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Meaning of Life and Its Wholeness in the Traditional African Society

Life originates from God and it progress from one stage to another with a certain rhythm each person has to follow. Each stage of life is marked by rites of passage. Life is continuous and unending. Each person is expected to value life and to be responsible. Life involves sharing. It is immoral to be greedy and self centered. People are to be hospitable, warm and caring toward other people. Unity and harmony are to be upheld. Life is viewed as whole only if a person went through all the stages or rites of passage

Life was propagated through bearing children. Life cannot be divided into religious and secular. Every element of life has a religious meaning. Life is communal. Life was celebrated at every stage. Everyone depends on others. Labor was divided. There were duties for men, children and women.

In African traditional society, human life is precious. Murder was condemned harshly. Suicide was considered the worst thing anyone could do. It was seen as a curse on the family. If one died at childhood, it was regarded as abortion. Death did not mark the end of life. Death is referred to as ‘saying goodbye to food”, “sleeping,” “going home”, “being called by the ancestors”.


African concept of a Community

A community is a group of people who share a common language, religion, and culture and may live in the same geographical location. This group of people or an ethnic group shares common interests and characte-ristics. For example, African communities:

  • Share common features and interests
  • Have the same origin and are likely to be related by blood
  • Share a common language
  • Live together and inhabit the same geographical location.
  • Are divided into smaller units called clans

A clan is made up of people who have the same forefather. A clan is composed of families. A family is made up of members (living or dead) who are related by blood and marriage. Family members therefore include the ancestors and the unborn.

Kinship System in African Communities

Kinship refers to the relationships between people. These can be by blood, marriage or adoption. People that belong to the same kinship system are referred to as kin.

Importance of Kinship System and Ties

Kinship relationships were and still are important among African communities. This is because these ties:

  1. Provided company. This ensured that people were not lonely.
  2. Provided a sense of belonging which one of the human needs. We all want to belong to a controlled social relationships between people related by blood or marriage.
  3. Promoted mutual responsibility and help
  4. Enhanced a sense of security which is a human need
  5. Regulated marital customs, rules and regulations.
  6. Enabled people to live peacefully and in harmony.
  7. Bind the community together enhancing social cohesion and loyalty to each other
  8. Facilitated care for the disadvantaged members of community.
  9. Ensured that all members of the community are have knowledge of community beliefs and practices
  10. Provided a peaceful way of settling disputes.
  11. Provided mechanisms for proper inheritance of property for example land.

Factors Contributing to Harmony and Mutual Responsibility in African Communities

Some of them are (1) rites of passage (2) good morals (3) participation in communal activities such as ceremonies, work, leisure activities and worship (4) sharing of property and ideas (5) division of labor.

Tasks were distributed according to one’s age, gender and status. (6) rules/social norms regulated how people grew up; knowing what is wrong and right. Good morals help people to live in peace and harmony

Rites of Passage

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, midwives 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.


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.

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 centers. 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.


– 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. clitoris-dectomy and (iv) some countries have made girl’s circumcision illegal and an issue of human and health rights.


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 labor. 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 an 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.


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. Shaving of heads. Some mourners shaved their hair completely, while others shaved in a specific pattern.
  2. Dancing and singing, and giving gifts to the bereaved family
  3. Mourning (d) Drum beating (e) Horn blowing 9f) Grave side fires

Religious Specialists and Their Relevance in Modern Society

Religious specialists include Medicine men / healers, Herbalists, Diviners, Mediums, Prophets / Seers, Rainmakers, Priests and Elders. Religious specialists were given power by their parents who taught them religious duties. Others received divine call through dreams and visions. A few learnt from experts via apprenticeship. This is learning by observing and practicing what one sees the master teacher doing.

-Roles of the medicine women/men in the Community. Medicine women/men are healers who were and are respected by the community. This is because they were and are able to:

  1. Treat and heal the sick
  2. Solve serious and complicated chronic illnesses
  3. Give medicine in form of powder, herbs, minerals or liquid form and observed patients swallowing, drinking, sniffing, and applying on the skin.
  4. Offer prayers and sacrifices to God
  5. Give charms to protect individual persons from evil spirits.
  6. Perform specialized medical roles in some communities in spite of the fact that we have modern hospitals, counselors and psychologists.

Elders were and still are community leaders. They were not religious specialists but the community gave elders duties, which made them close to religious leaders.

Herbalists and their Relevance

Herbalists were synonymous with witch doctors. They cured people through herbs just like the medicine women/men. Communities’ belief: Those herbalists are witchdoctors and possess magical powers. Herbalists continue to be consulted as ‘witch doctors’ or “waganga”. Today herbalists do religious tasks that were traditionally done by diviners.

Diviners and their Relevance

Diviners were able to find hidden secrets and knowledge; reveal witches and thieves. They communicated with spirits and enhanced the work of healers and medicine people. They worked as medicine people and were healers of people. They used magic powers and predicted future occurre-nces. They used items such as pebbles, water, bones or gourds in divina-tion. They also warned of future calamities. They were mediators between God, ancestors and the people. To be a diviner, one had to be trained. There was a specialized curriculum prepared by diviners.

-Relevance of diviners in modern society. Diviners (‘witchdoctor’ “mganga”) are not popular today and are hardly consulted. But the unfo-rtunate Kenyans consult them who: need a job, promotion, and children. This consultation is secret. Mediums were channels of communication between the living and the spirits of people’s ancestors. The ancestor spirits possessed mediums and through them ancestors gave information and messages to their relatives.

Priests and their Relevance

Priests were religious leaders and functionaries. They were intermediaries between people, ancestors, spirits and God. Their work was to make sacrifices and give offerings on behalf of the people. They officiated during planting and harvesting rituals. They offered prayers and blessed the needy.

They cared for the shrines and poured libations to the ancestors. They led the community in public worship. They were political heads and judges. Today, traditional priests are not relevant since most Kenyans follow several religious practices like Christianity, Hindus, Islam and many others. But there are however, a few traditional priests who take care of community shrines.

Prophets and their Relevance

Prophets / Seers predicted the future. They foretold events such as invasions, wars, drought, and epidemics. They gave advice. They also performed religious duties. They could bless and curse. Religious prophets are common today but traditional prophets are not common.

Rainmakers and their Relevance

Rainmakers were responsible for bringing or withholding rain to a community. They interpreted weather conditions. They performed certain rituals like asking God for rains. They were highly respected in the society. Modern science has replaced rainmakers

Meteorological departments have made the rainmakers redundant.

Elders and their Relevance

Elders were custodians of community values and secrets. They acted as educators. They gave punishment to offenders of social norms/rules. They acted as counselors and guided the youth on matters of sex and marriage. They helped in maintaining roles for important religious functions, such as rites of passage. They were political leaders in the community. They were negotiators and solved conflicts since they settled family disputes especially agreements concerning land. They were custodians of the traditional values, customs and history of the people.

Elders are relevant in modern society. They are referred to as village elders and are recognized by the government of Kenya.

African Moral Values


African communities were regulated by a strict code of laws and moral values. In this lesson we shall study moral values, which regulated individual members of society as well as the community itself.

What is a Cultural Value?

These are community practices and beliefs. Each community has cultural values that it accepts and upholds. These cultural values are laws, customs, and forms of behavior, regulations, rules, observances and taboos. The cultural values form a moral code, which regulates the community. For example, if the culture, values private property, it will have laws that forbid theft of property. These laws are cultural values. Cultural values influence the social order and peace. God gives peace and harmony. God is seen as the giver and guardian of the law. Disobedience was and still is regarded as evil, wrong and was and still is punishable by law.


What is a Moral Value?

Moral values are standards of behavior towards others. They are based on what is valued by the community. Moral values are also positive attitudes. Each community decided what is important to it and what is desirable for its members to practice and uphold.

The moral values that communities observed were many. They included amongst others:

  1. Hospitality and Love for self and others. This is the habit of welcoming all people, treating oneself and others well. Members of the community were taught how to be hospitable to visitors, strangers and how to assist the needy.
  2. Honesty. This is developing good habits like telling the truth, Loyalty, Respect, Co – operation with all.
  3. Obedience to parents, elders, community leaders and elders. Cultural regulations were followed and adhered to leading
  4. Caring for others. This is being responsible to members of the community
  5. Developing social moral behavior like Humility, Sharing, Responsibility, Chastity, Integrity, Tolerance, Perseverance, and Courtesy
  6. Working Hard. Do chores. These were according to sex, age and social-economic status.
  7. Cooperation. Members cooperated and worked together with others.

Moral values were learnt in the process of socialization. Leisure activities helped in acquisition of moral values. Learning moral values was a lifelong process. The most valued behavior was obedience.

Children were to obey their parents; wives obey their husbands; community obeys their leaders, and elders.

Learning to obey was a lifelong process. An obedient person was respected and rewarded.

-Misconducts. There were taboos that the community observed. Failure to obey community laws resulted in punishments. The community did not allow stealing of livestock. Domestic animals were the most valued private property. Individuals owned livestock while land ownership was communal. There were many forms of punishment for stealing livestock and committing other crimes. For example

  1. Payment of heavy fines to replace stolen livestock
  2. Being beaten in a sack
  3. Thrown down a hill
  4. Cast out of community. Thieves and murders built their homes at the outskirts of the community.They were not allowed to interact anymore with the members of the community.
  5. Being covered with dry banana leaves and then set on fire.

Continuity and Change

Formal education introduced the western way of life. Employment and trade forced Africans to leave their villages to look for employment and markets in towns. These actions led to urbanization and pluralism. As a result different communities came to towns and lived together.

Paid Employment

Workers were paid by money. The concept of money changed community life. Individualism ownership of money replaced communalism

Land Used to be Communal

There was plenty of land for everyone. But changes were brought by modern life. For example, health improved and people lived longer. There were fewer deaths and population increased. With money, there was an expansion of trade. Individuals started buying land with money instead of clearing forests.

Modern life changed the concept of land. Individual started owning land.

The colonial governments introduced policies about land ownership in different African countries. In communities where education was accepted and money economy took over from livestock economy, communal land disappeared.

Parents did not have land for inheritance. As a result, people moved and bought land away from their ancestral birthplaces. This resulted in both migrations and immigrations.


Traditionally property included land, cattle (Livestock), women/ wives, and children. In African traditional culture, this property belonged to men or the first-born son in paternal societies. In maternal communities, it belonged to wives and daughters.

Today property or wealth is in different forms such as money, buildings, vehicles, land, shares, stock, jewels, insurance, and others. Women, men and children own property. Because of this, the status of a person is measured by property.

Dowry – Bride price / Bride Wealth

In African societies, bride price was very important. It was given in various forms. For example cows, animals skin, and camels. Today dowry is commercialized. It’s mainly in form of cash money. This has made marriage costly for the poor. Some young people are staying together without a formal wedding in church or in the community. Others do not want to pay dowry. Young couples are living together in what is called – come – we – stay arrangements.

Health Medicine

In traditional society, Illness was caused by witchcraft, sorcery, bad omen, or curses. Diviners, herbalists, and healers treated the sick people.

Today bacteria, viruses, or environmental factors, cause illnesses. These are treated by nurses, and doctors; in hospitals and health centers. There is however a craze for herbalists. The communities are consulting herbalists and are taking herbal tea, and medicine


Mode of dressing varied between countries. It was dependent on the type of climate. African communities were clothes made from skins or hides, leaves of bananas and trees. Women wore beads, and necklaces for decoration.

Modern mode of dressing is a mixture of African, Asian and European wear. There are clothes for men, women, and unisex. African and western ornaments are worn for beauty and style.


Worship is an important activity in African communities. There are different forms of worship, which are done in various places. Those who were converted to Islam worship in Mosques. Those converted to Hinduism worship in temples. Christians worship in churches. The few traditional African communities continue to worship their ancestors in shrines. These are very few. But a few groups are turning back to traditional worship and reviving worship of ancestors and spirits, and their traditional God. For example “Mungiki” a cult in Kenya, made up of young people, worship the traditional Ngai and practice traditional culture.

Traditional religions have many offerings such as foodstuffs and sacrifices such as goats, cows, and sheep and chicken. Human sacrifice has been discarded.

It is illegal, and it is murder. In the news, we have heard of cases of body parts being stolen from a dead body in mortuary probably for religious rituals. This is illegal and a criminal offence.

Modern offerings in most religious institutions consist of money.

Death changes immediately the Status of Families.

Mothers and fathers become widows and widowers. Children become orphans. Many parents, wives and husbands have died because of HIV / AIDS, road accidents, diseases and other modern calamities. They have left orphans, widows and widowers.

Orphans used to be looked after by grandmothers, brothers and uncles. Today government, churches, charities, NGOs, well-wishers, and guardians, the elder sibling looks after orphans. Some orphan sisters and brothers drop out of school to look after the rest. Some orphans have ended up in the streets because there is no one to look after them Widows. Traditionally brothers inherited widows. However, widow inheritance is being discouraged to prevent HIV / AIDS. But on the other hand, a widow is encouraged to remarry as society has become individualistic and no longer assists community members as an obligation.

Widowers are not inherited and many of them remarry soon after the death of their wives.

Old Age

In traditional African communities, old people were respected. But now old age is not respected. The aged are seen as a burden to their children. This is because the need medical care, food, and other forms of care to meet their needs. Most of them are neglected and mistreated. In traditional communities, children took care of their aged parents. Today some children care for their parents.

Fortunately, churches have set up homes for the aged. An example is “Nyumba za wazee”. A few old people can look after themselves since they have pension schemes, life insurance policies, and income generating projects, investments and bank deposits. They can care for themselves.


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