Coming-of-Age Rituals in Africa: Tradition & Change

Prudence International Magazine

by Annika S. Hipple

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In Nigeria, young girls known as iriabo spend several weeks in “fattening rooms” being pampered and wearing copper coils around their legs to restrict movement as part of a ritual marking their official transition into womanhood. In Senegal, Bassari boys undergoing the Koré rite are taken into a sacred forest where they experience a symbolic death and a simulated return to infancy, a state of ritual purity from which they are reborn as mature members of the community.

These are just two examples of the elaborate coming-of-age rituals with which traditional societies throughout Africa have marked the passage from childhood to adulthood. In parts of the continent, these traditions remain strong, while in others, changing social, economic and political conditions have had a profound influence on the extent to which these ceremonies are performed and the forms the rituals take.

Unlike in many Western societies, where the boundary between childhood and adulthood is often blurred, traditional African rites of passage mark an unambiguous transition with an associated change of status, roles and responsibilities.

“When you come through the initiation process, you are officially a man or woman,” says John Frazier, assistant professor of humanities at the College of DuPage. “You know it, society knows it, and you are prepared for the tasks at hand and all the different situation because you go through a training process to learn all your new roles in society.” Without undergoing initiation, a person, no matter what age, will not be considered a full adult.

African coming-of-age rituals have traditionally been seen as consisting of three main phases: separation from the community, a period of transition or liminality and reincorporation into society. In the first stage, young boys or girls are physically removed from the community and taken to the “bush,” which may be fully separate from the village or may be a special enclosure or specific building in the community.

During the transition period, initiates learn the skills necessary to participate in society as adults. The traditional length of seclusion varies from a period of days or weeks to several years. Among the Krobo of eastern Ghana, girls are secluded from three weeks, during which they are trained in appropriate female behavior, personal grooming, domestic skills, dance and the art of seduction. The Senufo of Ivory Coast initiate girls into the secret women’s society of Poro through a process that lasts for a period of seven or eight years.

Ritual songs, dances and masks or other artwork feature prominentaly in many initiation rites. Senufo girls achieve womanhood through a ceremonial dance called the Ngoron, the steps of which can take up to six months to master, marking the culmination of the girls’ ritual training. Among the Nkanu people of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, specialized sculptors create masks, figures and carved panels that are used to educate initiates about symbolic meaning, appropriate and inappropriate behavior and other adult knowledge. The most important masks represent ancestral spirit forces that are believed to sanction the initiation and protect the youths during the ritual. At the end of the initiation, these masks are displayed to the community.

The transition period often involves various tests and ordeals, many of them painful. Depending on the ethnic group, these trials may involve physical marking such as circumcision or other body scarification without the use of anesthesia. Male circumcision is common throughout Africa while female “circumcision,” or female genital cutting (FGC), varies in prevalence. The Krobo of easten Ghana do not practice FGC; instead, they mark the back of an initiate’s hand with a tattoo of fine blue marks to symbolize her maturity and the completion of her ritual training.

These ordeals reflect the belief that pain is an important part of becoming an adult. “Suffering is part of the development of personhood,” says Michelle Johnson, assistant professor of anthropology at Bucknell University, who has spent a decade conducting research on initiation rituals among the Mandinka people of Guinea-Bissau.

For the Maasai of East Africa, circumcision represents the beginning of adulthood for both boys and girls. Boys must endure the operation without flinching or crying out, while girls are allowed to show pain but cannot marry or bear legitimate children within Maasai society if they refuse to undergo the procedure. In their book African Ceremonies (2002), Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher note that the Maasai “believe that the male or female youngster who undergoes the agony of such an ordeal with courage will be able to endure the challenges of life and uphold the proud reputation of the Maasai people.”

Many initiations culminate with a supreme test. In Ethiopia, Hamar boys complete the Jumping of the Bulls, a ritual in which they must leap over the backs of 20 to 40 bulls in order to demonstrate their manhood. Young Maasai warriors must prove their courage by hunting lions with only a spear. In Bassari culture, the climax of the Koré ritual is a duel between each new initiate and a fierce masked spirit known as Lukata. Krono girls also undergo a final trial in which they are lowered several times onto a sacred stone in a test of their virginity.

After completion of the isolation period, the initiates return to the community as fully fledged adults and are reintegrated through a public ceremony and celebration. After undergoing these rites of passage, both sexes are prepared for the responsibilities of adulthood and are allowed and expected to participate in society in fundamentally different ways. For some groups, this change is so dramatic that the newly initiated aduly is given a new name and presented to the community as a different person.

The emphasis placed on specific aspects of initiation varies greatly, with some ethnic groups placing greater importance on the physical tests of bravery and toughness, others emphasizing spiritual aspects, and still others focusing on practical education. In any case, the bonds that develop between initiates during the period of seclusion and trial usually last a lifetime.

Both coming-of-age rituals and circumcision are still widely practiced today but have frequently become separated from one another, even in places where they traditionally went hand in hand. Anthopologist Ylva Hernlund, who has conducted extensive fieldwork in Gambia and had authored or edited numerous publications on FGC, notes that in many places, coming-of-age rituals still take place that have nothing to do with circumcision while in other parts of the continent, especially in the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia), circumcisions are performed on both boys and girls without any ritual context at all.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 100 million to 140 million girls and women worldwide, 91.5 million of them in Africa, have undergone FGC, with another 3 million undergoing the procedure every year. The procedure is still practiced in 28 African countries, most located in a belt stretching across the continent at its widest point, from Senegal and Mauretania in the west to Somalia in the eats, with Egypt and Tanzania extending out from the belt to the north and south. The prevalence varies from country to country and between ethic groups and geographic regions within countries. The practice is almost universal in Egypt, Eritrea, Guinea, Mali and northern Sudan and is performed on the majority of women in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Mauretania. A portion of the female populations of Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, Kenya, Benin, Niger, Nigeria and Tanzania also maintain the practice.

WHO classifies FGC into three different types according to severity: clitoridectomy (removal of the clitoral hood with or without removal of the clitoris), excision (removal of the clitoris as well as all or part of the labia minora) and infibulation (removal of part or all of the external genitalia, including the clitoris, labia minora and labia majora, followed by the stitching of the vaginal opening to leave only a small hole for urine and menstrual flow). Clitoridectomy is the most common type, accounting for up to 80 percent of cases, while an estimated 15 percent of women who have undergone FGC have been infibulated, although in Djibouti, Somalia and the Sudan an estimated 80 to 90 percent of all “circumcised” women have undergone infibulation.

A number of health risks are associated with FGC, particularly for the more severe forms of the procedure. According to WHO, “Immediate potential side effects include severe pain, hemorrhage, injury to the adjacent tissues and organs, shock, infection, urinary retention and tetanus….Long-term effects may include cysts and abscesses, urinary incontinence, psychological and sexual problems, and difficulty with childbirth.” For women who have been infibulated, severe labor complications can occur if the genitalia are not deinfibulated (opened) during delivery. In addition, a WHO study found that babies born to mothers who had undergone FGC experienced higher death rates than those born to mothers who had not.

In international discourse, the issue of FGC, often known by the more emotionally and politically charged term “female genital mutilation” (FGM), has tended to engulf all other aspects of African initiation rituals. Since 1979, a vocal movement, started by African women’s organizations and quickly taken up by health and human rights activists around the world, has been advocating for the abolition of FGC in all its forms. The practice has been outlawed in many African countries, but until recently few efforts have been made to understand or change the cultural underpinnings of the practice. As a result, in many places the rituals have simply been driven underground or have been tacitly allowed to continue due to difficulties in enforcing the ban.

“In 1997, women in Guinea-Bissau held the largest traditional circumcision in 20 years, as a backlash against government condemnation of the practice,” says Johnson, who has found in her research that women are usually the ones keeping the practice alive, often against the wishes of men.

Sierra Leonean-American anthropologist Fuambai Ahmadu, who underwent excision as part of her initiation into Bundu, the secret women’s society of the Kono people, has criticized the tendency of Western observers to view FGC as a reflection of women’s oppression by patriarchal societies. Ahmadu argues that most Kono women willingly perpetuate the ritual because they see it as a way to preserve female sources of power and authority, as well as promote characteristics such as strength, tenacity, endurance and fearlessness in young women.

For many African ethnic groups, such as the Kono of Sierra Leone and the Dogon and Bamana of Mali, genital cutting reflects traditional beliefs about gender and duality. The clitoris is believed to be a male remnant that must be cut away to make a girl a complete woman. Similarly, the male foreskin is seen as a female remnant that must be removed to make a true man. The purpose of these operations is to create an unambiguous gender identity.

The Mandinka see initiation as intimately connected to the physical act of circumcision, which, in turn, is closely related to Islam. Islam came early to West Africa and, in most places, mixed with traditional African animistic beliefs to create a syncretic form of the religion that is quite different from its more orthodox forms. The Koran specifies that men must be circumcised; for women, the connection to official Islamic doctrine is less clear, but according to Johnson’s research, most Mandinka women see the practice of female genital cutting in a similar way. “Women I have worked with have told me, ‘To be full Muslim persons, to be full Mandinka persons, full ethnic persons, we also have to be circumcised,’” Johnson says. “They’ve told me that for an uncircumcised woman, God doesn’t hear her prayers.”

Hernlund adds, “There are a lot of people who will say that male and efmale circumcision is Islamic, but other aspects of the rituals are not Islamic. However, across Africa there are Islamic peoples who don’t practice female circumcision and there are non-Islamic people who do.”

For many African women, the practice is an essential part of womanhood. Ahmadu notes, “It is incumbent on mothers to initate their daughters properly, according to ancestral customs, in order for the latter to become legally recognized as persons with rights and responsibilities in society.”

These complex cultural underpinnings have created a situation in which even women who say they are against the practice often perpetuate it. “Westerners have stomped in and demanded that Africans be for or against it,” says Hernlund, adding that most Gambians she has worked with are “profoundly ambivalent. They have mixed feelings. It’s a difficult issue.” Many women are caught between wanting to end the practice and not wanting their daughters to be the odd ones out.

The societal pressures on young girls can be intense. In 2006, a 15-year-old Kenyan girl died after trying to perform FGC on herself. Although the girl’s mother had refused to allow her to undergo the procedure, the girl had endured relentless teasing and name-calling from her age mates and finally decided to take matters into her own hand – with tragic results.

In South Africa, where FGC is not practiced, serious issues related to male initiations have prompted the government to introduce legislation requiring initiation schools to be licensed and regulating the conditions under which circumcisions may be performed. In 2004, a young Xhosa man was beaten to death during a circumcision ritual, and two years later, another boy died from malnutrition after being isolated with his age mates in the mountains without food. Botched circumcisions by traditional surgeons have led to highly publicized deaths and injuries. In the past several years, dozens of South African boys have died and scores of others have been hospitalized as a result of circumcision-related infections and other complications.

The health risks associated with unsanitary male circumcisions in traditional, non-sterile environments have led to the increasing medicalization of the practice throughout Africa, with more and more boys being circumcised in hospitals by trained medical personnel. In Guinea-Bissau, Johnson says, many boys are now circumcised in the hospital at an early age. Though some people have advocated safer, more sanitary “circumcisions” for girls as well as boys, anti-FGC activists argue that medicalization would counteract efforts to abolish the procedure. Hernlund notes, “The main difference as far as the current status of the rituals goes is that for male circumcision there is no campaign, no laws against it, and medicalization. Male circumcision is getting safer and safer. The question for female circumcision is, do you take the idealistic view that medicalization is legitimizing female circumcision or that it is harm reduction?”

The anti-FGC campaign has influenced the practice of initiations throughout Africa, and the Christian church has also worked to discourage traditional rites, with varying degrees of success. In addition, a stricter form of Islam, more similar to that practiced in the Middle East, has recently spread across the region, leading to new changes in traditional rituals. For example, ritual masks were traditionally a way to connect with particular spirits.”You would harness that spirit to serve the community,” says Frazier. “Islam is teaching that these spirits and this energy do not exist.”

The increasing modernization and globalization of African society are also having an impact. “Lots of people are living in the city, and people are not as tied to the village,” Frazier points out. “When they go through initiation they are having all sorts of problems because it doesn’t fit their lifestyles. What is the value of learning about the harvest and traditional life cycles if you are a computer programmer?”

Financial limitation have caused many rituals to become shorter of less frequent, while modernization means that the lives of African youth are now tied to school schedules rather than to the land, putting further constraints on the length of time that can be devoted to rites of passage. “You’ve got social change that’s just wreaking havoc on traditional rituals,” Johnson reflects. Ahmadu’s research in Sierra Leone found that the period Kono girls and boys spend in the bush receiving practical, cultural and religious education has been reduced from several months or years to less than a month during school vacations.

“What would previously have been done in that period of six months to two years they’re now doing over spring break. They don’t have time to bring in all those different values, those ideas for society,” says Frazier. “The older generation sees this as a serious issue, not being able to deliver what society needs in an effective format.”

Even as many cultural aspects of initiation have fallen away, circumcision has not, and the age at which the procedure is performed has been decreasing throughout Africa. Among the Kono, Ahmadu notes, the cutting is being performed on girls as young as toddlers “in the fear that these children may forever forgo their Kono identities, either because of intensifications and aggressiveness of eradication campaigns or because they may wind up as refugess in other, possibly Western countries as a result of dislocation caused by war.”

In some parts of the continent, notably Kenya and Gambia, African women’s groups, with funding from international organizations, are working to establish alternative rituals that revive the cultural elements of initiation but circumcise girls cymbolically rather than with a knife. During a ritual period of seclusion, the girls are education on such topics as sex, HIV/AIDS, interpersonal skills, problem solving, religion, FGC, peer pressure and legal rights. The rite concludes with a coming-out ceremony in which the girls are presented to the entire community as mature adults.

The alternative rituals have met with varying degrees of success. Some parents who oppose FGC for their daughters do not see the value of the alternative rituals while others see them a an important way of bringing back many of the cultural traditions that had been disappearing. In the Kuria district of Kenya, 289 girls attended the first alternative rituals in the 2004-05 season, but once they returned home, all but 80 of these girls were pressured into undergoing FGC after all.

Various factors – the anti-FGC campaigns, the changing influence of Islam and Christianity, political upheaval, civil war, modernization, and financial and time constraints – have all had tremendous impacts on the practice of initiation rituals. As Africa continues along the bumpy road of social change, these forces will only get stronger. How the various ethnic groups meet these challenges may well determine the ultimate future of these traditional rites of passage.