Nakhane Toure as Xolani with young Xhosa initiates in gay love story "The Wound." (To find out more about ulwaluko and other tribal traditions, scroll through the gallery.)
Xhosa, Ulwaluko —
In Eastern Cape, South Africa, young Xhosa men take part in a coming of age initiation called Ulwaluko. The youths, known as abakhwetha, are first circumcised without anesthetic, and must live in the bush with minimal supplies. Wearing white clay on their faces, initiates will fend for themselves for up to two months, living in a structure built by the village's adult community specifically for Ulwaluko. Upon their return they are no longer referred to as "boy" and receive a new blanket. The initiation has not been without its criticisms, due to complications and malpractice surrounding the circumcision process.
Brent Stirton/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Wodaabe, Gerewol —
At the end of the rainy season near Lake Chad, northern Niger, Wodaabe people come together for Cure Salee, the "Festival of Nomads." At the center of celebrations is Gerewol, a male beauty contest and courtship ritual. Young men -- traditionally herdsmen -- wear full makeup, jewelry and their finest clothes and stand in line to await inspection by female onlookers. White teeth and white eyes are highly prized, so participants will grin broadly and pull all manner of expressions in the hope of attracting attention. It's flirtation en masse, in the hope of winning a night of passion with one of the judges.
Timothy Allen/Photonica World/Getty Images
Mursi, lip plates —
Circular lip plates called dhebi a tugion are worn by some Mursi women near Jinka in Ethiopia's Omo Valley. They are one of the few tribes that continue the practice in East Africa, but archaeologists have discovered lip plates in the region stretching back 30,000 years, says anthropologist Dr Jerome Lewis of University College London. "It's a body modification that people find beautiful," he says. "It's also very striking and a distinctive way of marking your difference from other people around you."
The bottom lip is pierced with a wooden peg inserted, which is replaced with larger pegs thereafter. Once the hole is big enough the first of a succession of ornamental ceramic saucers are inserted, stretching it over a period of years -- one example from the neighboring Surma tribe measured 19.5cm wide.
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Himba, otjize —
Women of the semi-nomadic Himba tribe in northern Namibia are famous for their reddish hair and complexion. It's the result of otjize, a paste of butter, fat and red ocher, applied daily to their hair and skin. It was once speculated that the otjize served as a form of sun protection and to ward off insects, however the women say it's purely for aesthetic reasons -- which makes sense, given that Himba men don't take part in the practice.
STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Hamar, bull jumping —
Herdsmen become hurdlers in the Omo Valley, Ethiopia. Young men of the Hamar tribe, one of many in the valley, prove their manhood by jumping on prize bulls and then running across their backs -- all while naked. The purpose? It's a coming of age ceremony, and only when the participant has traversed the bull run four times will he be allowed to marry. Slip and you risk a hard fall: "Because it's a manhood initiation ritual, [failure] is likely to affect the perception of someone's manhood and that of course can have all sorts of dire consequence," adds Dr Lewis.
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Chewa, matriarchy —
Women of the Chewa tribe may not be quite on equal footing as men, but they do hold the key to one thing: inheritance. Descent and succession for the Bantu-speaking tribe, spread across Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique, is matrilineal, with property and land inherited from their mothers. "Although inheritance passes down the female line, which definitely gives women more power in society, it's still male-dominated and patriarchal in the sense that men are still at the apex of power," explains Lewis. "People have an assumption that matrilineal societies are somehow favorable to women -- and they are certainly more favorable than some of the extreme patrilineal societies -- but they're not societies that give women equal power."
One thing Chewa women are shut out of is the Nyau brotherhood (pictured), a secretive society who can channel spirits and performs a ritual dance called Gule Wamkulu around harvest and at weddings and funeral.
Maasai, spitting —
Spittle is an essential part of life for the Maasai of East Africa, as it acts as a blessing. "People have different views about where the power and essence of somebody resides," explains Lewis. For some, "spit represents an essence of you as a person."
To spit is "a way of blessing people by giving something of yourself; your own power to someone else." It starts at an early age, when newborn babies are spat on to wish them a good life. "If you leave a place, elders will come and spit on your head in order to bless your departure, and that whatever you do you're safe and kept well," adds Lewis.
SIMON MAINA/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
San, healing dance —
The San of South Africa, Botswana, Angola and Namibia are, according to some researchers, the world's oldest people. Their hunter-gatherer culture stretches back tens of thousands of years, and integral to it is the trance dance, also known as the healing dance. Historically an all-night affair, the practice brings the whole community together, led by healers and elders dancing around a fire, chanting and breathing deeply until they induce a trance state. It offers the chance to commune with ancestral spirits of the departed and for healers, cure sickness within other dancers.
Lewis says that this tradition is under threat: "In some places in southern Africa the San now perform their traditional culture exclusively for tourists, because they've been forced out of all their territories as hunter-gatherers by conservationist organizations. This means that by extension... these performances are not the original initiations but a facsimile of them."