Eritrea: Initiation rites in the Kunama ethnic group

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The Kunama ethnic group is one of the original inhabitants of Eritrea. They speak Kunama, which belongs to the Nilo-Saharan language group, and live in an area conducive to agriculture and animal husbandry. The Kunama ethnic group is categorized into four clans – Shuwa, Karawa, Gurma and Serma.

Each clan has its own identifying symbol. The Shuwa are identified by a crest, the Gurma by the trunk of an elephant, the Serma by the horn of a bull and the Karwa by the moon. Each member of a clan hangs the symbol of his clan on the wall of the entrance to his hut.

Just like other Eritrean ethnic groups, the Kunama have their own culture and customs. The traditional Kunama community was matrilineal, a distinct attribute compared to other Eritrean ethnic groups. Women traditionally had more authority than men, which gave them the upper hand in decision-making within the family and community.

In the Kunama ethnic group, as is the case in other ethnic groups, marriage is sacred. Moreover, this is done with the will and consent of both partners. Families never force their daughters to marry someone they don’t want.

In arranged marriages, rare these days as forced marriage is prohibited in modern Eritrean laws, the mother took the initiative to ask for the hands of a daughter to marry her son. Accompanied by her sisters, the mother goes to the bride’s parents to ask for their daughter’s hand. After agreeing to forward the proposal to their daughter, the parents determine the next meeting date and bid farewell to the visitors. When the future bride accepts the proposal, her family and that of the future groom begin to prepare for the engagement and wedding ceremonies.

Unlike other ethnic groups in Eritrea, in the Kunama ethnic group, newlyweds spend their honeymoon with the bride’s parents. This is done so that the bride receives very good care from her family. Three days after the wedding, the newlyweds receive gifts called Anjiba Teda. The bride’s father and uncles offer livestock to the newlyweds.

In many ethnic groups, an initiation rite was performed to mark the transition from young boys to adulthood. In the Blen ethnic group, for example, the boys went through what is called Shingelot as initiation rites. Similarly, young boys of the Kunama ethnicity go through Ana Ella when they reach the age of 16. A ritual in decline nowadays, Ana Ella was performed in September and its main purpose was to determine the physical and mental fitness of young boys to be men.

Teenagers can be identified by their haircut, which also reveals whether a young boy has passed the initiation rites. Those who successfully completed the initiation rites were allowed to grow their hair long or braid it if they wished. And those who had not passed the initiation rites or had not reached the required age to go through the rituals had their hair shaved on both sides of their heads and could be easily identified.

Ana Ella involved many physical activities such as walking long distances, swimming in rivers, and being whipped by an animal skin whip to test the physical and mental stamina of those who were initiated. Ana Ella was said to have been completed after initiates went through physical and mental pain for four to five days. Those who have passed the initiation rites are treated as adult men who can marry, raise cattle and participate in the affairs of their community by giving advice and testifying before the village assembly.

The Kunama ethnic group has a particular way of saying goodbye to the dead. They wash the corpses and adorn them with precious stones. If an old woman or man dies, her body is escorted by a group of people who sing. If the spouse of a woman or a man dies, the widow or widower mourns the deceased at home but does not attend the funeral.

The Kunama ethnic group is known for their dances. One of the most loved and respected dances is the Kundra which is performed once a year in a kind of thanksgiving ceremony. Kundra is played in September in some places and late December in others. The songs played and the musical instruments used during the thanksgiving ceremony are only used on this occasion. The musical instruments used are the giba and the gila, which are made of a horn and a ham, a hollowed out and dried skin of a gourd, and no drums are allowed.

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