Eight Bowls Full of Life
by Makungu M. Akinyela, Ph.D.
(printed with permission)
The House of Umoja, a Black Nationalist political and cultural organization, introduced an eight bowl life cycle ceremony to Black communities in the U.S. Thus, for the past thirty-five years, Blacks in the U.S have highlighted thousands of significant life passages- naming ceremonies, weddings, graduations, funerals – by observing this eight bowl ritual, summarized here:
- In preparation for the ritual, a low lying table is decorated with traditional African centered cultural symbols and then used as a ceremonial altar.
- An elder, either female or male, usually leads the ceremony. The person or persons leading the ceremony are encouraged to dress in traditional African attire.
- This ceremony requires eight bowls, made of wood, ceramic ware, glass, clay or other aesthetically pleasing material.
- The following eight elements are also needed: wine, honey, lime, salt, cayenne pepper, water, African palm oil, and fresh coconut. One of the eight elements is placed in each of the bowls. .
- The bowls are placed in a circle around the table symbolizing the path of the sun around the earth. If the circle were a clock face, the elements would be placed around the circle counterclockwise in the following manner:
- Salt at twelve o’clock;
- Cayenne Pepper at eleven o’clock,
- Water at nine o’clock,
- Palm Oil at eight o’clock;
- Coconut at six o’clock;
- Wine at four o’clock;
- Honey at three o’clock; and finally
- Lime at the two o’clock position.
- When naming a child, typically, the parents sit together in front of the ceremonial leader who gives instruction to the community and reminds the community to be responsible for helping the child learn the lessons of life. The child to be named should be held by the eldest family member in attendance who sits up front alongside the child’s parents.
- The Eight Bowl Naming Ceremony begins with an offering of libation, to remember and honor the community’s ancestors. Water is poured onto the ground, or into a potted plant. The text of a libation usually involves invoking the names of personal and community ancestors; the purpose of the occasion, and requests for prosperity and blessing. The libation is not intended to be a solo performance. Rather, often, there is call and response, or attendees verbally compliment the libation. Libation text written by members of the House of Umoja is included here as an example:
Blacker than the skies at midnight
Great ancient priests, warriors and mystic scientists
Give us the inspiration to fight a thousand lions
Give us the enlightenment to unravel the mysteries of the universe
Give us the sustenance to travel through the trackless swamps of disharmony
Praised be your Black African names
Help us in our time of need
– House of Umoja
- After the libation, the main part of the ceremony includes the tasting of the eight elements and brief presentations of the life lesson related to each element. The elements are tasted first by the baby (the leader puts the element into her/his mouth) and parents (or adult to be named), and then by the participants as all present listen to the lesson from the ceremonial leader.
- Wine. The Wine represents appreciation for tradition and family. As well, wine symbolizes strength in racial/ethnic pride, commitment to household and extended family, reverence and appreciation for the foundation those who came before have laid.
- Honey. Honey represents an ability to appreciate and remember the sweetness and goodness of life events experienced through positive interpersonal relationships.
- Lime. Hurt and betrayal are unavoidable during the life cycle. In this ritual, lime represents an ability to overcome bitterness. The collective hope is that individuals being named learn to retain dignity, composure and self worth even when feeling hurt by words, actions or inaction of others.
- Salt. As a spice, salt represents variety. In the ceremony Salt symbolizes wisdom and balance in making life choices as well as flexibility, creativity and moral balance in making choices and decisions.
- Cayenne Pepper. Crisis and tragedy are also unavoidable during the life cycle. In this ritual, cayenne pepper represents resilience in response to critical situations. Cayenne reminds ritual participants to expect unpredictable circumstances in the form of crisis or tragedy and to develop the ability to rebound in the face of crisis.
- Water. The fluid of life, water represents a willingness to be renewed and changed. Additionally, water represents spiritual depth and renewal; and coolness in the midst of crises.
- Palm Oil. For this ceremony, palm oil represents reliance on community power. More essentially, the palm oil represents an ability to move towards inevitable death with confidence and grace. This confidence can be born of a cohesive family and community where each person is valued for their contribution.
- Coconut. Fresh, broken coconut symbolizes assurance of inevitable blessings and unexpected luck. This coconut also represents reliance on that which is greater than oneself and life benefits which have nothing to do with an individual’s own intelligence, skill, or power, but are due solely to the unpredictable goodness of the divine.
The elements’ life lessons are inter-related. While it is important for an individual to be steeped in heritage and tradition (wine), it is equally important for a person to be willing to change (water). Children should be surrounded by all the sweetness and joy a family can provide (honey), yet they will not be strangers to bitterness (lime). Power is longed for in life (African Palm Oil), but must be moderated by wisdom when making decisions (salt). And, while African descended people are used to experiencing “hot and critical times,” (cayenne pepper), an uneasy expectation can be complimented by the assurance that blessings/good luck will someday surely follow (coconut).
The tasting of elements is often followed by songs, dance, drumming, and of course, feasting (food).
This article is printed with permission from the author, Dr. Makungu Akinyela. Please direct reprint requests to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional information about the the House of Umoja’s Eight Bowl Ceremony and other naming rituals can be found in The African Book of Names (Health Communications Inc, 2009).