Cultural practices and traditional beliefs are an integral part of the African identity. Most of these practices are transgenerational, preserved for different reasons among African tribes. Some of them are very key in shaping the African society and inculcating the true virtues of Africa in her sons and daughters. These practices range from initiation rites, festivals, child outdooring and marital ceremonies, to enstoolment of chiefs and funerals. Our different traditions and superstitious beliefs are relevant in differentiating us from people of other geographical orientations. In preserving and practicing these customs and rites, we ensure continuity and protection of our rich heritage.
The advent of western religion has played a major role in abolishing or diluting some of the more primitive practices, but some heinous ones that pose major health risks still exist in many parts of the continent. With increasing knowledge in science and research, many societies are parting ties with these customs as some, through the lens of education, have come to realize the hazardous effects of these traditions. The repercussions of some of the superstitious beliefs and practices have been downplayed by traditional leaders and much effort needs to be put into the fight against them.
The advent of western religion has played a major role in abolishing or diluting some of the more primitive practices, but some heinous ones that pose major health risks still exist in many parts of the continent
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a practice that is common to about thirty countries in Africa. Though many campaigns have been waged against it, the practice still persists. The young girls who are circumcised face high risks of infections, mental health issues, complications during childbirth and varying degrees of hemorrhage. In certain communities, FGM is a requirement for marriage. Because marriage is a vital part of the African culture, these girls are forced to pay the dreadful price for it. It is even more worrying that some African migrants carry these practices with them wherever they settle, with reports of FGM occurring in some European countries and the USA.
When the subject of witchcraft comes up in a discussion, it is often quickly dismissed. However, witchcraft and other spirits considered unclean have been widely blamed for many challenges in Africa. Supposed witches, usually women, are kept in camps and forced to drink concoctions prepared under unhygienic conditions. Inmates of these camps do not receive medical attention when ill. In most cases, they are allowed to die on purpose. In some places, old women accused of practicing witchcraft are forced to camp in farms and in other less tolerant settings. They are then beaten to death. Not regarding the true existence of these spirits, the consequences are dire and need to be a concern for health campaigners.
The prominence of burial rites on the African continent was highlighted during the last Ebola outbreak. These rites mean a lot to many Africans as they are considered a way of transitioning into the spiritual world. Contacts with dead bodies through bathing and dressing them up is typical. Widows also suffer as some are forced to share the same bed with the dead to prove their innocence. In some cases, widows are forced to have sex with the relatives of their husbands whilst others are kicked out from their homes.
The prominence of burial rites on the African continent was highlighted during the last Ebola outbreak. Contacts with dead bodies through bathing and dressing them up is typical.
This may sound ridiculous or strange to people from westernized societies but among many Africans, delivery by caesarean section is a sign of weakness. Adding to the poor maternal health services, the lives of expectant mothers have been placed in jeopardy for years and one can only imagine how many women have lost their lives proving a meaningless point. Some husbands have used this uninformed belief to escape responsibility of financing the procedure.
Issues surrounding birth do not end with this misguided myth against C-section. In Mamfe Dove, a village in Ghana, pregnant women are not allowed to deliver their babies in the village. In fact, no single person in this town was born there as it is believed that the gods will punish them if that should happen. Expectant mothers in labor sometimes make painful journeys at eleventh hours to neighboring towns to deliver just to make sure this tradition is preserved.
Albinos, in other parts of the world go to school and socialize regardless of the condition of their skin. The same story however cannot be told about albinos in some parts of Africa. Certain unscrupulous people believe that blood of albinos carry special financial luck. In a recent documentary filmed in a village in Tanzania, traditional priests were found to be involved in the sacrifice of albinos.
In other stories, young girls at their first menstruation are made to have unprotected sex with a man referred to as the “hyena” as part of puberty initiation rites. Leaders of the Malawian villages where this tradition is practiced do not see this as any form of abuse and they have described this as sexual healing.
Traditional African leadership hierarchy is complex and attempting to change this is not only a near-impossible task but may do far more harm than good
Traditional African leadership hierarchy is complex and attempting to change this is not only a near-impossible task but may do far more harm than good. Dissemination of educational information on these practices need to target the traditional and community leaders to create a fusion of traditional and evidence-based beliefs. It is also important for get educated locals who understand both the traditions and the benefits of some western practices to be the bridge and facilitate the education process. Until then, our gods have failed us!