Tradition in sub-Saharan Africa

Beautiful Ashanti weaving, wooden Senufo masks, female circumcision...

While talking about traditions in Africa, everyone might have a different picture in mind. We use the word “tradition” for a wide range of cultural and social phenomena, and assume it to be in relation to the continent’s past history and that of it various peoples. Despite of the fact that much of African tradition is extinct and a further part has turned into pure folklore, in Africa today a variety of traditions are still very much alive. This article will outline the influences, which destroyed African tradition and give examples of preserved traditions, which integrated modern elements. It will focus especially on the role of women.

Destructive influences

Besides the numerous devastating inner-African wars which took place throughout history and which barely found their way into the consciousness of the western public to the very present, it was the influence of Europe itself that had an overwhelming effect on Africa and its tradition.

  • The slave trade, since the 15th century, destroyed African communities well as part of their culture, thus undermining local economies as well as political stability. In this way, new traditions evolved,for example, the knocking out of the front teeth of the women in order to prevent the slave traders from taking away those women as they would then have been considered worthless to them.

    First contacts from Europe to Africa evolved in the 15th century, and after a few decades of exploration the Europeans found out, that they could make use of the African peoples for their increasing demand of labour force, mainly at their American plantations. Many European fortunes were made on slave trade, which destroyed African communities and thus a part of the culture. `Sub-Saharan Africa lost over 12.5 million people to the transatlantic slave trade alone between 1526 and 1867. [1] Slave trade ultimately undermined local economies and political stability as villages' vital labour forces were shipped overseas and slave raids and civil wars became commonplace. By the way, new traditions evolved, such as the knocking out of front teeth which was first invented to prevent slave traders from taking away the women, who were now worthless to them. [2]

  • The Colonialism in the 19th century led to the forming of multicultural colonies, in which struggles among the native population occurred very often. In this period, for example, traditions evolved regarding the claiming of authority over an area (The invention of tradition). At the same time, colonialism led to the destruction of economic structures and social patterns as the men left their villages to work in the mines. New systems of solidarity evolved among the women, children and the elderly people who were left behind while the men were away .

    In the last decades of the 19th century, several European nations conquered and divided most of Africa amongst them. Their interests were a mixture of Christian missionary spirit (Role of women in African Society), exploratory urge, thirst for adventure, greed of gain and geopolitical advantages. In the course of colonialism, the map of Africa was fundamentally redesigned. Borderlines were drawn arbitrarily and divided the continent into territories belonging to different European nations, without taking account of the existing geographic or ethnic boundaries. The thus generated multicultural colonies were ruled by the colonial powers through indirect rule, using local traditional authorities to enforce their governance. This led to struggles among the native population, about who was legitimated to be a local traditional“ authority or which group of interest had the preferential rights, e.g. on a certain part of the land. As a result, many ethnic or interest groups invented their own traditions in order to legitimate their claims before the colonial government and their own people. The so called `Invention of Tradition´ [3] can also be interpreted as a response of the people finding themselves under an enormous pressure of social change. They had to deal with a loss of identity through foreign governance, newly imposed European norms and the often enforced acculturation to them. Colonialism and in its course the greed for profit together with industrialization led to the destruction of economic structures and social patterns at the same time. With industrialization came the search and exploitation of mineral resources, one of the main interests of the colonial powers. Many rural regions in Africa, like the South African Copperbelt (, were transformed into huge areas of mining. This had severe consequences for the African tradition. As many native workers were needed in the mines, they came from all over the continent to earn their living. As a consequence, in many villages half of the male population was absent (Role of women in African Society) far from home over long periods of time. Thus the social structure of their rural home communities was dramatically changed. Working in the mines for salary, was the first time there was an opportunity given to dissolve the contract between gender and generation, who were dependent on each other since time immemorial. The women left behind with the elderly and the children, had to take care of their households and family and to take over the duties of farming as well. Often the absent men failed to support their families after a few years abroad. The traditional family bonds became meaningless in the multi-ethnical miners´ camps, the men lived in. They often spent their short wages on their own living and convenience, often on alcohol as well. Social institutions like marriage or rituals of passage henceforth lost their importance to the men. When in course of the rapid economic change during the last century, large cities developed throughout Africa (urbanisation), new systems of solidarity evolved e.g. between women, who raise their children or trade together.

  • After decolonisation which began in 1949 the generated multicultural states turned out to be instable and many struggles occurred between the different groups, forced together into these communities, once the colonial governments had left. They also had left behind a completely altered situation in respect to their way of life.

  • Today there is still is a big difference between the rural and urban areas in Africa. In the modern cities, tradition plays a less important role than in the countryside, where it often still rules people´s daily lives to a large extent. In the cities the traditional cloths and fabrics with traditional patterns are often still worn.

    Examples of preserved African traditions and integrated modern elements

    The Maasai (Massai, Masai) inhabit a part of the south of the Republic of Kenya and the north of Tanzania. The majority of the Maasai lived on cattle breeding in a half nomadic way of life. After a cattle epidemic and colonialism strongly enforced by Germany and Great Britain, the Maasai were forced to move to arid land considered useless for white settlers. As a result, the Maasai only owned a fraction of their former area from 1870, which reached from Lake Victoria to the coast. Although the part of the Maasai, who live on farming, increases, most of them still live on cattle breeding today.
    The social structure of the Maasai is shaped by a patrilineal class system, which is also formed by a male age class system. All men, who are circumcised between the ages of 15 and 20, stay together in their age class throughout lifetime and pass all stages and rites of passage together. Through circumcision, they become Ilmurran (warriors), later junior- and senior-Ilmoruak (married, fully fledged men) and eventually Iltasati (respected elders). Each age group is defined through certain rules of behaviour and avoidance, e.g. Ilmurran are not allowed to eat any kind of vegetables at all. The Ilmurran attract special attention because of their looks; particularly for their long hair and for the colourful ornaments that they wear. Contact between genders is also regulated through the age class system and avoidance rules. For example, the Ilmurran have to avoid those who are circumcised, which means, adult women. The Maasai women are associated with the one age class of men, with whom they have lived together in their childhood. The most important events in the life of a woman are circumcision, marriage, pregnancy, childbirth and the festivities of her children. Her duties are to provide food for the family, to care for the children, to clean the house, to milk the cattle, to get water, to produce clothing from leather, to build houses and to care for the young cattle. Furthermore, women play important roles at the rites of passage of their own sons. At the ceremony in which the Ilmurran becomes an Ilmoruak, the mother welcomes him back to the village community by shaving his head and providing him with a symbolic bowl of milk in her house. Even today the action and thoughts of the Maasai are focused on their cattle. A Maasai, who is not making a living from cattle breeding, is not considered a true Maasai. Nevertheless, the Maasai women nowadays earn a part of their living by fabricating glass beads for trading. Also the young Ilmurran gain money by making themselves available as photo subjects for tourists. [4] 

    The Nuba, a collective name for about 50 ethnic groups, who inhabit an area of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan in the Republic of Sudan, gained fame through their elaborate body paintings and hairstyles of their young men who are between the ages of 17 and 30. These decorations are expressions of strength and youth. Before blue, as a chemically produced colour, was offered in Arabic stores, only traditional and natural colours were used. Today new elements have been integrated into this traditional art of body painting. As an example, trade and traffic introduced to the young Nuba men, sunglasses, silk loincloths and necklaces made from crown caps. The Nuba live on hoe-farming and complementarily they breed livestock. Since the 1960s, work-related migration began and had severe consequences on traditional Nuba society. The aim of the men was to find work in the big cities along the Nile River, e.g. Khartoum and Omdurman. Sometimes up to 50% of the male population left their communities.[5]


    The Tswana form a part of the North Sotho (Sotho Tswana). They inhabit inner South Africa from the Kalahari Desert to the mountains in the east. Less than half of them live in Botswana, their own state; the the others live in the bordering regions. The Tswana have the tradition of marriage between cousins. This has many reasons. It ensures that property stays within a lineage, that competitors are excluded from the struggle for power and influence and that a bond of cooperation and assistance is formed between the generations and relatives. Marriage is with the Tswana, like in most African societies, not a matter of emotion toward the spouse, but rather the creation of an economic community (alliance) between the families. The marriage between cousins is a condition for material wealth and social coherence. [6]


    The traditional structures of African communities have been altered by foreign destructive influences. These began with slave trade in the 15th century and were followed by colonialism in the last decades of the 19th century and the struggles after decolonisation. Many ethnic groups preserved their traditions, some traditions became extinct and others included modern elements. Strong traditions give identity and a sense of belonging to the people.

    Kira Schmidt


  • [1]Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,, 2008, Zugriff am 04.01.10
         Geschichte Afrikas, 
  • [2]
    Zugriff am 13.10.10
  • [3]  Erfundene Tradition, Zugriff am 04.10.09
  • [4]  I. Rogg, E. Schuster (Hrsg.), Massai, in: Die Völker der Erde – Kulturen und Nationalitäten von A – Z, Gütersloh/München 1992;
            I. Rogg, E. Schuster (Hrsg.), Die Massai: Krieger, Hirten, Frauen, in: Die Völker der Erde – Kulturen und Nationalitäten von A – Z, Gütersloh/München 1992
  • [5]  I. Rogg, E. Schuster (Hrsg.), Nuba, in: Die Völker der Erde – Kulturen und Nationalitäten von A – Z, Gütersloh/München 1992;
            I. Rogg, E. Schuster (Hrsg.), Die wandelnden Bilder der Nuba, in: Die Völker der Erde – Kulturen und Nationalitäten von A – Z, Gütersloh/München 1992
  • [6]    I. Rogg, E. Schuster (Hrsg.), Sotho-Tswana, in: Die Völker der Erde – Kulturen und Nationalitäten von A – Z, Gütersloh/München 1992
    I. Rogg, E. Schuster (Hrsg.), Wenn die Cousine zur Ehefrau wird, in: Die Völker der Erde – Kulturen und Nationalitäten von A – Z, Gütersloh/München 1992
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