Some Aspects of Celebrations in the Swahili Culture

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The Swahili community, like many other human societies in this world, celebrates, with ceremony and rituals, their triumphs, joys and even sorrows. The most common occasions are influenced by religious and political groups commemorating their founders, saints and heroes with feasts and dancing. The agricultural season is punctuated with festivals of planting and harvesting. Birth, circumcision, marriage and death provide occasions for rites of passage. During such an occasion people think more deeply than in everyday life. Some examples of religious celebrations, celebrations of increase and the rites of passage are described in this article. Birth Once a lady is discovered to be pregnant, arrangements are made for a special prayer to be said, known as ‘kutia hijabuni’. A religious teacher with his disciples will be invited, usually to the house of the lady’s parents, to recite certain chapters from the Quran. The pregnant lady is dressed in a khanga, facing Mecca, surrounded by these disciples and their teacher. In certain Swahili towns, for example in Malindi, millet, popcorn or rice are used to strike the lady after every sentence recited. Initially a coconut which has been holed through will be rotated around her head. Then she washes her face, wrists and feet with coconut water. The flesh of the coconut and the remaining popcorn will be eaten by small children. The ceremony ends with a small feast. The only other celebration connected with birth comes when the baby is delivered. Talisman and the smearing of khol on the infant’s face are used to protect it from bad omens sometimes brought by animals. For example, an owl passing at night over a house where there is a new born baby can be the cause of an illness called ‘Ugonjwa wa Kitoto’. An owl is called ‘ndege la watoto’ (children’s’ bird) or ‘ndege chimvi’ (bird of misfortune). As a protection, a human effigy called ‘kinyago’ (watchman) is erected on the roof and hence owls will avoid that particular roof top. A healthy baby on reaching the age of one month or forty days is taken outside to see the sun and is then introduced to every corner of the house. Initiation Initiation can be explained like this: ‘ To mature, we all have to die from a previous state, to enter an unknown state full of ordeal, growth, chance and choice and to be reborn finally as persons in control of our lives at a more challenging level’. In Swahili society the celebrations take the form of circumcision for boys and rites of puberty for girls.


Girls The novices are assembled in a secluded enclosure, usually in a house, where they are given instructions in sacred or secret knowledge. The girls’ instructor is called ‘kungwi’ or ‘somo’. She is an experienced woman who imparts sex education to a young marriageable girl. In the past the period of tutelage lasted from puberty to consummation of the marriage, which took place in the presence of the Kungwi. The Kungwi would also give the bride beauty treatment such as hair washing, perfuming and massage. Nowadays, much of the body beautifying is not done by the Kungwi but by her age-mates. Therefore some girls consider the role of the Kungwi or somo as more symbolic than real. Boys In Swahili culture circumcision is only for boys. Boys are circumcised between the ages of three and twelve, depending on the time needed for the parents to raise the money for the celebrations. The parents invite all their relatives and friends to participate in the festivities which consist of feasting, dances and Maulidi readings (poems praising the Prophet Mohammed). After the readings the boys are circumcised by an expert then given over to a paternal aunt who takes care of them. The boys are now referred to as ‘Mabwana harusi’ and the ceremony is sometimes called ‘harusi ndogo’ or small wedding. For about seven days afterwards the boys are visited by their age-mates and they play indoor games together. In...
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