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Traditional Ceremonies: Angolan Culture and Customs (Part 5)

Ceremonies are important both in the traditional and modern Angolan culture. The most common ceremonies are those which celebrate and announce the various stages of life. Childbirth and a naming ceremony herald the arrival of a child into the world, initiation inducts adolescents into adulthood, and rites of transition prepare the dead for the afterlife. This week let us ponder these important traditional customs!

Childbirth, Names, and the Naming Ceremony

In Angola childbirth is seen as the fulfillment of marriage. In traditional societies, pregnant women were cared for and nursed in the home throughout their pregnancy, with the help of the older women of the tribe. In rural areas hospitals are often not available within reasonable distances. This means that there is little access to modern medical prenatal monitoring and counseling on issues such as hygiene, nutrition, and family planning. Delivery may also have to be done by birth attendants who are likely to be untrained in the proper medical procedure.

The naming ceremony formally welcomes the newborn into the world. Traditionally, the ceremony is directed by an elder of the family who confers on the child the names that the father has provided. In Angola names are never mere words! They reflect a person’s history and define his personality and identity. Names are given based on the circumstances of the birth of the child or related family conditions. Children may also be named after ancestors, due to the belief that these ancestors will protect those who bear their names.

Initiation Ceremonies

One of the most important traditional Angolan customs is the rite of puberty (iniciação da puberdade). In this rite boys and girls which have come of age are initiated into adulthood. This rite is primarily intended to prepare young people for their respective social roles as adult men and women. Initiation rites are elaborate, lasting at least several weeks, and ending with days of celebration throughout the entire community.

Male initiation rites often include instructions on sexual matters in order to groom the boys for their impending marital role and other duties that adulthood demands of them. Most initiation rites require the boys to be subjected to a test of courage and fortitude, a trial of survival in which they must stay alone in the forest for a specific period of time.

Masquerade dance is another important feature of boys’ initiation rites. The use of masks is so central to these rites that among the Chokwe initiates are taught the art of mask carving, as part of the preparation. A popular Chokwe mask is of the female godess Mwana Pwo, which is worn by male dancers during the puberty rites.

For the young men, the completion of the rite signifies the attainment of adulthood. As men, they must now associate with other men, not with children and women, as they did before the initiation rites.

Female initiation rites are likewise conducted when a girl reaches her childbearing age. During the ritual dances the girls are beautifully adorned with traditional makeup and hairdos. The initiation rituals prepare the girls for wifehood and motherhood through training under the direction of elderly women. Their training focuses on the issue of the traditional woman’s role in society.

Death and Funerary Rites

Many Angolan communities expect proper funeral rites to be observed and certain rituals to be performed for a dead person. Funerary rites vary somewhat from one group to another, but there are also general elements: ritual mourning, ceremonial washing of the body, and the embracing and kissing of the body by family members.

Even in contemporary Angola, it is a strongly held belief that life continues after death, in spirit form. Failure to perform proper funerary rites prohibits the departed from perfect rest or from entry into the abode of the ancestors. The ancestor may become an aimless, wandering, restless spirit. A spirit considered harmful to the living.

In some communities children can play important roles. In Kuito and Malange, children pass under the coffin of a dead relative during the funeral ceremony and are expected to cut their hair to show mourning and respect for the departed relative. This is done to prevent the child from being afflicted by the spirit of the dead person.

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