PASSAGE OF LIFE RITES

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1.0 INTRODUCTION

The different stages of life that human beings have to pass through in life are usually referred to as the passages of life. They involved the crossing from one stage of life to the other. Religiously among Africans, these are the stages when people are metaphysically and sociologically made into new beings. For example, the new human beings are given new roles in the society. As a result of the importance attached to these stages, the Africans attached them to religious cycles and attached important rituals to them. These rituals are the ones called the rites of passage. There are four major rites of passage among Africans and these are: the birth right, puberty or adolescence rite, marriage or procreation rite and death or funeral rite. Of all the rites of passage it is only the first three that the human being concerned participates in. No one is able to participate in his or her own death rites. The importance attached to the death and funeral rites demand that it would be treated as a subject of its own.

As had been stated earlier, the rites of passage differ from one African locality to another. As a result of this we will also examine these rites as we have done in the previous chapter.

2.0 OBJECTIVES

By the end of this unit you should be able to:

  1. define what rite of passage is 
  2. narrate the various Yoruba rites of passage 
  3. narrate the Mende rites of passage 
  4. narrate the Ashanti rites of passage. 

3.0 MAIN CONTENT

3.1 The Yoruba Rites of Passage

3.1.1 Birth Rite among the Yoruba Among the Yoruba, great importance is attached to the birth of a new child because a new born child is seen as the reincarnation of some ancestors who are seeking a return to life. This singular reason is the basis for the Yoruba’s handling of barrenness as a serious curse and a great misfortune.

From the point of conception until a child is finally delivered, great care is taken to ensure safe delivery. Medicine men are consulted to provide charms to ward off evil spirit and also all the needed medical care to ensure safe delivery. At this point, the pregnant woman is made to observe all family taboos and ones that are considered general taboos. Some examples are that the pregnant woman should avoid walking in the sun during the day and in the dead of the night to avoid the spirits of children that are ‘born to die’ from entering her womb. She is also expected to offer sacrifices to the husband’s ancestral spirits who are believed to be capable of warding off witches and sorcerers who may want to attack the woman at the point of delivery.

Finally when the child arrives, the first eight days are the most critical ones. The baby during these eight days is regarded as a visitor to this world whose stay in this earth is still uncertain. On the third day of the birth, the Ifa oracle would be consulted. This ceremony is called “ese n taye”. In this ceremony, the child’s feet would be placed on the sand of the divination tray to determine what sort of child it would be and what should be done by the parents in order that the child may have a happy destiny.

The next ceremony comes up on either the seventh day (if the baby is a girl) or on the ninth day (if the baby is a boy); this is the naming ceremony. The name a child is given in Yoruba land depends on the circumstances surrounding the birth of the child or the situation in the family as at the birth of the child. For example, a child born during festival period can be called “Bodunde” or “Abiodun”. If a child is born shortly after the demise of the grandfather or mother and the child happens to be in the sex of the departed one, the child would be named “Babatunde” if it is male or “Iyabo” if it is female.

Elements used for the naming ceremony among the Yoruba people include honey, salt and sugar-cane (all of which symbolizes the sweetness of life); bitter-kola (which symbolizes a safe journey through life) and kola-nut which symbolizes the warding off of evil. As soon as the child is named with prayers using the elements, the elements are passed round for those present at the ceremony to eat out of it.

3.1.2 Puberty Rite

Unlike other African people, the Yoruba do not have an elaborate puberty rite. The principal adolescent rite for the male children is the circumcision rite. This is usually carried out when the boy reach the age of twenty or is about to take a wife. Due to modernization and western influence, the rite now takes place immediately after the birth of the child and without the attending fanfare. The female children too as a sign of maturity are expected to go through circumcision before they get married. Tattooing of the shoulders, back, trunk and thighs are also done at this time. It has to be noted too that western civilization has reduced female circumcision to the minimum among the Yoruba.

3.1.3 Marriage Rites

Marriage among the Yoruba is a very important event and it is a meeting point for the departed, the living and the ones to be born. In the Yoruba worldview failure to get married is a sign that the person has rejected the society and the society in turn has rejected the person. Unlike the culture of the West, marriage is a family concern and not an individual matter. This is because marriage is seen as the unity of the two families and the responsibilities are also shared among the two families. The marriage bond for the Yoruba does not terminate at death of either or the two spouses.

When a girl is found to be of the age of marriage a group from the house of the would-be-groom would approach the girl’s family to ask for her hand in marriage. The family would request for time to consider the matter. During this period the family would carry out their secret investigation about the boy’s family and also consult with the oracle to ask about the viability of the proposed union. The investigation is specifically carried out to ascertain if the proposed groom’s family had a
history of diseases such as insanity, leprosy, epilepsy and tuberculosis. It will also examine whether the family had been associated with any crime or unsocial behaviour which would bring disgrace to them if they get associated with the family. When all these had been ascertained and there is no obstacle, then the union may be allowed to take off and the negotiation for marriage proper begins At this points the proposed groom would go to the bride’s family and pay a token sum of money called “owo ibasoro” (payment for talking) and when this is taken, talks between the proposed couple would commence. If the girl consents to the marriage and the girl’s parent too consent, another token sum of money called “owo ijohen” (the money for saying yes) would be paid along with two gourds of palm-wine or two bottles of hot drink. When this is received, it is assumed that everyone concerned and the tutelary divinities had given consent to the marriage.

The next stage is what is known as the engagement (called idana). The customary bride price (a token to say thank you for the girl’s parents to have taken good care of her) which actually varies from family to family is paid. This legalizes the marriage because payment of bride price gives a man control over the woman and all her offspring. The marriage proper takes place shortly after the payment of the bride price. The ceremony is characterized by prayers from both parents for fruitfulness, peaceful union and long life. The tutelary divinities are invoked to shower their blessings on the new home. At the end, the bride is delivered into the hand of the eldest wife from the husband’s family or some other elderly women who will take her home. The new bride is usually accompanied by her friends and age group. This usually takes place in the night. On reaching the husband’s house, she would go in only after she has been prayed for at the doorstep. Later she is introduced to every member of the family who will welcome her with gifts and she is also introduced to her domestic responsibility.

3.2 The Mende Rites of Passage

3.2.1 Birth Rite among the MendeWith the Mende people, as soon as a woman is pregnant, she is put under the care of an elderly woman who acts as midwife. At the point of giving birth, all men are forbidden to be present in the house. A male child is named on the fourth day while a female child is named on the third day. Like what obtains among the Yoruba a child’s name indicates the circumstances surrounding the birth of the child. For example, a child born shortly after the death of child is called Gilo (female) or Gibas (male) which means “let this one live”.

The naming of a female child is usually done by a woman who will take the child out and face the sun. She spits on the child’s face and gives the name. A male child is however named by his father, the father’s brother or any elderly man in the family. The procedure is the same as for the female.

3.2.2 Puberty Rite among the Mende

Among the Mende puberty rites is very elaborate. It is during this period that both the males and females undergo a training and initiation into adulthood. The initiation usually comes up between the age of fourteen or fifteen.

At this point the boys are initiated into the Poro society. Let us first discuss that of the boys. During the Poro secret society initiation rite of the Mende the boys first face circumcision if they are not already circumcised. Those conducting the rites then force the boys onto the ground and cut their backs with razors while forcing their heads into a hole. The resulting scars signify the teeth marks of the Poro spirit that consumes the boys. Poro initiates undergo training periods during which they are considered dangerous. They play pipes and yell warning cries to prevent passers-by from coming into contact with them. Poro initiates undergo ordeals during this state. They are deprived of sleep, forced to labor, exposed to the elements, forced to seek their own nourishment in the bush, and instructed in Poro law. The initiates then reemerge, often through formal ritual procedures, to the normal social fabric with a newly defined identity and a changed social status.

The girls on the other hand are initiated into the Sande society where they are circumcised and prepared for motherhood. The initiation and socialization of females takes place in Sande camps, where young girls learn basic Mende female values. They are trained for marriage, in domestic and family issues, about economic pursuits, and in singing and dancing. The Sande maskers visit the camps periodically and the young girls learn to respect these spirits that guide and protect them. When the girls leave the camp it is a symbol of rebirth; they are then women ready for marriage.
The Sowei mask is worn over the head of a female dancer and represents Mende ideas of female virtue and beauty. The broad smooth forehead of the mask signifies contemplativeness and restraint. The neck creases of the mask signify full-bodiness and good health, while the smooth skin represents youthfulness. The small shapely ears, nose and mouth mean that women are not given to gossip and braided hair is a testament to sexuality a, l cosmetic skills. The bird figure perched on top of the mask
has several meanings that include love, discipline, laughter, danger, and power.

3.2.3 Marriage Rite among the Mende

Under normal conditions, the Mende girl would have been betrothed very early in life. However, proper marriage does not take place until the girl has been initiated into the Sande society. It is believed that a girl or boy that has not been fully initiated must not have sexual dealings.

When a Mende boy is ready to get married he will take the bride price to his father-in-law. This is usually a lump sum of money and other goods such as clothes. The girl’s parents in turn will call their daughter and present the bride price to her. The girl’s mother would then ask if she is prepared to go with the man. About two days later, the husband will send an emissary, usually an elderly woman, to his parent-in-law to request that his wife should come to live with him. As soon as the parents give their consent, they will call the girl to get her set for her new home. When the girl is ready to leave, the mother blesses her by spitting on her hands and rubbing the saliva on the girl’s forehead. The girl is then led to her husband’s house by dancers.

3.3 The Ashanti Rites of Passage 

3.3.1 The Ashanti Birth Rites
The pregnant woman among the Ashanti is subjected to many restrictions:

  1. She must not leave her compound during the first trimester 
  2. When it becomes necessary to go out she must cover her head and breasts 
  3. She must not be told that she is pregnant 
  4. She must avoid adultery 
  5. She must not abuse a divinity 
  6. She must not see the sight of blood 
  7. She must not look at ugly things 

The Ashanti believes that failures to adhere strictly to these taboos could lead to miscarriage or an abnormal child.  When the pregnancy is eight months old, the woman must go to her parent’s home where she has to remain till delivery. On the day of delivery female, attendants are called in to assist. When the baby finally arrives, he is called by the name of the day it was born. For example, a child born on Friday is called “Kofi” and the one born on Saturday is called “Kwame”. For the first eight days of birth, no special attention is given to the new born baby because as the Yoruba also holds, the baby can return within that period of time. But when the first eight days are passed clothes are provided and name is also given officially.

3.3.2 The Ashanti Puberty Rites

The puberty rites for the Ashanti girl begin on the day she sees the first menstruation. She informs her mother as soon as she sees the menstruation. The mother in turn makes the news known to the village community. After breaking the news, she will return home to pour libation to Nyame (God) and then to the ancestors. After this the girl’s hair shaved from both the armpit and the vagina. This shaving symbolizes that she is a new born adult. A ceremony is later carried out where everybody is entertained with foods and drinks. This ceremony also symbolizes that the girl is ripe for marriage.

3.3.3 The Ashanti Marriage Rites

As with most of the other tribes earlier discussed, when an Ashanti man is ready for marriage, he takes some gifts to the home of his would-be parents-in-law. Such gifts could be in the form of materials like tobacco, fish and meat or in the form of direct labour in the farm of the would-be
in-laws. After the parents have agreed to give the girl to the man as wife, the ancestors are involved to seal the marriage. The girl is then allowed to follow the man home.

4.0 CONCLUSION

You would have seen from these examples the cyclic view of life that permeates the African society. The birth of a child is a process that begins from the point the mother gets pregnant. The new born child is seen more as a reincarnation of one of the ancestors who is seeking A return to life and childlessness is seen as a big misfortune. Puberty is the transition from childhood to adulthood and there are many localized rites to mark this symbolic transition. Marriage is also seen as a religious duty and a responsibility for everyone.

5.0 SUMMARY 

  1. The different stages of life that human beings have to pass through in life are usually referred to as the passages of life. 
  2. Religiously among Africans, these are the stages when people are metaphysically and sociologically made into new beings. 
  3. As a result of the importance attached to these stages, the Africans attached them to religious cycles and attached important rituals to them
  4. There are four major rites of passage among Africans and these are: the birth right, puberty or adolescence rite, marriage or procreation rite and death or funeral rite. 

6.0 TUTOR-MARKED ASSIGNMENT

Discuss the significance of marriage rites among the Africans

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