‘Demystifying’ African Female Initiation Rites


It makes my blood boil when I hear things coming out the mouths of some Africans that seem more suitable in the mouths of the most extreme and ignorant racists. I do realise that most Africans do not know their own history and most people today associate female initiation with nothing but female genital mutilation. However no one is going to demonise African female initiation rites on my watch. Criticism is fine but I will not tolerate ignorance. Furthermore, if anyone tries to reduce female initiation rites to a mere ‘finishing school’ where girls learn how to cook and try to attract a suitor is misinformed as there is so much more to these rites than that.

I am happy the first time I came in contact with the rites of passage was when I was reading about homosexuality in African traditional religions and I understood that historically they acted as forums of sexual education and expression. When I heard African female initiation been reduced to nothing but female genital mutilation, I was really incensed and decided to search for articles and books on the subject. And guess what? 90% of what I found was about female genital mutilation. I calmed down as I realised that there is a huge problem and a dearth of information.

Determining on what you read, female genital mutilation is practiced by a few or many African ethnic groups. I am very determined to bring an alternate perspective on the African female’s rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. Of course I will be taking a historical perspective since it seems only the shells of the original ceremonies still remain. Historically rites of passage were an important link between the youth and adults in a community. It instilled responsibilities in the youth and facilitated the internalisation of cultures.

A female initiation rite consists of one or more ceremonial events which are mandatory for all girls of a given society. These ceremonies are celebrated between their eighth and twentieth years though according to other sources, it is between their sixth and sixteenth years. Female rites of passage into adulthood are not present in every African tribe (of course). Furthermore, some of these female rites of passage involve the infliction of extreme pain on women in the form of genital mutilation and extreme tattooing while others do not.

The educational aspect of rites of passage has been stressed as the equivalent of the schooling of Western children. A very large number of rites contain periods of instruction and/or tests of competence for the initiate as adulthood is never an easy thing to attain. Female initiation rites are more than educational devices however. Apparently, it is only when women play very important roles in their society that female initiation rites will be celebrated. As it is an attempt to assure the girl and those around her that she is ready and competent enough to complete future roles. Female initiation rites also stress the importance of the woman’s role in the society.When women’s degree of participation in their society is high, the female initiation rites are considered more important in order to assure the competence of the young girl.

During the ceremonies and festivities that characterised female initiation rites, girls were taught how to take care of themselves, they received sexual education, they participated in mock ceremonies laced with heavy symbolism usually regarding marriage, child-birth and mensturation. The girls were taught how to ‘comport’ themselves during their periods and how to use menstrual cloth. Depending on the location of the ethnic group, the girls are told the importance of the hard work in the farm or the importance of fishing, trading and other commercial activities.

The ancestors were also respected during these rites with the initiates being taught to respect their families and relatives, not to share the secrets of their initiation rites and to behave in a manner that will reflect kindly on their teachers (the experts and sexual instructress*). They were also usually taught how to please their husbands which usually involved instructions to never sexually refuse husbands except during their periods or gossip about her husband’s sexual behaviour. Yes, I do not like that either but as I am been extensive I will include even what I do not approve of and before you say ‘aha! this is an obvious example of repression…’ do keep on reading!

Sexual education was imparted through songs usually with hidden sexual meaning. For example, sex was taught as been pleasurable for its sake rather than for the sake of producing children among the Swahili of Mafia Island. Among these people, though a girl was expected to be a virgin when she married, it was also expected that married women will engage in extra-marital affairs.

‘Listen my girl, I tell you, if you get water, wash yourself. If you are leaving your house, first go to the bathroom and wash thoroughly, and then start your journey. You never know, there may be a strange penis waiting for you on the path, and you might feel like going off into the bushes with him, but if you aren’t clean, you will feel embarrassed, and he will laugh at you.’**

Women are taught that while they will enjoy sex, it is also one of their most powerful levers and that though a girl is not supposed to refuse her husband, she can refuse a lover. Among this group, boys are taught to beware of the demands their mistresses may make.

I have slept around all right, but my reward has been small
What good has it done me? It hasn’t got me earrings or a nose-pin!

This is just one example of female initiation rites that are not preparing women to be ‘good wives’ to their husbands but to be sexually active adults in their own right. Female initiation ceremonies provided platforms in which the youth learnt the ‘laws of the land’ and their own cultures. Once completed, the young initiates were adults in their society and no longer children.

African rites of passage have been severely distorted. Cultural domination due to Christianity and Islam, colonization and neocolonization have lead to the reduction of female rites of passage into nothing but genital mutilation in some cases and complete disappearance in other. Most of these rites as practiced today have lost their significance.

Really anyone who views these female rites of passage into adulthood as nothing but barbaric to me is showing serious signs of having drunk the Kool-aid. After all, that sort of mentality suggests that African rituals are primitive and that anything coming out of the ‘dark continent’ must be barbaric and savage. Everything is not perfect and rosy, however that does not mean we should not maintain a balanced point of view when regarding our own African culture. I know most of us do not care about our ancestors but please do not insult their memory. There is really more to African culture than people care to even imagine and it sad that ‘people’ also includes Africans themselves. If we Africans are not bothered to separate the fact from the fiction, learn our own history and ‘demystify’ our own culture, who will?

*Among some ethnic groups, a girl had a ‘sexual instructress’ who was usually her father’s sister or her grandmothers. (I find that so amazing!) This sexual instructress was the woman who helped a young girl though her first rite of passage, her first period. Excluding the sexual instructress, there was also an ‘expert’ who played the role of a teacher during the initiation ceremonies.

**It is funny how the ‘strange’ man is reduced to his organ. This quote is from an initiation expert explaining a certain proverb. Taken from Caplan (see references).

References
Caplan A.P., ‘Boys’ Circumcision and Girls’ Puberty Rites among the Swahili of Mafia Island, Tanzania’, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 46, No. 1 (1976), pp. 21-33

Judith K. Brown, ‘A Cross-Cultural Study of Female Initiation Rites’, American Anthropologist New Series, Vol. 65, No. 4 (Aug., 1963), pp. 837-853

Mutisya P. Masila, ‘Demythologization and Demystification of African Initiation Rites: A Positive and Meaningful Educational Aspect Heading for Extinction’, Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Sep., 1996), pp. 94-103

Sudarkasa Niara, ‘”The Status of Women” in Indigenous African Societies’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring, 1986), pp. 91-103

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29 responses

  1. Another excellent piece. I've learned quite a lot recently from your blog. I liked your view on not letting it all be about repression, it was a fun educative piece!

  2. Thanks for this expose. I only comment on your personal opinion about repression. Gossip on sex between couples was not encouraged only because of how it may affect communal dynamics and cohesion not to limit personal freedoms.On rites on passage, of course things vary across ethnicities and even by family as urbanisation and western mores affect people differently. I am from the south of naija and yeah I was thought by my older aunt about sex and not just on a personal level. It was done wholistically – how would it affect the community and the laws/customs/taboos (yes)depending on who I decide to have sex with. In my experience, this is not the same with say the Yoruba or Igbo. In some ethnicities/families, the rites of passage for both male and female is ignored completely or limited to the rudiments like FGM or circumcision. I agree with you that the body of research is biased. This may be due to the western interest that fund them.

  3. thanks Jc! i like to think i'm a teacher (that's my future profession). everyone lets it be all about repression so it necessary to show the other side of the story.Myne, thank you! i think the gossiping part is cool, what i felt was 'repressive' is the part about not refusing husbands as marital rape exists. i think it is great your older aunt taught you these things. most other Nigerian girls and women i know do not have even basic sex education. you are right regarding us Yoruba. my friend's grandmother did not even know one single thing about sex until she entered her husband's house. i personally did not believe that women had periods till i got mine.Moody, that's cool! the more people read this, the better. thanks!

  4. very informative post!
    i really like how, initially, you showed how one can assume misogyny or some other female repression going off one aspect of the initiation rights, but it turns out to be more balanced, in terms of gender roles, as we learn more.

  5. I agree. So many Africans are so ignorant about this I want to rip out my hair. I really really hate what Christianity and Islam have done to the continent. Religions on their own are not bad but the way those two have been applied to Africans has been nothing short of disastrous.

    Oh, I am going to do a post about this by the way, but have you noticed how people all over the world laugh at Africans but praise the Japanese for doing THE EXACT SAME THING? Why is it that Japanese people are allowed to believe in all sorts of things that make no logical sense and everyone says what an amazing culture they have but people relegate similar beliefs by Africans to being “fetishes” and “superstitions”.

    Oh yeah, that’s because Japanese are generally really light Asians that the West can feel some sort of kinship with while Africans are just black savages.

    Sorry I forgot all about that.

    • Colonisation is a bitch my dear. Now it’s really up to us to wake up and get rid of all the nonsense we’ve been spoon-fed but that is not happening. I think it is always a bad idea to leave your own religion for another under duress which is what happened in most cases with colonialim.

      Please do a post on that! I noted the same thing on Twitter during the last days of my vacation in Japan. I mean people pointed out roadside SHRINES and told me that even a sidewalk cannot destroy that shrine or else BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN! I actually find it funny in a sad way now. What this shows really is that there’s this messed up global hierarchy that tries to place blackness and Africans on the bottom of the pole but that’s just BS.

      Regardless I feel this ‘kinship’ any white and/or Western person may feel for Japan is just superficial at best. Orientalism + appropriation is very ugly mix.

  6. A very informative and interesting post! I definitely agree with you about people often not even knowing the facts about their own cultures/pasts and how those are distorted by colonialism and contemporary discourses. People too often like to think that women now have it soooooo much better than women in the past, and while it’s true in some ways, women in the past often had quite a lot more agency than the general public thinks…

    Sorry, I seem to have rambled a bit 3:

    • Welcome to my blog! Thanks for leaving a comment here :D

      People too often like to think that women now have it soooooo much better than women in the past, and while it’s true in some ways, women in the past often had quite a lot more agency than the general public thinks…

      This! I feel like shouting this on mountain-tops or something so everyone can hear. And you didn’t ramble at all. I value your opinions.

  7. Great piece! I’m quite surprised by that Swahili quote, which I suspect is tongue in cheek. I’m writing an article about contemporary Islamic sexual education among the Swahili and that open attitude toward sexuality is definitely no longer there.

    • Thank you for visiting my blog Zuhura! That Swahili quote is pretty tongue in cheek. What’s interesting is that Swahili is generally thought of to be of Arab and Bantu descent so it is quite possible that these initiation traditions took place while the people were Muslim. What do you think caused this change in attitudes towards sexuality?

  8. My pleasure, Eccentric Yoruba! Swahili is not of Arab descent; it is a Bantu language but it has a lot of Arabic borrowings. The Swahili have been Muslim for hundreds of years; they definitely were Muslim at the time of Caplan’s research, which was in the 1970s. The question is whether the ritual is an Islamic one or a “traditional” one. In that piece, Caplan argues that it is non-Islamic but I think she’s mistaken.

    • Swahili is not of Arab descent; it is a Bantu language but it has a lot of Arabic borrowings.

      Thanks for this explanation! I previously thought that Swahili did not exist till the Arabs came and intermarried with the Bantu but I should have known better I guess.

      It’s easy to label the rituals as traditional because they happen among other African ethnic groups. I know several cultures all over the world have unique coming of age rituals but I’m not sure if this happens elsewhere in the “Islamic world”. Could you share why you think Caplan is mistaken? I’m already intrigued.

      • I think she’s mistaken because a lot of the elements she describes in unyago ceremonies share features with the sex instruction involved in contemporary Swahili weddings, which are Islamic — e.g. emphasis on virginity, removal of pubic hair, no sex during menstruation. This could be a coincidence, but it at least suggests to me that these rituals were not seen as non-Islamic by the Muslims who participated in them (even if there were other religious elites who condemned them, as Caplan demonstrates). Even the song and explanation you quoted in your post, if read as tongue-in-cheek, could mean that girls are meant to maintain purity at all times in order to be pure before and after sex; i.e. you never know when your husband will want sex (something taught to Swahili brides today) and it is your Islamic obligation to fulfill his sexual desires in order to prevent him from committing zina. If she included the Swahili original text I’d have a better sense of what that song means; but just going on the translation that’s how I read it.

        • Caplan may have reached that conclusion because there are other African ethnic groups who place emphasis on virginity, removal of pubic hair and forbidding sex during menstruation. I’d have to agree with you on the possibility of them being Islamic rather than local traditions because the only other ethnic groups I can think of right now that have said emphases are all majority Muslim.

          I wonder how they reconciled the subtle hints at promiscuity with Islam. Thanks for your thought-provoking comments Zuhura.

          Btw do you specialise in Swahili culture and language? Also I love your post on the ‘yan daudu!

  9. PS: She also claims that the ritual is unique among African puberty rituals because of the emphasis on sexual pleasure (rather than motherhood). I think this emphasis on sexuality is another Islamic element.

  10. I wonder about that, too, which is why I suspect it’s tongue in cheek, e.g. “the strange penis” is actually your husband’s penis for which you have to be ready at all times (as I was taught at my own wedding). I do specialize in Swahili language and culture (and Shona), and my husband is Swahili. Thanks for your comments on my blog—it’s nice to have some kindred spirits with similar interests.

  11. Hey eccentricyoruba, this is Corey who recently blogged on Adventures From the Bedrooms of African Women, thank you for a very informative piece and the literature used as references. I will certainly begin looking for them.

    • Hey Corey!

      Thanks for visiting! I’ve had a comment for you on Adventures but for some reason I can’t get it to post without getting an error message. Please find it below (with some minor edits, I wrote the comment prior to knowing you’ve read this post!) as it is relevant to the main subject of this post :D

      “Corey,

      I wrote a very long comment which has managed to disappear :(

      I believe these intiation ceremonies were among the only places where it was okay and expected to discuss sexuality and related topics. A lot of us Africans complain about how our parents hardly talk to us about sex and I’ve considered that the history behind such discussion may have carried on till today. I know my grandmother attended one of these ceremonies (even though all she told we was that women of her age group went to the forest to sing and dance. While singing and dancing were important aspects of initiation ceremonies, more than that definitely happened). Today a lot of us no longer have these ceremonies (I’m not saying they don’t happen on select parts of the African continent today) so the room for discussion they provided is not there anymore and still certain cultural aspects linger.

      …Not so recently, I purchased a book on female initiation rites among the Ashanti. I haven’t started reading the book yet but I know it’ll be an eye-opening read (skimming through the book, I came across a chapter describing a young girl’s embarrassment at the way a grandmother was frankly describing sexual actions. The girl had not expected such behaviour from an elder and thought it was crude. Now that could only happen and be accepted socially in the name of initiation ceremonies/rites.”

  12. I believe these intiation ceremonies were among the only places where it was okay and expected to discuss sexuality and related topics.

    Whooo! Now THAT is something I did not factor in and now I’m wondering the possibility if this is something I need to look into (and how am I even going to do it) as I am researching material for writing my book.

    For if this is so then it may pose yet another issue for my study. Many African countries went through the horrors and atrocities of colonialism which, among other things sought to erase indigenous knowledge and insititutions. But in the Caribbean there had enslavement AND THEN colonialism: a two-pronged attack on ancestral cultures and forms of education and I’m wondering now to what extent if any did that impact on the way understandings of sexuality would have been passed on to younger generations.

    • I know I’m biased but you need to look into it! You may have access to more research on the topic that I had/have.

      Slavery and colonialism dealt several blows to institutions created by Black people and our cultures. While initiation ceremonies still happen in parts of Africa, this is relatively small-scale (compared to how rampant it must have been back in the day). I am pretty sure slavery and colonialism did impact African ways of understanding sexuality and passing this knowledge on to younger generations.

      • while I agree that some poeple have misbehaved who claimed to be christians, it is not christianity itself that is to blame, you call foul on those who give a bad name to african rites, I call foul on you for acusing christianity of things that a true christian would never do. I guess ignorance is found in everything, as it is found here about christianity, you make yourself no better than those you oppose. The term christia means to follow Christ and his teachings, go and read about Christ and you will find that he doesnt preach anything about distorting the truth and spreading falsehood or enslaving anyone. On the other hand, I wonder about the value of some of the rites you describe like the one where a woman is expected to have extra marital affairs…

        • I personally find it reductive when people like you come out with “real”, “true” or “fake”, “untrue” when it comes to assigning blame and religion. I find beauty in every religion, and as I usually say “religion can be perfect in theory but is hardly ever so in practice”. If members of a certain faith used their religion as an excuse to enslave, commit genocide and subdue large groups of people, it seems silly to solely condemn the people who committed such grave sins are being “untrue” to their faith (who are you to judge anyway?) rather than trying to come up with ways to ensure that religion is not abused in such a manner.

          And I do not find it surprising at all that you would “wonder about the value” of placing more freedoms on female sexuality and seemingly place this on the same level as enslavement and colonialism. As for me, I’d rather live under a rite that does not punish women for having extra marital affairs than under one that can potential be abused and used as an excuse to decimate populations and essentially ruin the world.

          TL;DR Whatever Bob, if you want to extrapolate more on Christ and his teaching you can do that on your own blog. The point of this post is to discuss initiation rites, not Christianity.

    • Demola Ade, you’ll forgive me for seriously questioning if you are truly “well-learned” because it seems you do not have the ability to read. Your comment is not only ignorant but very unnecessary, this post has *absolutely nothing* to do with Yoruba people outside of the fact that it was written by a Yoruba person.

      This is your first time leaving a comment on my blog and I suggest that you refrain from doing so if you are not going to contribute to the discussion at hand. I urge all comments to stick to topic and despite your claims of being “well-learned” and “historically-sound” (oh, I have no doubt that you are proud) I am not impressed by this comment at all.

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