Seven Fascinating African Traditions

Africa is a smorgasbord, not only of wildlife and spectacular scenery, but of people and customs and traditions, too, each one more awe-inspiring than the last.

It is a very large continent, with a huge number of people divided into lots (and lots) of different groups and tribes, each with their own cultures and traditions. This melting pot of people is one of the many reasons that Africa is such a wonderful and fascinating place. In this blog we look at just some of the customs.

Please remember that each area and each area's inhabitants have different customs and etiquette. To minimise the risk of a faux pas and ensure that you respect local culture, ask around if you’re unsure about how to handle any social situations. One thing all Africans have in common is a welcoming and friendly demeanour!

African Handshakes

Many people from Europe greet each other with kisses on the cheek – some once, others up to four times, alternating cheeks. In African culture, we generally shake hands. And by that, we don’t mean just a boring old ‘clasp hands, shake, separate’. No, we do things way more interestingly. Watch the video above, for just one example.

African culture comes with some wonderful points, one of the main ones being respect. When shaking hands, the other hand is placed on the upper arm as a display of that respect.

Speaking Loudly

Rod WaddingtonWalking and Chatting - Rod Waddington

In many African cultures, you talk loudly. This is not in order to irritate those around you; it is to ensure that nobody thinks secrets or gossip are being whispered to each other. Again, this is a sign of respect for people.

It’s also one of the wonderful things about Africa – busy and bustling and loud!


David StanleyDancing - David Stanley

In Africa, we dance for everything.  Getting married? We dance. Coming of age? We dance. Friday night? We dance. Funeral? We dance. Yip, you read that right. The rhythm of Africa runs through pretty much every aspect of African culture.

There is nothing that stirs the soul more than the beat of an African drum and the dust stirred up by dancing feet.

Again, each people and each occasion has different dance and music styles. When on safari, try to see (and do) as many as possible – they’re awe-inspiring. These are just two of the many:

Maasai Warrior Dance

Harvey BarrisonMaasai Warrior Dance - Harvey Barrison

This jumping dance, called adumu, is traditionally performed during the coming-of-age ceremony when boys become men/warriors. Unlike most other African cultures, the Maasai don’t routinely use drums, but dances are accompanied by vocals only.

The warrior dance is spectacular, with the warriors standing in a circle, entering the middle one at a time, and jumping, as neatly and high as possible, without the heels touching the ground. The ones who jump highest are deemed the strongest, and get the girls!

Gule Wamkulu

The Gule Wamkulu is a dance performed at initiation ceremonies, funerals and celebrations of the Chewa people in Malawi. It is performed by members of Nyau, a secret society of men, thought to have been established as a counterpoint to the matrilineal society of the Chewa.

Dancers wear elaborate masks, often animals, and kick up dust in order to keep their identity secret. The dance is considered to be a communication with the ancestors.


South African TourismCows in the Eastern Cape - South African Tourism

Traditionally in many tribes of Africa, a groom must ‘pay’ the family of his bride-to-be. This payment – called lobola in South Africa – in days gone by (and still now, in rural areas), takes the form of cows. Nowadays, if this payment is paid, it is generally in cash.

Before a wedding, the groom meets with the bride’s elders and between them they agree on a price.

Nyami Nyami River God

Jason WharamNyami Nyami - Jason Wharam

Anybody who visits Victoria Falls (and the rest of Zimbabwe) will have come across the Nyami Nyami river god. Known as the protector of the Tonga people, he and his wife lived in the Kariwa Gorge of the Zambezi River, before Kariba Dam was built.

With the body of a snake and the head of the fish, the Nyami Nyami is found carved in wood and bone as pendants, walking sticks and various other trinkets at markets and curio shops. Many wear it around their necks to protect them, especially those working on or around the Zambezi River.

It is believed that the building of the Kariba Dam angered Nyami Nyami, as it flooded his home and separated him from his wife. The building of the dam was fraught with disaster and flooding, and still there are earth tremors in the area. Scientists blame the changed landscape due to the dam, but others say it’s the angry Nyami Nyami.

Himba ‘Sun Block’

David SiuMother and Child - David Siu

The beautiful red/orange tone seen on all Himba women living in the Kunene region of Namibia is due to a paste applied every day. It is made up of powdered ochre mixed with butter.

It is used only by the women of the tribe, who apply it daily to the skin and hair, for both cosmetic and more practical reasons – it acts as a sunblock and protects against the incredible heat of the desert.

Family & Ancestors

South African TourismMama Tofu, Qunu - South African Tourism

There is nothing more important in Africa than family. In most tribes, ’family’ is not considered to just be immediate family, as in the Western world, but includes the extended family – aunts, uncles, cousins etc. Ancestors are also important.

Most importantly, though, and one of the traits that the Western world could take a few lessons from, is the respect given to the elders in the family. Big decisions involving any member of the family usually requires a meeting of the elders.

Any important occasion is celebrated with the whole family, so African celebrations tend to be large and noisy!

A predominant belief throughout sub-Saharan Africa is that of the spirits of the ancestors. Huge importance is placed on appeasing them. It is believed that once a person dies, they continue to be interested in, and influence, the lives of their families.

Many of the traditions, dances and ceremonies still practiced are done so as a communication with the ancestors. They are relied on for guidance.

khym54Meeting of the Elders - khym54

These are just a few of the wonderful traditions that make Africa the unique and fascinating place that it is. Get hold of one our ABS consultants and book your safari to come and see for yourself!

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