Masks are used in various initiation ceremonies. These initiation ceremonies, also called rites of passage, have played an important role in African societies for centuries.
Secret societies are common in Africa as a whole. All have an underlying goal of carrying on tradition and maintaining order in the community. In general, life is viewed as a series of transitions and each transition calls for its own set of rites and rituals. One of the most important transitions is that from childhood to manhood or womanhood. A vehicle that is used through out these brotherhoods is that of initiation. It is usually associated with the most dramatic rites, for this is a crucial moment. At this point, a youth who is successful in his/her initiation becomes a full member of the community, contributing to its well-being. Secrecy is of the utmost importance in the initiation process, to learn the secrets is to become a member of a closed group.
The purpose of secrecy sometimes is to keep the magic power from the hands of unbelievers or enemies who might use it for sorcery, but in many other cases it is intended to make those who are excluded believe that the initiates have superior power. (Bettelheim, 1954, 228).
Outside the village, in an isolated place (called the bush), the adolescent, together with others of his age group, undergoes seclusion, the duration of which is different in each tribe. There, in the presence of the mask, they undergo tests designed to measure their physical and moral maturity and are given instructions that progressively reveal the knowledge of the universe.
The initiate must submit to tests of endurance, courage and intelligence. Later in the course of the masked dances, the meaning of the great imitation is recalled: the adolescent must suffer the death of his former state in order to be born into the state of adulthood. This rite of passage is a symbolic rebirth in the group with a new name and a new identity. This process has two main consequences: First, it has social significance that is expressed by the youth's consent to pass to the next generation, to accept and live by the ancestral law and customs of his tribe which constitute the base of an integrated, communal society. In a sense, it is tradition perpetuating itself. The second, perhaps more fundamental as far as the symbolic rebirth is concerned, resides in the fact that at an early age, the adolescent, or should I say the newly born adult, is conditioned emotionally to join a spiritual realm beyond his existence.
The initiate felt that, by following tribal laws, he would be spared agonizing personal decisions. He had no need to revolt against accepted customs, which had been established by sacred ancestors, and had sacred and infallible meaning. He felt part of a community in direct contact with supernatural forces. As a member, he, too, could enter into the world of spirits." (Segy, 1953, 73).