African Ceremonies: PASSAGES

African Ceremonies

“Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher are not only truly remarkable photographers, but their dedication to preserving for all time the dazzling diversity of African ceremonies is unparalleled."
— Don Johanson, Director, Institute of Human Origins, Arizona State University

This powerful exhibit of African tribal ceremonies reflects 30 years of commitment to preserving the endangered cultures and peoples of 90 tribes across Africa. Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher pay homage to the rituals that mark every important occasion in tribal life — birth, initiation, courtship, marriage, royal coronations, seasonal rituals, healing exorcisms, and death. These images are the result of a long, enduring and deeply respectful relationship with tribal peoples. This, combined with Beckwith and Fisher’s extraordinary photographic skills, creates an intimate portrayal of ceremonies long held secret that might have never been recorded. It is an exhibit that both preserves and presents the power, complexity and celebration found within the rituals of African tribal life.

“Beckwith and Fisher know very well that much of Africa has come fully into the twenty-first century.  But they have left the modern world to photojournalists.  Their aim has been to document as fully and artistically as possible the traditional rituals that persist more or less unchanged, even in the modern world.  It is fortunate indeed for us that they have done so, for many of these rites are dying out or becoming altered as Africa assimiliates the habits and products of other parts of the world.”

~ Robert Morton, editor, exhibition catalog “Passages”


From ancient times, African societies have marked the transitioins of the life cycle, from birth to death, with rites of passage. 

Through these “journeys of the spirit,” as the West African shaman and teacher Maildoma Patrice Some has called them, people are able to transcend the everyday concerns of life to connect with their own spirits and with the spirit world. 

Rites of passage have value for both the individual and the community. Ceremonies that mark the stages of life provide clear definitions of society's expectations of the individual, and they give him or her a sense of identity and belonging.


From the moment of birth, an African child is connected to family, community and the ancestors. Many different ceremonies are performed to reinforce these connections, and to prepare children to become the custodians of the culture of their people. Because infant mortality remains high, the people of many African cultures are extremenly superstitious during the first few year of a child's life, and carry out rituals to protect it from hazards. 

The Himba of Namibia never leave a baby on its own or even put it down, lest the child be stolen away by some malevolent spirit. The Wodaabe of Niger do not name a child before its 12th birthday so that he or she cannot be identified by the spirit of death. For Maasai babies, however, names are so important that they are bestowed by village elders soon after birth. In all African societies, childhood is a time for learning responsibilities and skills that enable children to contribute to their communities. It is, nevertheless, also a time for children to develop creativity through imaginative play. Children are encouraged to take an active part in communal ceremonies and thereby begin their first steps on a journey that encompasses all the realms of human experience.


As they enter the adult world during their teenage years, African youngsters undergo a variety of initation rituals. These rites provide individuals with instruction about what will be expected of them during the next phase of their lives. The common experiences that they undergo during the intiation period also bind the individuals together and reinforce the idea of community. 

 In all intiation ceremonies, a select group of elders takes charge of the sequence of ritual events. To begin their training, intiates often enter a special place, a sacred forest or a ritually built house. It is there that they lose their childhood identities and gain their adult selves. After a period of instruction, the initates undergo an encounter or ordeal that marks the climax of their intiation and the beginning of their new lives. Many African societies also make additional transitions as the individual progresses through a series of stages in life, with roles and responsibilities clearly defined for each age level. Among the Massai, for example, a male moves from role to role - from young cattle herder to bachelor warrior to married family man to elder of the community - through a series of ceremonies extending over 25 years. All of the males of the same age in a community participate as a group in the communal ceremonies that mark each transition.

VIDEO: Maasai warriors enter the ceremonial manyatta for their four-day ritual passage to elderhood. Wearing lion-mane and ostrich-feather headdresses and carrying buffalo-hide shields, they encircle the sacred ritual house. Throughout the initiation, the warriors and their female companions perform courtship dances, during which the men leap high into the air to prove their agility. At the climax of the ceremony the men often fall into impassioned states during which their bodies become rigid and their mouths foam. They are calmed by their mothers, who later shave their sons' highly prized locks of hair to signify the end of warriorhood. The ceremony ends with a blessing from the senior elders, who spray the new generation of elders with mouthfuls of milk and honey-beer.


One of the great challenges in African cultures is to find a balance between the age-old tensions of romantic passion and family stability. In some societies, individuals may choose whom to marry, and in others, marriages are carefully arranged to bond families together. A strong collective future in an uncertain world depends on families working together, and the common goal of survival is often put ahead of personal pleasure. Increasingly, however, African marriages are compromises between strict family arrangements and the independent choices of couples. 

 Courtship and marriage traditions vary greatly. Among the Wodaabe, it is often the women who select their husbands and lovers. The Wodaabe also place great emphasis on physical beauty and personal charm. Among the Surma, however, men are said to be drawn to a woman who is a hard worker and has a cheerful nature, whereas women are attracted by masculine strength. Traditional African marriages comprise a series of ceremonies that range in length from a day to a week. Feasting, dancing, animal sacrifice and blessings ensure the community's participation in marriage rituals and bond the two families to each other and to their larger world.

VIDEO: After harvest, Surma men paint each other's bodies with intricate patterns, using a paste made from chalk found at the riverbank. they also paint young girls, competing to produce the most decorative designs. Body painting is performed by the Surma both to beautify and to make men more formidable in combat. This is considered particularly important during the annual Donga stick-fight tournament, when males battle with six-foot wooden poles to prove masculinity and win the hands of the most desirable women. 
VIDEO:  Wodaabe males spend hours beautifying themselves in preparation for the Yaake charm dance. During this annual event, men compete with one another to be chosen as the most alluring by a group of female judges. Traditionally this is also the time that Wodaabe women select their husbands and lovers. In order to display their charm, the dancers form long lines, rise up on their toes, roll their eyes and flash their teeth.


In Africa, as throughout the world, marriage is one of the most significant events in a woman's life. The elaborate adornment seen at weddings reflects the importance of the occasion. 

The following portraits reveal the extraordinary diversity of traditional bridal dress and jewelery designs across the continent.


Not all of the transitions in life are dramatic: some are seasonal, such are the ritual blessing of the earth before harvesting crops or going hunting. Nor are all of them communal: many are personal, such as the passage from health to illmess. Diviners are called upon to reveal the causes of illmess and suffering and to discern an individual's personal destiny. Priests serve as intermediaries to appeal to the spirits to cure both physical and psychological disorders. 

 In almost every instance, as life changes, Africans appeal to spiritual forces for help and guidance. In many African cultures, masquerades are used to dramatize and reinforce the spritiual and social values of the community. The performances serve to bring communities back into harmony with the spirit world and with each other, through shared activity and entertainment.

VIDEO:  Once every three years, devotees of the Voodoo deity Koku gather for a spectacular seven-day celebration called Kokuzahn. to the accompaniment of Voodoo drum rhythms, worshippers spin into possessed states and perform extraordinary feats after summoning the powr of their god through a series of offerings made in the Koku fetish shrine. A boy stands with a chicken balanced on his head, while fetish priests kill the bird by pointing their knives at it from a distance of several feet. A man lies with a mortar on his chest, while shea nuts are pounded in the vessel causing no harm to the man underneath. Maize porridge is ooked in a calabash with no bottom. Men touch white-hot swords with their tongues and slash at their bodies with shards of glass - all without injury. Finally, at the end of the festival, the power of Koku leaves the bodies of the worshippers, and they lie exhausted on the sand. 
VIDEO:  Masquerades: Yoruba Gelede Masks, Benin. Yoruba Oro Efe masks emerge from the sacred forest, invoking blessings for the annual Gelede festival, which ensures the continued protection of the mother God, Iya Nla.  Masquerades: Bwa and Bobo Bush Masks, Burkina Faso. During harvest and planting seasons, Bwa animal masks enter the village to purify the community and protect it from harm. Among the creatures represented are the ox, serpent, wart hog, antelope and owl. Masquerades: Senufo Nufori Acrobats, Ivory Coast. A Boloye band accompanies acrobatic Nufori dancers as they tumble before mourners at a funeral. Representing panthers, Nufori are intended to frigthen as well as entertain. Masquerades: Bedik Harvest Masks, Senegal. Brought out of the sacred forest to disseminate their wisdom, leafy Dokota masks dance with village women, who are the chief cultivators in Bedik society. Together they send a plea to the spirit world asking for a successful harvest. Masquerades: Egungun Ancestor Masks, Nigeria & Benin. Yoruba Egungun masks embody the spirirts of the ancestors, who return to their respective communities for several days each year to advise villagers and punish wrongdoers. The awesome spirits whirl through the village, sweeping away evil forces and conferring blessings on spectators as they pass.


Since the beginning of recorded time, kings have been closely associated with gods - often not merely as intermediaries between mankind and the gods, but as sacred beings themselves who could bestow divine blessings on their subjects. As divine beings, rulers in many African cultures traditionally symbolize the welfare of the state and are responsible for the security and prosperity of their people. 

A king's role in maintaining social order is considered so important that it is often believed that his realm temporarily falls into a state of anarchy when he dies. Throughout the ancient royal kingdoms of Africa, ceremonies are frequently held to reassure people of the well-being of the monarch and, thereby, the state.


Death is the final passage in a long chain of transitions. In Africa funerals are considered a means of formally separating the dead from the living and of introducing an individual into the world of the spirit. In most traditional African societies, the worlds of the living and the dead are perceived as equally real. They exist in a state of perpetual balance and rebalance; actions performed by the inhabitants of one world have a corresponding effect on the other, some beneficial and others detrimental. 

 Humans are seen as a combination of physical and spiritual elements, which split into separate parts at the time of death, with the body returning to the earth and the spirit or soul passing on to assume its role in the afterlife. That role obligates the dead to protect and guard their living descendants from harm and to oversee the conduct of their family and lineage members. In return, the living show hospitality and kindness to the dead by giving them food and drink and keeping alive the traditions that they have passed on.

VIDEO:  Funeral Rituals: Mali. Dogon Burial and Masked Dama Ceremony: Following death, the body of a Dogon villager is hoisted hundreds of feet up in the Bandiagara escarpment and laid to rest in the ancient caves of the Tellem ancestors. Once every 12 years, the Dogon hold a communal funeral ceremony known as the Dama to honor the passing of deceased villagers into the afterworld. During this festival, masks representing all aspects of the Dogon world enter the village to reestablish order and drive out any remaining spirits that might bring chaos to the community. Funeral Ritulals: Senufo Wambele Masks at Grave Site, Ivory Coast. Fearsome in appearance, double-headed Senufo Wambele masks frequent burial grounds, guarding tombs and chasing away any evil energy that might linger there.


Thirty years ago American-born Carol Beckwith and Australian Angela Fisher met in Kenya and began a relationship with the African continent that would profoundly alter and shape their lives. Their journeys have taken them over 270,000 miles, through remote corners of 40 countries, and to more than 150 African cultures.

During this time the two photographers would produce 14 universally acclaimed books. Their defining body of work, the double volume African Ceremonies, a pan-African study of rituals and rites of passage from birth to death covering ninety-three ceremonies from twenty six countries, won the United Nations Award for Excellence for its “vision and understanding of the role of cultural traditions in the pursuit of world peace.”  Angela and Carol have also been twice honored with the Annisfield-Wolf Book Award in race relations for “outstanding contributions to the understanding of cultural diversity and prejudice,” the Royal Geographical Society of London’s Cherry Kearton Medal for their “contribution to the photographic recording of African ethnography and ritual,” and most recently the Lifetime Achievement Award from WINGS World Quest, honoring the accomplishments of visionary women.

These multi-talented photographers have also been involved in the making of four films about traditional Africa including Way of the Wodaabe (1986) The Painter and the Fighter, and Millennium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World. Their numerous photographic exhibitions have received acclaim in museums and galleries throughout the world, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, National Geographic Museum, Smithsonian Museum of African Art, Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, Borges Cultural Center of Buenos Aires, National Museums of Kenya, and venues in Australia, Europe, and Japan. The two photographers have lectured at such venues as the Explorers Club in New York, the National Geographic Society in Washington D.C. and many US cities as well as the Royal Geographic Society in London.

VIDEO:  Introduction to the work of photographers Carol Beckwith & Angela Fisher through African Ceremonies Inc, their Charitable Foundation.


The Beckwith Fisher Archive contains approximately 500,000 photographic images, diaries, field journals, drawings, video recordings, and museum-scale exhibition materials. This unique archive, created during a thirty-year period of dedicated work, encompasses 120 distinct cultures from 37 African countries.

Traditions and ceremonies are disappearing rapidly across Africa. More than 30 percent of what is recorded in the Beckwith Fisher Collection no longer exists. Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher have expressed their intention to place the Beckwith Fisher Archive – the world’s most extensive photographic archive of traditional African cultures and ceremonies - with an institution yet to be selected.

The institution to be chosen must be a venue for ongoing study and research, committed to making the Archive accessible to students, scholars, and the general public, thereby insuring that the legacy of Africa’s ancient cultures is preserved and understood by future generations worldwide. Interested institutions may inquire at African Ceremonies Inc, a 501c3 charitable foundation.


Recording the Past, Supporting the Future

African Ceremonies Inc, a 501c3 charitable foundation, is dedicated to the preservation of African tribal traditions through the photographic documentation of ceremonies and customs, thereby ensuring that the strength and essence of African culture is preserved for the history of mankind and for the education of future generations.

The Foundation is also dedicated to carrying out community and individual projects, serving the needs of the groups with whom Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher have lived. For more information on current projects and donations, please contact African Ceremonies Inc.

African Ceremonies: Passages is a selection of iconic images from the Beckwith & Fisher Archives, a traveling exhibition curated by the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2000. 

The Brooklyn Museum exhibition travelled to museums throughout the USA, South America and Europe.

Credits: Story

Exhibtion Curator — William Siegman,  Curator, Brooklyn Museum of Art, 2000
Photographers — Carol Beckwith & Angela Fisher,  African Ceremonies
Exhibtion Coordinator — www.photokunst.com

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.