Welcome to an introduction to just a handful of the many African tribes. It seems that we have been unable to pin down the exact number of African tribes there are, because many of the lines between the people groups of Africa have become blurred but estimates put it at around 3,000. The traditions and culture of African tribes is absolutely fascinating and here are just a few for you to read about.
In the South West of Ethiopia in the Hamer Bena Woreda region of the Omo River Valley, lives the African tribe of the Hamer; about 43,000 people cattle farming for an income. Their religion theoretically is Muslim, however they really believe in the supernatural, considering animals, plants and certain objects to contain strong spiritual forces. Many other native African tribes and groups have similar beliefs. Young men qualifying for adulthood have to undergo an ancient custom of jumping over a line of bulls. This is a festive time with beer, feasting and traditional dancing taking place for several days. The Hamer tribe makes up a small amount of the population of Ethiopia with limited political power and a low literacy rate. Their language is Hamer- Banna.
The Mursi tribe live in Southern Ethiopia near the Sudan border. Mursi females wear lip plates in pierced and stretched lower lips, with their lower teeth removed. They believe that animals, plants and objects have supernatural powers. A ‘donga ceremony,’ is two naked men fighting each other with sticks and the winner selecting a woman for sex but this does not bar her from marrying someone else in the tribe. Drinking a mixture of blood and milk is customary nourishment for them and several other tribes of Africa in this region. With cattle their main source of wealth, they do not eat much meat. Conversation is in a Nilotic language.
The Zulu are regarded as a great warrior nation by other African tribes and are the most powerful of the native African groups in South Africa. They speak Isizulu. Young Zulu girls wear only beads for their traditional tribal dress. Different beads have different meanings and the tribe’s young men courting girls will give beads as tokens of love. Ancestor worship is common practice with the Zulu nation and the ancestors are called upon for advice with important decision-making. As with other tribal groups in Africa, reciprocal generosity abounds and visitors are always made to feel welcome.
Your view of African tribes may be of the dark skinned peoples of Central and Southern Africa, but North Africa has its fair share of indigenous tribes too. The Tuareg is an ancient nomadic African tribe for whom cattle represent wealth. They live in the area from Western Sahara to north Western Sudan. In the 14th century, they travelled as far south as the border of Nigeria and the Greek historian Herodotus mentioned them back in the 5th century BC. The Tuareg language is Tamachek, thought to have originated in Libya. From the age of 25, it is customary for men to wear an indigo veil and they are popularized as “the Blue Men of the Sahara.” A traditional dance called the ‘Tam Tam’ sees men on camels circling the women they court with accompanying chanting and beating of drums. Tuareg huts are made of woven matting and traditional fabrics set on a wooden frame. The women take part in family and tribal decision- making and descent and inheritance are carried through the maternal line.
The Kuba tribe live in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire), speak BaKuba and are well- known for weaving beautiful cloth from raffia. They also carve wooden masks and figures and produce divination oracles, anthropomorphic cups and headrests – many of the exhibits of art from the tribes of Africa in museums and galleries around the world comes from the Kuba. The rivers in the area provide enough fish for their consumption, together with their maize and cassava harvests, but they only eat meat in the dry season, when the men can hunt without interference from their extensive farming duties. Dogs are revered as they are considered to deliver the will of God.
The Ashanti, another warrior nation, is the largest of the African tribes in Ghana. In times of war, the beating of drums signaling tribal war is heard throughout the forests and bush. They were once the dominant people of West Africa and they were the tribe that managed to hold out the longest against British colonization. An Ashanti tribal custom is shaking hands with the left hand, leaving right hands free for holding spears. Their supernatural religion includes fairies, witches and forest monsters, with special ceremonies for marriage, birth, puberty and death. Ashanti homes display the fertility doll “Akua ba” for girl babies.
Maasai life centers on their herd of cattle. They believe that God entitled them to all the earthly cattle, so rustling cattle is considered acceptable. Painful circumcision takes place for boys aged somewhere between 12 – 25 years, at the time of initiation of new warriors, which happens about every 15 years. They stay in a special village built by their mothers for them for the duration. A myth exists that before circumcision, a boy must kill a lion. The Maasai are still fairly nomadic and live in Kenya and Northern Tanzania – notably in the area named for them – the Maasai Mara. They are possibly, after the Zulu, the most well known of African tribes – regularly seen on safari in the nature reserves of East Africa.
I’ve loved my little adventure into the world of the tribes of Africa. I’m glad you came with me. These ancient and noble African tribes probably have great stories to tell. Shame we can only read about them, don’t you think?
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