climax of six weeks of Dama rituals. As the masks wind their way down the narrow footpaths of the Bandiagara escarpment above the village, they create an otherworldly spectacle for the crowds below. Reaching the village center, they burst into an explosive display of dance and drama.