How many tribes are there in Africa? From the San community in South Africa up to the Berbers in Morocco, Africa is, undoubtedly, the origin of many tribes. The Motherland, as it is commonly known, comprises of 54 countries, more than 1.3 billion people, and over 3000 African tribes.
In every country you visit in Africa, you will notice the various tribal influences that are dominant in that specific nation. Over time, there have been numerous changes in African tribes with some dying out, others joining forces or splitting, and with others getting formed. That said, some communities have maintained their cultures to date. They have passed down the traditions for centuries and even millennia for some. Without further ado, here are some of the breathtaking African culture and traditions that are considered a wonder.
12 African tribes rituals ceremonies
Different tribes in Africa have various characteristics that make them stand out. These include different looks, traditions, and rituals. With this in mind, come with us to Africa!
1. The cultural healing dance of the San people
The San people are considered the oldest of the South African tribes as they have been there for over 20,000 years. The San people can be found across South Africa, Angola, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, and Zambia. These groups of people are commonly referred to as Bushmen and have a distinctive clicking sound.
The San have one exceptional cultural practice known as the sacred healing dance that is performed at night. During the dance, the entire community gathers around a fire, led by village elders and healers. They all dance around the fire, chanting and taking deep breaths until they reach a powerful trance-like state. It is believed that through the dance, the villagers gain access to the spirit world and can also cure physical illnesses among the people in the tribe.
2. The wooing dance of the Wodaabe
The Woodabe tribe of Niger has a spectacular courtship dance ritual that takes a page from nature’s book. The ceremony is known as Guérewol and takes place annually. During the dance, the young men embellish themselves in elaborate ornaments and face paints and gather in line to dance and sing. What is the purpose of the ritual? To get one of the marriageable young ladies who are the judges to notice them. Within the Woodabe tribe, a man’s attractiveness is gauged by having bright eyes and teeth. As such, during the dance, the men are seen rolling their eyes and smiling to show their teeth off.
3. The spitting ritual of the East-African Maasai tribe
The Maasai clan are a Nilotic ethnic group with origins from Sudan. The Maasai reside in Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania. The Maasais practice pastoralism and eat goat, beef, and lamb. The tribe wears red attire, known as the Maasai shuka; they pierce their ear lobes and adorn themselves with colourful beaded ornaments. The Maasai speak the Maa language, while some of them know Swahili.
The Maasai people are one of the tribes in Africa with a disgusting yet unique tradition of spit. To them, spitting is a form of blessing and a sign of respect, a practice that has been with them as long as they can remember.
The tribesmen spit to greet or say goodbye, to win a bargain, or to wish the other good luck. For example, two friends will spit on their hands before shaking them. When a baby is born, members of the family spit on it to wish him or her long life and wellbeing. Additionally, a father will spit on the daughter’s forehead during the wedding ceremony as a way to bless the union.
4. The flamboyant Zulu
The Zulu tribe originated from Eastern Africa and settled in South Africa hundreds of years ago. The Zulu is a Bantu-speaking tribe, and they have a tradition known as lobola, where the groom’s family negotiates the wedding with the bride’s family inside a house. For instance, the Late Nelson Mandela gave away 60 cows during a bridal lobola to his betrothed, Graca Machel.
Another significant characteristic of the Zulu is their colourful beads, baskets, and carvings. To date, the Zulu still wear their traditional clothes in special events such as weddings and funerals.
5. The lip plates of the Mursi
The Mursi is a tribe in Ethiopia and known as one of the last African tribeswomen wearing large pottery or wooden plates on their lower lips. In this Africa tribe, girls aged 15 or 16 are cut on their lower lip by either their mother or an older woman. A wooden plug is placed on the cut for 90 days until it heals.
What important to know is that the Mursi Tribe in Ethiopia is egalitarian. That is, the African tribe’s women are never forced to cut their lower lip. It is a personal choice.
6. The red hair of the Himba Tribe
The Himba tribe is found in the Northern part of Namibia. This is one of the African tribes where the women have a distinctive appearance: thick, red hair, and their complexion. The red hair is from a paste known as otjize that is mixed with butter, fat, and ochre. The women in this tribe apply the paste daily on their skin and hair.
According to the Himba tribe, the paste is used for aesthetic reasons, just the same way we would apply lipstick or mascara. The men in the community do not use the paste.
Today, there are about 20,000 to 50,000 Himba people left. They practice cattle breeding for a living and most feed on porridge made from corn flour.
7. The bull-jumping ritual of the Hamar
The Hamar, also called Hamer, is a tribe of people in Ethiopia who are mainly pastoralists. The Hamar respect a treasure of their cattle. One of the ritual practices of this tribe in Africa is the bull jumping event that lasts for three days.
The traditional event is a rite of passage for the boys and is vital to the initiate and his family. During the event, the boy must walk over 15 castrate bulls that have been smeared with dung to make their backs slippery. If the initiate fails, he will have to wait another year to try again. However, if they are successful, the boy is considered ready to raise his herd of cattle and children. As such, he is prepared to marry any girl chosen by his parents.
8. The liberal Hadzabe tribe
The Hadzabe people have lived the same way for 10,000 years. The ethnic group resides in caves in Tanzania near Lake Eyasi in the Serengeti region. For the Hadzabe, monogamy does not exist. The people pair up when they sleep around the same bonfire for a while. However, if one does not want to be in the couple anymore, they leave.
When it comes to labour, women, and children are responsible for looking for food like fruits, roots, and berries. The men, on the other end, hunt for meat and honey. The vital tools for this African tribal group include cooking utensils, a bow, and an arrow. Besides, they create their bows and arrows from the strength of animals like giraffes, and the poison from a desert rose is used to make the arrows extra lethal.
9. The marriage rite of the Ndebele
In a Ndebele wedding, it is all about the bride. The clothes she wears are exceptional and mostly made by her future mother-in-law. The mother-in-law makes Jocolo for the bride. This attire is an apron created from goatskin and adorned by colourful beads.
All married women must wear Jocolo since it symbolizes a mother surrounded by children. To add, the groom honours the bride in a performance that shows his appreciation during the wedding ritual.
10. The royal dance of the Swazi
We cannot complete this list of African tribes map without mentioning the Swazi, also known as as the Swati tribe. They are a Bantu-speaking tribe living in South-East Africa and Swaziland. One distinct feature of the Swazi culture is its reed-dance that lasts for eight days. The dance aims to pay homage to the queen and to preserve the innocence of the single ladies. Besides the reed dance, the Swati tribe has other ritual dances like the rain dance. It is for this reason that the Swazi tribesmen are widely referred to as the royal dance tribe.
Moreover, this African tribe has continued to uphold other traditional ceremonies, healing rituals, and religious beliefs. The Swazi tribe is also known for its clothing, which varies in different age groups and gender. For instance, boys aged 3 to 8 years wear a piece of leather while girls of the same age dress in a grass skirt or some portion of a cloth with a beaded necklace. Unmarried ladies dress in a fabric dress with hair held in a bun while their male counterparts wear leather loin with bead ornaments.
11. The body painting and scarification of the Karo
Karo is an African tribe living in the Southern part of Ethiopia, just along the east banks of river Omo. At the moment, there are only about 1000-2000 Karo people left. This is after an infectious sleeping sickness drastically reduced their numbers during the 19th century.
The Karo are well known for their distinctive body and face painting. The males and females in the community paint their bodies with a mixture of white chalk, iron ore, charcoal, and mineral rock. To add, this African tribe also practices ritual scarification as a way to identify themselves. For example, scars on a man’s chest signify that he has killed adversaries from other communities and so he is respected in his tribe. Women with deeper cuts on chests and torsos are considered beautiful.
12. The naming ceremony of the Yoruba people in Nigeria
The Yoruba, one of the most prominent West African tribes located in Nigeria, has a rich cultural history. In as much as most of the Yoruba tribesmen moved into urban settlements, a few of them still uphold the old traditions.
The people of Yoruba land are famous for their ritual of ‘orúko àmútọ̀runwá’ –one of the African tribe names ceremonies. Newborns are given names by their parents, grandparents and close relatives. It is not surprising to get a Yoruba person with nearly 16 different titles. The conditions under which the child is born also play a pivotal role in the naming ceremony.
If you have been to an African cultural centre, you may have come across African tribes and their masks, and these are amazing pieces from different communities. Due to the diversity of African tribes and cultures, cultural tours have become part of most, if not all, African Safaris. From the above list, it is clear that there is no shortage of incredible traditions in Africa!
Here is a response to some of the most common questions that you may have relating to this topic.
- How many African tribes are there in Africa?
The continent is made up of over three thousand tribes having over two-thousand different languages.
- What is the oldest tribe in Africa?
The Khoisan people of South Africa are regarded as the oldest ethnic society believed to have roots tracing back to as far as 100,000 years ago.
- Which is the biggest tribe in Africa?
The Yoruba of Nigeria is the largest ethnic group in Africa, with over 35 million individuals in total.
- How many black tribes are in South Africa?
The black tribesmen of South Africa are divided into four main ethnic groups, including Nguni (Zuku, Ndebele, Swazi, and Xhosa), Venda, Sotho, and Shangaan-Tsonga.