Except for white South Africans, most inhabitants of the continent do not celebrate birthdays. Tribal customs formed centuries ago did not include the annual celebration of the day of an individual’s entrance into the world. This may be due to the high mortality rate and reluctance to draw the attention of the spirits to the fact that a child has managed to survive for another year. Many Africans do not know the exact day of their birth. If they do, the mother might share a small treat with the child. The idea of throwing a party is very foreign to her.
Instead of annual celebrations, African tribes celebrate milestones in the lives of their children which is a birthday tradition.. The birth of a new child and safe passage through the first weeks of life are significant. Pigmy peoples sing a birth song to welcome a newborn, and mothers in Kenya take their babies into the cattle enclosure to introduce them to their source of prosperity. There the father and other villagers hold a christening ceremony. A West African mother will take her eight-day-old baby for a first walk around the village, greeting friends and relatives along the way.
When an Egyptian child turns one year old, the family decorates the house with fruit and flowers that symbolize health and long life. The child’s first step is cause for great rejoicing, but the biggest celebration waits until the child enters puberty. For Nigerian children, the first, fifth, tenth and fifteenth birthdays are particularly significant. Families throw great parties at those times, inviting up to a hundred guests and roasting a whole cow or goat.
The Coming of age is a time of initiation into the responsibilities and privileges of adulthood. The young people learn the stories and songs, the laws and customs that the tribe honors. Following instruction, they must face traditional tests designed to help them understand their adult responsibilities and prove that they are ready to assume their roles. After this time of trial, the entire community comes together to share a feast and welcome the new adult members.
In Ghana, children who have arrived at puberty are treated to “oto,” patties made from sweet potato and egg for their morning meal. The tribal feast follows later in the day. Asante tribal members take a ritual bath on waking to cleanse them of imperfections.
For Masai boys who are thirteen to seventeen years old, the first phase of initiation lasts three months. They must leave their homes and learn how to be warriors. They paint their bodies white. After three months of instruction, they have their heads shaved and are circumcised.
The second phase of initiation among the Masai occurs when the youth again leave their homes. They live together in a separate area called a manyatta. They learn to hunt the predators that would carry off their herd animals. After some years living in this manner, the Masai youth has earned the right to marry and become owner of his own herd.
Masai girls are initiated at fourteen or fifteen years of age. They learn how to care for a home and for children. They then marry and become mothers themselves.
Rather than individual birthdays, African tribes celebrate group events with all the youth who have achieved this milestone. Swahili has no word for “birthday,” but the language does include words for group celebrations. In Congo, the typical celebration is for the child to return home and offer a gift to the parents as a way of honoring them. The cooperative life of the community takes precedence over individual achievement and distinction.
These customs contrast sharply with the western birthday traditions of lavish parties that are an expected annual event. South Africans of European origin may be wakened at dawn by friends who serenade them from outside their homes. They then invite the singers in for cake and other refreshments.