4 African Cultural Traditions Travelers Can Participate In

From beauty pageants for men to the mask craftsmen of the DRC, here are four African cultural traditions that have withstood the test of time.

Wodaabe men dressed in traditional regalia for the Gerewol Festival

The annual Gerewol Festival is held to help eligible men find partners.

Photo by Homo Cosmicos/Shutterstock

Home to 54 countries and thousands of diverse communities, the Africa continent is rich in age-old cultural practices—by some estimates, the continent has more than 3,000 distinct ethnic groups and around 2,000 spoken languages.

After European colonization, which occurred most intensely from the late 19th century to the early 20th, various African traditions, cultures, and art forms were lost in the name of “modernization” and progress. Influenced by colonial powers, many people were pressured to abandon their traditional ways of living and encouraged to move to cities to seek jobs—several languages and folk religions were lost in the process. Some traditions, however, endured, thanks to the communities who safeguarded them. In Chad, the Wodaabe people still hold beauty pageants for men seeking love, and griot musicians in Mali have found a way to appeal to modern audiences while singing songs that document their communities’ ancient histories. Sometimes, travelers are invited to join in on the festivities as well.

Here are a few enduring cultural traditions to keep in mind for the next time you visit Africa:

A man who holds a kora, a West African, lute-like instrument.

Griots once functioned as the historians of West African communities.

Photo by Valmedia/Shutterstock

1. The griot storytellers of Mali

  • Where: Segou, Mali
  • When: January 31 to February 5, 2023
  • Visit: Segou’Art Festival, free

Griots, or storytellers, are sometimes called the djeli (blood) of the nation because they are as important to the region’s communities as blood is to the body. In the days before colonialism, boys would undergo years of apprenticeship to memorize a village’s history before officially taking on the role of a griot in adulthood. Griots speak or sing their tales to the beat of drums, the kora (a Malinke lute with a long neck and gourd body, which is played like a harp), or a balafon, a type of xylophone.

Griots aren’t as prominent in West African communities as they once were, but many of these history-savvy poets and musicians now work in West African entertainment industries as musicians, actors, and rappers. One of the most well-known modern griots is Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté. A 71st-generation griot, Diabaté is best known for his instrumental compositions, which merge traditional songs with rock and classical music. Diabaté won a Grammy for Best Traditional World Music Album twice—once in 2006 and again in 2011.

It can be hard to pin down where and when to see a griot, though some of them book shows at Mali’s national performing arts center, the Palais de la culture Amadou Hampaté Ba. Griots also participate in the Segou’Art Festival, a music and art festival featuring local artists that takes place on the banks of the River Niger in Segou, Mali. And, if you’re a fan of a particular griot like Diabaté, keep tabs on their touring schedules.

Four men have their faces painted yellow and black in preparation for the Gerewol Festival.

Men performing in the Gerewol Festival can take hours to prepare their costumes.

Photo by Katja Tsvetkova/Shutterstock

2. The male beauty pageant of the Wodaabe tribe

  • When: Takes places roughly between September 10 and October 16
  • Where: The Sahel, Chad
  • Visit: Check out the Gerewol Festival with Société de Voyages, tickets start at $450 per day

At the end of the September rains in Chad and Niger, young nomadic Wodaabe men from the larger Fulani ethnic group rise at first light to begin preparing themselves for the Gerewol Festival, a centuries-old, week-long male beauty pageant. The festival essentially functions as a courtship ritual for young, eligible bachelors seeking wives. The men will line their lips and eyes with black paint to emphasize the whiteness of their teeth and eyes. Then they deck themselves out with jeweled, embroidered tunics and carefully place headdresses embellished with cowrie shells and ostrich feathers over their locks.

Before the show, the men drink a bitter hallucinogenic tea made from tree bark, which gives them the energy to dance for hours. In the scorching heat of the Sahel, the men perform the yaake dance, which is meant to entice a potential partner. As they sway back and forth in unison, they roll their eyes from side to side and smile wide to show their pearly whites.

As the young men complete their dance, they are approached by Wodaabe women, who walk up to the performers and meekly tap the ones they like the most. For the new lovebirds, the night will either end in marriage or a one-night stand. Fun fact: A man can be chosen multiple times even if he is already married. A woman can also move on from her husband by picking a new man.

Local tour company Société de Voyages organizes overnight trips for visitors seeking to experience the Gerewol Festival.

Examples of traditional imigongo art on display

The art of imigongo nearly disappeared during the Rwandan genocide but is making a comeback.

Photo by Rachel Strohm/Flickr

3. Rwandan imigongo art

Imigongo is a traditional Rwandese geometric art form that dates back to the 18th century. According to local legend, the practice of decorating with cow dung began with Prince Kakira, the son of King Kimenyi of Gisaka, who used the material to decorate the inside of his home—the practice caught on with local women soon after.

Using charcoal, imigongo artists will draw their desired zigzag and spiral patterns on the medium of their choice, usually a wall. Next, they dip their hands in buckets filled with fresh, green cow dung that’s been mixed with ash, which kills bacteria. Then they’ll pinch off a portion and dexterously mold the mixture along the line they’ve drawn. After letting it dry for a day or so, they’ll paint their creation. Black, white, and red hues are traditionally used in imigongo art.

Imigongo almost disappeared during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, when thousands of Rwandans were displaced and killed. In the 2000s, women-run cooperatives and artists revived interest in the art, and sought to use it as a way to make a living.

In the years since, imigongo has boomed in popularity thanks to Rwandan creatives who are seeking to blend the country’s traditions with contemporary influences. Kigali-based fashion brand Moshions is using the artwork in clothing; skyscrapers in the capital feature imigongo on their exteriors; and some of the finest Rwandan hotels, such as the Retreat by Heaven Rwanda (King Charles III and Queen Consort Camilla stayed there last June), have imigongo throw pillows and wall art hanging in their lobbies.

For a chance to roll up your sleeves and experience the fine art of imigongo yourself, sign up for a two-hour workshop at Azizi Life Studio, located in Kigali’s Kacyiru neighborhood. The studio uses locally sourced materials, and during classes, guests are taught the history of imigongo. The studio is BYOB, so feel free to bring your favorite alcoholic beverages. After you’re finished creating your masterpiece, you can browse the studio’s shelves, which feature the work of rural Rwandan artists.

Four traditional Congolese masks hung on a wall.

Masks were once used in the Congo for everything from funerals to celebrations.

Photo by Moiz Husein Storyteller/Shutterstock

4. The elaborate face masks of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

  • When: July 21
  • Where: Gungu, DRC
  • Visit: Attend the National Gungu Festival with Kuma Konda, prices start at $300 per day

For centuries, the making and wearing of traditional masks was a key form of artistic expression for many of the Congo’s 250 ethnic groups, including the Suku, Songye, Mangbetu, Bakuba, Bapenda, and Lengola people. Masks had many functions: They could be used to celebrate, mourn, foster spiritual connection, or to show prestige.

During the Belgian colonial period, which lasted from 1908 to 1960 and caused the death of 10 million Congolese people, many masks were stolen or lost. Some are now on display in places like the Royal Museum for Central Africa near Brussels. Today, masks don’t hold the same power in daily life as they once did, but they are still worn during festivals or used as decor—many are sold as souvenirs.

Travelers can catch open-air masquerades at the Gungu National Festival, which takes place annually in the rural town of Gungu on July 21. First launched in the 1920s, the Gungu National Festival was created to celebrate and showcase the culture of the Bapende community and other local ethnic groups. Expect mask shows, ululations, feasting, drumming, puppets, and dancing. If you have time, check out the nearby Gungu Museum, which is home to an impressive collection of masks.

Wendy Watta is a freelance travel writer based in Nairobi, Kenya, covering everything from adventure to hotels.
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