Shingale: Bilen Initiation Ceremony

One of the old traditional rites of passage ceremonies in Eritrea that fascinates me is the ceremony of the Bilen ethnic group called Shingale. Shingale is a ceremony celebrated when a Bilen boy turn 18. The boy who goes through that ceremony is called Shengali. The ceremony always takes place at his uncle, on the mother side’s house, preferably at the house of her eldest brother. However if his mother does not have brothers the ceremony takes place at her uncle’s house.


When the day approaches and the boy is about to travel to his mother’s village, his father and mother present him a gift. His father gives him a pocket knife and his mother offers him some grain. Then the boy sets on a journey to Shingale. While traveling he is accompanied by his friends. To test the boy’s strength as an adult, he is made to travel bare foot and without wearing a shirt while his friends create many obstacles on his way.


When the Shengali and his friends finally reach their destiny, his mother’s family welcomes them warmly and send them to a location where the ceremony begins. When they arrive at the location, a man chosen from his mother’s family, called Shingel Dokdi, greets the Shengali and asks him to hand over the gifts his father and mother gave him.

Shingel Dokdi takes the pocket knife and cuts some hair from the back of the boy’s head, mixes the hair with water and the grain the boy brought in a small container and hands it back to the boy. Then Shengel Dokdi covers the boy’s face with a veil, gives him a gift and sends him to another location. Most of the time the gift includes goats, sheep and money. But the gift is not given nor announced at that spot.

Bilen Youth


The person who greets the Shengali at the second location is called Kentet Dokdi, who unveils the boy and cuts some hair from the boy’s hairline with the same pocket knife and adds the hair into the container that already contain a mixture of hair, water and grain. Kentet Dokdi gives the boy a gift as well and declares the end of the ceremony.

The Shengali’s friends then announce the two gifts and set a date to collect them, and they pour down the mixture of hair, water and grain into the roots of a big evergreen tree, as a symbol that his life as an adult will be prosperous and healthy. The ceremony is concluded at the eldest relative’s house, where the Shengali and his friends are served porridge, Bilen’s common traditional food. After eating, the Shengali’s party set on a journey back to their village hence the Shengali must be home on the night of his Shingale.

The ceremony of Shingale does not end there. It is a must for the Shengali to announce his manhood to all his relatives. So, he and his friends visit his relatives in all the nearby villages. His relatives provide him and his friend’s food and give him their blessing and gifts. This journey lasts a week and the Shengali has to do it bare foot and shirtless. The ceremony is concluded by giving the Shengali a bath.

The ceremony that comes after Shingale, Mertate, is the grand finale of the ceremony that brings together all the Shengali in the village. Mertate is held during the autumn season while Shingale is performed in the summer. For the Mertate celebration milk and barley are collected from the village. All the Shengali in the village and their friends head to the riverbank and start baking the barley flour into bread called Burkuta and have it with the milk and offer the food to any passerby.

As a conclusion to the ceremony they mix the left over milk with leaves of olive tree and a tree called Ashela that is evergreen, also a ritual that denotes the wellness of the boys future. After Mertate is completed, the initiated man can marry two to three years later. Shingale was very important to the Bilen boys because anyone who hasn’t gone through it is not formally known as a man in the village. He has no right to participate in court, is not called upon as an eye witness or permitted to legally be a guardian.

Initiation ceremonies worldwide due to many reasons are fading in today’s society, even though some of them are harmful physically and mentally, I would love for some of them to be practiced in a nominal and not hurtful way. Hence our culture defines who we are as people let’s not let go to some of it.

Written by  Milka Teklom

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