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Dr. Martin Wong discusses the components and functions of male initiation rites in Africa as part of a special section

In the classic mythical male coming of age tale, Parsifal leaves his mother behind and symbolically all of life that is female and naive, and ventures forth to seek wisdom and his destiny as a man. He wears nothing but a crude cloth to cover him, ergo he is unprotected. Before he succeeds in his quest to become a man, he fails, undergoes many painful ordeals, and learns much about suffering along the way. Different cultures inform this tale in many ways but it is always necessary for the Parsifal figure, the naïve boy, to survive ordeals and to achieve some task or solve some problem in order to be made into a man. His arrival into manhood is never assumed, it takes time, it is not easy, and the maintenance of the status requires continual renewal (Johnson, 1989).

In Africa throughout recorded history, a boy is a boy and a man is a man—they are different entities. A boy is with his mother. A man is with men and does what men do. As with Parsifal, a boy becomes a man only through some form of stringent initiation ritual. The plethora of literature provided by anthropologists and sociologists about African male initiation rites suggests that it was, at least until recently, the experience of almost every African boy to undergo some form of stringent ritual which usually involved painful circumcision and/or body scarification as a rite of passage to manhood. There are literally thousands of individually identifiable tribes in Africa and tens of thousands of villages. Most of these social groupings had little or no contact with each other, yet within each, rites to initiate males into manhood arose. Only after successful completion of this test can a boy claim to be a man. Without successful completion of the initiation rites the boy remains a boy and does not have the rights and responsibilities of men. He may often not be allowed to marry and produce children and cannot take part in village affairs and even express an opinion. Indeed in some cases a man who has not endured the prolonged ordeal of such an initiation is not even considered to be a person (Tucker, 1949).

While each individual initiation may vary in format, content, and symbolism from tribe to tribe, from village to village, each in its own way includes six characteristics: (1) separation and seclusion away from the rest of the tribe—especially mother and women generally; (2) some form of pain and suffering—physical and emotional; (3) specific educational instruction; (4) cutting of flesh—usually circumcision or/and scarification of the body—and spilling of blood; and (5) entreaty to spiritual and/or ancestral elements; and (6) reincorporation back into the tribe/village as changed persons. These six aspects may be specific and taught or may be inferred symbolically but they are to be found in almost all of the initiatory rites noted in the literature.

Separation usually takes the form of seclusion of the initiates somewhere outside of their homes, outside of the village, usually in the bush in a totally male environment. This may last as long as three months or more, and involves privation. These boys are often cloistered together in small huts for days at a time, sleeping on the ground; they are sometimes required to be scantily clothed or even naked; and they may be exposed to wild animals. While separation and seclusion may in itself be considered painful, other experiences such as the very strict, harsh discipline of the camp, having their heads shaved and their bodies painted, eating only certain kinds of food, sometimes going without food for a period of time, catching and/or killing wild animals, learning lore, proving themselves in various ways, all of these add to the intensity of the initiation process. Often the rites include various taunts and humiliations delivered by the elders to the initiates who desire to join their ranks.

Educational instruction usually involves some kind of orally transmitted stories of the tribe, secrets of male society into which they are being initiated, specific sexual instruction on appropriate modes of coitus, specific societal rules and taboos that must be adhered to, more philosophical topics that bring in the lore and the history of the tribe and of initiation itself, and often, existential questions about life. These can be transmitted by riddles and song or didactically taught. Sometimes the initiate is assigned an elder mentor who guides and instructs him through the process. Gitywa (1976, pp169-70) provides us with illustrative, albeit specifically Xhosa teachings, as follows: “Speaking in low tones with courtesy; Being outspoken in a guileless manner which comes from the heart; Quarrelling and forgiving one another; Service and obeisance to chiefs; Reasoning at the courtyard; Righting the wrongs of life; To support the home by caring for the family and caring for the stock; Looking after the parents; Bearing the difficulties which single out men; Obedience to law of the home and of the nation; He <the guardian> disparages till the mouth is dry those whose guardian he is.”

The cutting off of the foreskin—circumcision–is almost always part of the changing/rebirthing process that transforms boys into men. It is essential to the attainment of manhood (Carstens, 1982) and it is shameful if not done (Sagnia, 1984). With the act of circumcision the boy that is left behind as the foreskin is cast into the river is transformed into a man. (Droogers, 1980). This physical transformation is how the man is identified. It is a visible physical proof of manhood. It is a necessary precursor to marriage and in fact an uncircumcised man may be spurned by the female members of the society (Heald 1999; Gitywa, 1976). The act is seen as a physical cleansing that has been esteemed for time immemorial (Tucker, 1949).

The surgical act of circumcision is often made more painful than it needs to be and the boy is admonished to stand stoically still and not flinch (Heald, 1982). Endurance of pain is part of the male hardening process (Droogers, 1980), making the man able to face an ordeal without fear (Heald, 1982). Clearly the ability to endure pain in the future with indifference is a goal of this process. The beginnings of the practice of circumcision in Africa are unknown. Myth and oral histories surrounds its beginnings and they are often attributed to women (Brain, 1977; Beidelman, 1986; Heald, 1999; Droogers, 1980). It is said in one myth that men saw women cutting their daughters and believing that this act made their daughters “too strong” they began to cut their sons. In another myth, it was said that some women of the village were at the riverside when they noticed an empty canoe drifting along with the current. When they looked in the canoe, it contained a knife, medicinal preparations and a set of pictorial directions (assumedly on how to conduct circumcision). This event had been predicted by the ancestors (Droogers, 1980). When women instigated the practice of clitorectomy on their daughters three of the daughters died and the practice was abandoned by women. Men took up the practice and were more successful. Thereafter it frequently became an exclusively male affair.

In another telling, circumcision is seen as a punishment for some mythical male transgression against the original ancestor who began the practice (Vansina, 1955). Another writer suggests that the male envy of women and their ability to give birth and to bleed automatically on a monthly basis led males to take up a practice that resulted in “rebirth” of their sons through the spilling of blood (Sagnia, 1984). In fact, circumcision is usually seen as a rebirth of the boy into a man and is often accompanied with the giving of a new name. (Kreamer, 1995). In any case it appears that the beginnings of the practice of circumcision happened independently in Africa in many other different places, for many different reasons.

For most African peoples, spirituality is inseparable from life (Smith, 1946); it is thus inseparable from initiation and circumcision (Gitywa, 1976; Heald, 1999). The specific act of circumcision is said to bring the boy closer to his ancestors and to the supernatural world (Gitywa, 1976). The practice, while introduced by women is attributed to the Gods or to the fore-bearers who are considered Gods, and is done with their approval and with much entreaty and invocation for them to look kindly on the rites and on the young men who must endure the ordeal set for them by their elders (Beidleman, 1997). In many cases animals are sacrificed to ensure the protection of the ancestors and to help ward off any evil spirits that may bring wrongs (Heald, 1999). Initiation and circumcision are ties that bind males spiritually–to the land, to the spirit ancestors who have gone before, to the living, and to those yet to be born (Sagnia, 1984). If a boy dies during the period of initiation it is accepted fatefully as the will of the Gods (Droogers, 1980).

The activity and celebration that surrounds the initiation ritual frequently begins many months prior to the actual seclusion of the boys. The culmination of the process of initiation, however, ends with the boy’s symbolic rebirth and reintegration into the village society. A joyful ceremony greets the return of the boys heroically having endured the trials and have become men. Numerous symbolic rituals often take place to reintegrate the boys back into mixed society. No justification is needed for the celebratory ceremonies that accompany the reincorporation of these now men into the society other than their safe return from what is seen as a heroic and dangerous mission.

Different cultures may stress one aspect of initiation over another. The Xhosa, (Gitywa, 1976), for example, emphasize preparation for adult citizenship in the tribe with marriage and childbearing being a sine qua non. A formal mentoring system held over several months inculcates tribal characteristics and ideas about life. Other tribes choose to stress the dangers in life and the need for toughness, fearlessness and bravery (Heald, 1982; Droogers, 1980). For some the act of circumcision, replicates the cycle of life through the spilling of blood from the reproductive organs–similar to menarche in females (Sagnia, 1984). The implication here is that circumcision is born of male envy of female power as the givers of life (Brain, 1977). Circumcision also symbolically transforms the individual male from an asexual to sexual being (Droogers, 1980). The initiates are also “born again” and sometimes even given new names (Tucker, 1949; Kreamer, 1995; Gitywa, 1976). In some cases the process is seen conceptually as bringing out from within the boy an internal maleness (Heald, 1999). In other cases initiation is seen as a strict and necessary imposition of male norms and behaviors onto the initiates—the literal making of men (Gitwa, 1976). For others it is merely a rite of passage that separates boys from men and binds them with other men, to the tribe, and to their ancestors, assuring the tribe’s continuity by and linking the male for all time with his community. (DeJong, 1997; Sagnia, Muytisya, 1996).

Levi-Strauss (1967) tells us that ritual is informed by myth and that while myth exists on the conceptual level it is ritual that transforms myth into action. Initiation and circumcision are ritual acts and as such their meaning and function are understandable only by subjective interpretation and educated speculation. Anthropologists have attempted to offer many answers to the inevitable question of why African societies need to initiate boys into manhood and why this kind of transformative ritual occurs almost universally among African cultures that have historically had no contact with each other or with the greater outside world. Native tribesmen usually explain that these processes and rituals are spiritual and involve the imputation of special power to men (Kreamer, 1995; Moore, 1976). They describe the need to test and produce men that can stand up to the rigors of this difficult life and defend the tribe against adversaries (Droogers, 1980; Heald, 1982). Explanations of scholarly investigators often run the gamut from practical explanations that are similar to those offered by the participants, to deep psychological discussions of fear of sex, incest, pollution and death (Brain, 1977).

On a more practical note, social survival depends on society’s ability to solve the problems of reproduction, safety, and production. Roles for each of these tasks must be assigned either to males or females. Females are usually less physically strong and are biologically physically predisposed to the role of child bearing and child rearing. Males have few biological imperatives beyond impregnation but are the physically stronger of the two sexes and thus the roles of protectors and providers have been taken up by them.

The roles of provider and protector have historically involved hunting for wild animals, taking part in war, fierce competition for resources, and other risky, dangerous, and life threatening behaviors. As Gilmore (1990) stresses in his seminal text on Manhood in the Making, in societies where hardiness and self-discipline are required and where resources are scarce, men may need to be prodded into taking on the role. A special moral system, “real manhood”, is required to ensure a voluntary acceptance of appropriate behavior in men” (p221). Boys then must be taught that it is their honored duty to become men and to take on the dangerous and often arduous roles of protector and provider. They must be toughened emotionally and physically and must realize that the survival of their tribe depends on their willingness to accept this role.

Part of the incentive needed to prod boys into becoming men is the increase in status achieved in the process, being raised above females by the tasks that are set for them to accomplish. A boy seeks solace and protection at his mother’s side and will perhaps continue to do so if left with her. This overwhelming urge must be overcome; the male must leave his mother behind if he is to assume his self-reliant role in the society (Droogers, 1980; Webster, 1932). It is the task of the older men, through specific initiation rituals to carry out this passage, this transformation. A clear difference in attitude and behavior is expected from a man who has undergone initiation (Gitywa, 1976).

Modernization, the loss of much of the wild bush, formal western style schooling, and the imposition of Christianity and Islam (and the subsequent subrogation of manhood rites) have resulted in the abandonment of the practice of initiation and circumcision among many tribes— especially among those living in the cities (Sagnia, 1984, Carstens, 1976; Van Vuuren and DeJong, 1999). Often, circumcision is performed on boys in the hospital soon after they are born and scarification of the body has become frowned upon. The rites of initiation and circumcision seem to be dying out (Mutisya, 1996). The supernatural force which was once omnipresent in the lives of Africans (Smith, 1946) is now relegated to mosques and churches and taken care of by assigned intermediaries. Western style classroom education and modern health care methods are supplanting more traditional modes of education. Life is more outward looking and the village and tribe are not the cohesive centers to which everything is connected. While modern life may be less stable, it is also less physically combative and dangerous, and the need for male bravery and aggressiveness is lessened if not completely unnecessary.

When something as central to life as formal initiation into manhood dies with nothing to fill the void that it leaves behind, it is hard to know what the implications may be. There are those who decry the great loss represented by its discontinuation and suggest that it has led to the diminution of manhood itself (Bly, 1992). Some urge that the practice be reinstituted and established even in the United States and other Western countries (Bly, 1992; Mustisya, 1996). It may in fact be that with the decline in the physical rigors and dangers of life, it has outlived its usefulness and the need for the symbolism and ritual that surrounds artificially imposed male separation and definition is no longer. Time will tell.

Originally printed in the SPSMM Bulletin, Summer 2006.

Martin R. Wong, Ph.D. Boulder, Colorado, USA


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