Learning and Re-Learning from the Sankofa: Culture and Africa’s Future

Leonida Odongo
Posted March 14, 2019 from Kenya

Africa is considered the new frontier, in terms of natural resource extraction, a new wave of recolonisation of the continent is taking place at a very rapid state. From aid, to technology, tourism among others, African culture, animals, beliefs, practices and artefacts are gradually eroding or being shipped from the continent to be replaced by those from far off lands. Cultural extinction is also being experienced in elements such as language and taking away of African genetic materials especially on food.

Culture it the totality of a people’s way of life. It is the language, the food, the dressing and how people greet each other, the value placed on a community’s heritage among other elements.

Amongst the Hamer community of Ethiopia for instance, young boys, in order to prove their manhood must run and jump as well as land on the back of a bull, after which they are expected to run across the backs of several bulls, this is done multiple times. For the Maasai of both Kenya and Tanzania spitting is a cultural expression. New born are spat on as a way of blessing, additionally Maasai warriors spit on their hands before shaking the hand of an elder. In African traditions, certain food was associated with taboos. For example, amongst communities in Zimbabwe, clan names were associated with animals and the meat of one’s clan totem was traditionally avoided.

Other customary practices relate to burial, for many communities in Zimbabwe and Kenya for instance, the dead are buried close to home and people in urban areas and in some cases people who have died abroad are have to be brought back to the rural areas for burial. Graves are held sacred and feared for their association with death and spirits. Some communities believe that the deceased are not dead but are watching over the living from the spirit world.

Many African traditional practices recognised the spirit of ancestors and ceremonies were held to honour them with these passed on from generation to generation. The ceremonies included celebration during good harvests and in appealing to deal with a misfortune. Additionally, the norm was that when spirits become angry, it communicates through a medium or diviner who diagnoses the anger and the cause and an appeasement process commences.

Marriage was considered as a continuity of the family tree and linked to various celebrations. Through marriage, the African tradition ensured its survival and continuation into the next generation. For the Shona, Ndebele, Shangaan and Venda communities of Zimbabwe for example, descent was through the male line and after marriage women moved into her husband’s home. For Tonga, being matrilineal, the husband moves to the home of his wife. For the Songo in Northern Angola, male children aged 5 and 6 are normally sent to live with their uncles on their mother’s side. This is done because chiefs within the community often inherit their position through matrilineal lines. What we see today is an erosion of the institution of  family , rising divorce cases  as well as gender based violence which in  extreme cases result into death of either husband or wife.

Co-existence has been the norm in many African communities. The Maasai found in both Kenya and Tanzania, for instance, have co-existed with animals. To the Maasai, the cow is a cultural symbol. However, with modernisation, cultural aspects of the community are dying out. For the Pokot of Kenya, cows also mean a lot culturally. The more cattle one has, the more power one welds in the community. Nomadism in many African communities is currently being replaced by private land ownership. This has adversely affected the grazing patterns of the community and has forced some to become farmers, thus doing away with the bulk of their cultural practices.

In Africa, plants have a medicinal value. Each community has its own collection of traditional medicines. These plants contain bitter substances that stimulate digestion and possess anti-inflammatory compounds capable of reducing swellings and pain, compounds that act as anti-oxidants as well as have antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. Others contain substances that enhance the elimination of waste products and toxins. Additionally, various African communities have artefacts for different symbols, some signalled beauty, marriage, mourning, triumph in war among other emotions. Sadly, the artefacts are fast disappearing and some were taken away to museums abroad and are yet to be shipped back to the rightful places within the continent. For example, in Benin, two of the famous bronzes the Ahianwen-Oro artwork were returned to Benin in 2014 by Dr. Mark Walker  a British citizen who had inherited the artwork from high great grandfather.

In the past oral tradition played an important role in African culture, this ensured intergenerational passage of cultural practices. Children visited their grandmothers to listen to oral stories, songs and dances were passed on through word of mouth. Singing played a key role in African society and songs were passed from generation to generation. These included songs sang in praise of brave warriors such as the legendary Lwanda Magere [1]among the Luos of Kenya, another example is west Africa in which a griot, who is a praise singer or poet possessed oral tradition which was passed from generation to generation.

Different forms of music played different roles, music was and still is a form of communication in many African societies. However, these music has been eroded with traditional African music and instruments being patented elsewhere. In traditional African setting songs accompanied marriage, birth, rites of passage, hunting and even politics related activities. Although it varies from country to country and community to community, the African drum is found in every African community. This musical instrument expresses the mood of the people as well as evokes emotion, the drums is the rhythm within which the African community is held together, it is the “heartbeat of the community”

Dancing in African culture symbolises expression, it utilises symbolic gestures, body painting, props, costumes and masks. There are dances to chase away the spirit of death, dances during burial of a respected community member. The dances are either complex or simple depending on the message and the occasion.

Age was a determining factor for participation in rituals, young women of child bearing age did not participate in the processes only elderly menopausal women. The other women could visit the shrines but could not perform rites. Pre-conditional virtues for participating in the shines were good morals and calmness. Virgins were also involved in the ritual processes in shrines as special women with power to make the rain fall. It was believed that if an “unclean “person went to the shrines, lightning would strike the community. During the sacrifice process, childless women were not allowed or women who’s first born children had died at birth or were still born. The Sengwer community for example had their own system of record keeping.


On knowledge generation, there is a failure of the state to invest in educational system and this further creates an opportunity for the West to dictate research agenda and as noted by Ake “feed us noxious values and false hopes” through donation of books whose theoretical and methodological based are informed by experiences from other places outside Africa.

With “development” and so called modernisation comes cultural genocide. This has happened to many communities such as the San in Botswana, the Sengwer in Kenya and the Batwa in Uganda. With the so called developed comes eviction of people from their homes. Those who feel the most impact are indigenous communities in whose territories the current quest for natural resources has become the norm. In other instances, the eviction comes under the guise of natural resource management in which communities which have lived for example in forests over years, are victimised, chased out of their natural resources, their houses burnt and in these melee, some get arrested or even killed.

One community within the East Africa region that has felt the negative impact and is also one of the world’s remaining hunter and gatherer community is the Sengwer. Conversations with Sengwer community members and members of the Sengwer Supreme Council reveal the gaps below on how their lives and culture have been eroded over the years.

The Sengwer people have been living in Kenya’s Embolus forest for years, but introduction of a Natural Resource Management project by World Bank was the genesis of their problem. This is also echoed by the San in Botswana who as hunters and gatherers got evicted from their ancestral land in the 1950s, forbidden to hunt and forced to apply permits to enter reserves. The deprivation of the ability to hunt has resulted into dwindling of the San population.

On food production, traditional vegetables are being replaced with processed food, their medicinal value is being looked down as archaic and being subjected to all manners of

including questions like what is the efficacy of   the medicine and what is the dosage. The African indigenous seeds are being replaced by Genetically Modified Seeds, which have a predetermined lifespan and which cannot be replanted leaving farmers frustrated and poorer. Under the guide of improved yields, African farmers are being convinced to use herbicides and pesticides on their farms which in essence is eroding soil nutrients and killing micro-organisms due to toxicity.50 years ago in Africa, farmers were growing their indigenous seeds and having bumpy harvests, with the onslaughts of intensified chemical fertiliser campaign and the climate crisis, farmers are unable to   produce high yields.


[1] Lwanda Magere was a brave warrior amongst the  Luo community. He is believed to have helped the community triumph during inter-community  conflicts with neighbouring communities

This story was submitted in response to Change Starts With a Story.

Comments 4

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Jill Langhus
Mar 14
Mar 14

Hi Leonida,

Thanks again for sharing your comprehensive, but concerning post about the diminution of African traditions. I hope these traditions will be preserved to cherish for many future generations. Good luck with your story submission, dear!

Mar 15
Mar 15

Thanks my sister for sharing. The article opens up the conversation on preserving our positive culture today and for posterity. Thanks for the insights.

Lilfairtrade Shop
Mar 16
Mar 16

Hello Lenonida,

Assalaam Alaikum peace and blessings,

What an informative message. I thought I was reading a wonderful history book.
Are you an author, congratulations, the words flowed beautifully.
You should feel immensely proud of your work and how effortlessly you have articulated hundreds if not thousands of years of culture and tradition.

I wish you every success in preserving, languages, cultures, traditions and heritage in the East African region.

Keep writing! I look forward to reading more your work.

Love peace and blessings

I've attached a few links for you to read at your leisure, I hope you will find them useful.



Tamarack Verrall
Apr 19
Apr 19

Hi Leonida,
I love your title: Learning and Re-Learning. You have documented such important information here, not only because of the hiding of old earth centred and people centred ways and knowledge, but also because of the ruination that comes with new business practices and new promises of "progress" and wealth beneath which is hidden stealing of lands, change of food from medicinal to GMO, and ridiculing of old traditions that were and are still traditions that respected the land, and so often respected women as leaders. As I read I was so aware of the same treatment that was imposed and continues to be imposed on Indigenous people here in my country, and with schools here still hiding true history, curriculum based on the superiority of European culture. Your call to understand the importance of culture is so important.