By Dickson Adom
The term ‘rites of passage’ or ‘rites de passage’ was first used by the French ethnologist Van Gennep in 1909. It refers to the rites, rituals and ceremonies that are used to mark the changes or transitions from one stage of life to another. These changes include birth, puberty, marriage and death. Among the Akan ethnic society in Ghana, every Akan who marks each of the stages must undertake essential ceremonies and rituals and these lavishly paint the cultural traditions, values, norms and beliefs of the people.
The Akans of Ghana believes that birth is the first phase of the life cycle. To them, it is a transition from the spiritual world where their ancestors reside in the world of the physical world. In Akan societies like Asante Bekwai, Essumeja and Kokofu in the southern part of the Ashanti region of Ghana, birth is believed to be the channel through which ancestors are reborn into their lineages. It is viewed as a way through which the gods and ancestors reward members of the family.
The people organized naming and outdooring ceremonies to thank the gods and the ancestors for the child and to welcome the child from the spiritual world. The ceremonies are carried out on the eighth day because it is believed that it is at that time that the newly born child has fully severed or broken his former link with the world of spirits. Prior to the eighth day, the child is referred to as a visitor. During the rites, prayers are said and libations are poured with water, wine or milk depending on the ethnic society the child is born into. Among the Akans of Ghana, the parents of the child put on white cloth and white clay to signify their happiness. Several art forms are used during this occasion such as pots, clothes, calabashes, music, dance etc.
It is said to be the passage from childhood into adolescence and adulthood by the Akans of Ghana. At this stage of life, several rites are performed to usher the young ones into adulthood. Initiation rites are performed to make the initiates fully developed persons capable of discharging their duties as full members of the society. The initiation rites contain ideals of manhood or womanhood which society wishes to instill into the young adults who undergo the rites.
The initiates are secluded in a camp away from home for a period of time during which instructions such as knowledge of the customs of the land, law and justice, home management, personal hygiene, fighting skills, the practice of art and so forth are given. The entire experience that they gain brings about physical, emotional and psychological changes in them. The return to their homes after the rites signifies a rebirth into another stage in life, for they have been reborn into adolescence and adulthood.
Special costumes and masks are worn by the initiates and their instructors who are usually the elders in the society. Artifacts are used as teaching aids in the giving of instructions. Drums are beaten and initiates engaged in special dances to invite the spirits of the ancestors to the initiation ceremony. Drama and storytelling are mediums through which the instructions are given.
This is the legal union between a man and a woman who have gone through all the rites and customs associated with marriage in the society. Marriage is more than a union of two individuals, but a union of two families. To the Akan, marriage is a duty or a requirement and an aspect of life that everyone must participate. Any member of the society who fails to participate is viewed as a curse to the society, he is a law-breaker. He is not only abnormal but also an ‘under human’.
The aim of marriage is procreation and without it marriage is incomplete. Several artifacts are used during the marriage rites. For instance, prayers are offered to the gods and ancestors to bless the marriage with peace, prosperity, joy and many healthy children. Friends and loved ones offer presents and gifts to the married couple and most of these are artifacts like bowls, vessels, clothes etc. The bride also adorns herself in nice clothes with several jewels. Since it is a festive occasion, performing art forms such as music, drumming and dancing are immensely used.
This is the last stage of the life cycle. It is viewed as the inevitable end of man. However, Africans believe that death is a transition or journey from the world of the living to the metaphysical world or the land of spirits. It is a journey which man must make in order to reach the life beyond and continue to live as an ancestor. The dead do not remain in the grave, but become spirits and proceed to the spirit world called Asamando by the Akans of Ghana. Funeral rites and ceremonies are held for the deceased to prepare him for the journey.
Items that the deceased will need in his journey as well as in his next life are put in his grave such as mats, sandals, clothes, money, pillows, etc. It is also believed by the Akans that a person’s status and position in the physical life is maintained in his next life in the spiritual world. Various artifacts are used such as wooden caskets (coffins), funerary clothes such as Kobene, Kuntunkuni, Adinkra clothes, pouring of libation, prayers are said, music, drumming and dancing.
These stages that mark the transition from one stage of life to the other is often marked by cultural rites and ceremonies. These occasions always laid bare the traditional beliefs of the Akans of Ghana. It vividly voice out the rich cultural traditions handed down to them by their ancestors to the other parts of the world.
If you want interesting information on visual art education; the history of art click here.