In traditional African society, there were four main stages of life.

These were

(i) Birth and naming

(ii) Initiation

(iii) Marriage and

(iv) Old age and death Birth and naming.


When a woman conceived, and pregnancy was visible, she was treated specially. She wore charms to keep away evil eyes. She ate special food and avoided sexual relations. The family and husband did not expect her to perform heavy task. When she was ready to deliver, mid wives helped in delivery. After delivery, the placenta was seen as a sign of fertility hence it was buried in the fertile land such as a banana plantation.


Some communities preserved placenta while others threw it into a running stream. Birth The arrival of a baby and its sex was announced through ululations or shouts. The placenta was disposed off ceremoniously. The mother was purified and baby protection rites were conducted. Once purified, a mother could wear charms to protect herself and the baby from malicious spirits, sorcery, witchcraft, and evil eyes. Thanksgiving ceremonies were performed to show gratitude to God. The hair of the mother and child was shaved as a sign of purification and newness of life.



Naming of babies was carefully chosen. A baby could be named after either a season, weather, ancestors, place or time of delivery, occasion, experience of mother during delivery, significance events such as war, and drought, personality of the child, and names of heroes and gods. A good example is the name ‘Were’ amongst the Luhya. Twins had special names.



The second rite of passage. There were different types of initiations such as circumcision for boys and clitorisdectomy for girls, excision of teeth and body marks. Initiation rites were important and every individual was expected to go through them or be rendered an outcast. Initiation practices were seen as tests for courage and bravery. They helped the communities when identifying future leaders and warriors.

Initiation was very important in communities where it was practiced. Initiation marked a transition from childhood to adulthood. In this transition, the initiate acquired new rights, new status in life, and privileges. For example the new initiates were allowed to marry, own property, and inherit the father’s property.


In addition the initiates received specialized education. They were taught how to behave as adults, warriors, future husbands and parents. The education brought families, relatives and friends together. This act strengthened kinship ties. It also prepared the initiates to face the difficulties and challenges of adult life. In addition, initiation helped to structure the community. Initiation was programmed to fit an age set; and it marked passage of specific time.


Thus each initiation ceremony was held regularly, normally between 16 – 21 years of age. If you calculate, you can see that 16 to 21 years introduced a new age set or group of young people. The age set held power for 16 to 21 years and handed over to the new generation. Initiation was therefore a mark of identity. It gave the initiate a sense of belonging. It bonded the initiates together with the ancestors.


Initiation rituals are not popular today as they were in the past. This is because many communities have undergone social and cultural changes because of modern education. As a result some families take their sons to hospitals to be circumcised to prevent HIV/AIDs and to avoid infections because of unhygienic traditional initiation practices.


Other reasons are

(i) Urbanization and migration,

(ii) Individualization

(iii) Christians religious values.

These have made some communities abandon some rites e.g. clitorisdectomy and

(iv) Some countries have made girl’s circumcision illegal and an issue of human and health rights.


Attitude to birth and naming

There has been a change in attitude to birth and naming. This is because initiation is no longer a community but a family affair. In addition, pregnant women attend antenatal clinics. Majority of pregnant women give birth in hospitals and health centres. Thus a doctor and not a midwife announce the sex of the baby. In modern society, the mother and child are no longer secluded.


Lastly most parents prefer western names for their babies. Marriage was a requirement for all members of the community. It was a source of status in the community. Since a leader had to be married. Young men and women married after initiation. Marriage was a happy occasion and a source of wealth. The father gave young initiates some animals for dowry. Fathers of girls received dowry payments, as bride price was mandatory.

It was given to the parents of the girl in form of

(a) Cows

(b) Goats

(c) Camels

(d) Jewellery

(e) Poultry.

The young men inherited the father’s property.


Importance of dowry.

Dowry unified the community. When young women were married, their parents lost their labour. Dowry payments compensated for this loss. Men paid dowry as a sign of commitment to their wife and parents.


Importance of marriage

Marriage was sacred. It was and ordained by God. Marriage created new social relationships and expanded web of kinships. During the marriage ceremonies the whole community rejoiced, and feasted together. The newly married couple learnt new knowledge and skills. The community and society respected the newly married couple. Children born from this union propagated and ensured continuity of family, and the community.


Modern community and marriage.

There has been a change in attitude towards marriage.

As a result:

Marriage is no longer seen as sacred and divorce is common. In addition, dowry has been commercialized, as it is no longer seen as important. Some young men do not pay dowry. In fact marriage is no longer seen as a sign of status Children were important in marriage. Barren women were frowned upon.


Polygamy solved issues of

Childlessness. Couples without children can now adopt them from the Child Welfare society. Divorce. This was very rare.

It happened only if the girl

(i) Was not a virgin

(ii) Practiced witchcraft

(iii) And did not show respect towards her husband.

Old age and death.

This is the age of wisdom. Old people were respected. Grey hair was a sign of respect and wisdom.

In all culture, the elders were the custodians of the law,norms and regulations. Social and religious specialists were seers, rainmakers, priests, diviners, and medicine men among others


Old age is followed by death. It was seen as a transition into the spiritual life. Besides old age, many cultures believed that death was due to either breaking of the traditional customs and taboos, curses, evil spirits, witchcraft, war, diseases and epidemics. Burial rites were performed in many African communities. Disposing of the dead body. Several methods were used to dispose the body. These were burials, leaving bodies in the forest, and throwing body to animals or placing the body in an abandoned house.


African communities believed that animals carried the spirit of the dead person to the next life. Burial rites were performed by the bereaved. They buried the body with ones person belongings and tools. Thus if a person was a great warrior, he was buried with a war coat. Celebrations accompanied funeral rites. Funeral songs (dirges) were performed.

There was drinking and eating.


Importance of funeral and burial rites

Burial rites created a good relationship between the dead and the living. They were therefore given to appease the world of spirits, express unity in the society, cleanse the remaining relatives and obey the customs of the community. Rituals that were performed depended on the community.


Some of the rituals for the dead included.

  1. a) Shaving of heads. Some mourners shaved their hair completely, while others shaved in a specific pattern.
  2. b) Dancing and singing, and giving gifts to the bereaved family
  3. c) Mourning

(d) Drum beating

(e) Horn blowing

(f) Grave side fires


Questions to make you think about marriages

  1. In your opinion, what has brought changes in modern marriages?
  2. Explain why divorce is rising in Kenya and Africa.
  3. What changes do we see in contemporary marriages?
  4. What has brought about these changes?
  5. What are the major causes of death in Kenya today?


See also






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