Jour­ney to Great Zim­babwe: So­cial emo­tional and psy­cho­log­i­cal im­por­tance of rites of pas­sage

Sunday News (Zimbabwe) - - Front Page -

ONCE again, we shall, in this in­stal­la­tion, draw upon Pro­fes­sor John Mbiti’s ideas re­gard­ing the all-im­por­tant stage of pu­berty. It is a stage whose at­tain­ment Africans used to cher­ish and cel­e­brate. It was a stage which, once reached, en­sured con­ti­nu­ity of the hu­man species. Pu­berty was not en­tirely a bi­o­log­i­cal or nat­u­ral process. Beyond pu­berty and its at­ten­dant cul­tural ed­u­ca­tion, mar­riage soon fol­lowed. Mar­riage was un­der­stood as that im­por­tant so­cial in­sti­tu­tion which pro­duced ba­bies, nur­tured them not just as bi­o­log­i­cal en­ti­ties but also as cul­tural be­ings. Af­ter growth and de­vel­op­ment, the young reached ma­tu­rity. It was a ma­tu­rity in both the bi­o­log­i­cal and cul­tural senses. If it were solely a nat­u­ral process, it would not have been at­tended with elab­o­rate teach­ing whose aim was to mould a holis­tic and rounded be­ing who is cul­tur­ally in­te­grated and so­cialised into his/ her com­mu­nity into which they were born.

The ed­u­ca­tion cur­ricu­lum pro­vided them with not only knowl­edge and skills needed for sur­vival in the com­mu­nity and its nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, but also req­ui­site cos­mol­ogy, be­liefs, ethics and morals, his­tory and tra­di­tions which are equally im­por­tant tools for so­cial in­te­gra­tion and eco­nomic sur­vival. Be that as it may, it was how­ever, bi­o­log­i­cal ma­tu­rity that pre­ceded and pro­pelled ev­ery­thing for­ward. Bi­o­log­i­cal ma­tu­rity, mean­ing at­tain­ment of pu­berty, was the sine qua non and ini­tia­tor of ev­ery­thing. Teach­ing and learn­ing en­sued af­ter at­tain­ment of pu­berty. Sex­ual re­pro­duc­tion, within the so­cially sanc­tioned mar­riage in­sti­tu­tion, pow­ered the un­end­ing cy­cle of life which trans­lates to the con­cepts of con­ti­nu­ity, end­less­ness and eter­nity.

As pointed out in the last in­stal­ment, one as­pect of pu­berty rites was the cut­ting of the fore­skin and cli­toris. In both cases, blood was shed and it per­co­lated into the ground. The shed­ding of blood was not just a me­chan­i­cal process. In­stead, it was a sym­bolic act. As Mbiti (1975) says, the shed­ding of blood was a sa­cred covenant be­tween the in­di­vid­ual whose blood was shed and his/ her de­parted an­ces­tors who are some­times per­ceived as be­ing domi­ciled in the un­der­world, abaphansi in iSiNde­bele. This ought to be con­cep­tu­alised as an im­por­tant link in the un­end­ing chain or cy­cle of life. The ado­les­cents, in the ma­te­rial world, are link­ing up with the liv­ing dead in the spir­i­tual realm. This is a spir­i­tu­ally sym­bolic link that but­tresses the al­ready ex­ist­ing ge­netic link. The ge­netic code is in the blood.

Pu­berty rites were pre­ceded by seclu­sion where ini­ti­ates left their homes to tem­po­rar­ily live at some se­lected spot in the veldt. Phys­i­cal seclu­sion sym­bol­ised aban­don­ment of the pre-ado­les­cent stage as­so­ci­ated with child­hood, ig­no­rance, ab­sence of some sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity. Younger sib­lings were left at home when the ini­ti­ates em­barked on a jour­ney to adult­hood with its ac­com­pa­ny­ing knowl­edge, prospects of mar­riage and tak­ing part in ex­tend­ing the blood­line. This seclu­sion and aban­don­ment of child­hood was also ex­hib­ited through dis­card­ing of old clothes as­so­ci­ated with child­hood.

The rites of pas­sage (rites de pas­sage) is the term used to de­scribe tran­si­tion from child­hood to adult­hood with its as­so­ci­ated rit­u­als and cer­e­monies upon com­ple­tion of the rit­u­als, ini­ti­ates had their hair shorn. Their faces were cov­ered in paint, usu­ally white or red ochre. The paint should be likened to a cur­tain in a the­atri­cal per­for­mance which sep­a­rates one scene from the next. This is the same mes­sage that is ex­pressed by a fa­cial mask. The tem­po­rary shel­ters in the bush were set ablaze, once again sym­bol­is­ing and de­not­ing tran­si­tion from child­hood to adult­hood.

There is one more sym­bolic act that was per­formed. Be­fore leav­ing to re­join their com­mu­ni­ties at a higher level, a stage of in­cor­po­ra­tion, earth mounds were made, with stones be­ing placed on top. Fi­nally, ash was sprin­kled on these stone cairns. It has been ob­served how this very sim­ple sym­bolic act has been mis­in­ter­preted in some quar­ters. Pow­er­ful mes­sages are not al­ways ver­bally com­mu­ni­cated. Africans of yesteryears com­mu­ni­cated through icons and sym­bolic ac­tions. The mound sym­bol­ised a grave and there­fore a buried or aban­doned/ killed stage in the de­vel­op­ment of a hu­man be­ing. Stones are an in­te­gral part of an African grave and thus re­in­force the im­age and metaphor of burial. That which is dead or killed or aban­doned is buried.

Fi­nally, ash re­in­forces the aban­doned stage and lends em­pha­sis to the fact that the stage of child­hood will never again be re­turned to. The so­cial process that has taken place is like an ir­re­versible chem­i­cal re­ac­tion. When a piece of wooden log burns, the prod­ucts and by-prod­ucts of com­bus­tion can never chem­i­cally re­act and once again con­sti­tute the wooden log. The re­ac­tion is ir­re­versible. An adult ini­ti­ate never be­comes a child again. The stone cairns as­so­ci­ated with pu­berty rites are a sym­bolic lan­guage that ex­presses in yet an­other way that com­ple­ments those enu­mer­ated above.

Upon grad­u­a­tion, ini­ti­ates were given new clothes to sym­bol­ise their newly ac­quired so­cial sta­tus. There was pomp and cer­e­mony await­ing them when they got to their homes. Song and dance marked joy­ous cel­e­bra­tion as­so­ci­ated with suc­cess­ful com­ple­tion of an im­por­tant stage in hu­man de­vel­op­ment on the ma­te­rial realm. Grad­uands were ac­cord­ingly lav­ished with gifts. In the olden days gifts came in the form of, in­ter alia, glass beads. When knowl­edge of gold min­ing and gold smithing had been ac­quired, golden beads, still called chuma were pre­sented as gifts. This should not be viewed as some­thing unique. Suc­cess was, and still is, al­ways con­grat­u­lated, uk­wenza amhlophe. When a baby was born it was con­grat­u­lated. Af­ter rites of pas­sage the ini­ti­ates were con­grat­u­lated. At mar­riage the bride and groom were show­ered with gifts. This is true to this day. Af­ter univer­sity grad­u­a­tion, con­grat­u­la­tions in one form or an­other do fol­low. Beasts are slaugh­tered and wine and/ or beer flows.

“The mys­ter­ies and se­crets of mar­ried life are nor­mally re­vealed to the young peo­ple at this point to pre­pare them for what is soon to come,” writes Mbiti. At­tain­ment of pu­berty and its at­ten­dant rit­u­als and ed­u­ca­tion pro­vide a bridge, a cen­tral bridge in life char­ac­terised by de­par­ture from ig­no­rance to knowl­edge. Grad­uands at­tain full com­mu­nity mem­ber­ship with its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. They play ac­tive roles in life and join both the liv­ing and the dear de­parted as these con­sti­tute one in­clu­sive com­mu­nity that tran­scends both ma­te­rial and spir­i­tual worlds.

Pu­berty rit­u­als, main­tains Mbiti, rep­re­sent a solemn unity and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion be­tween the ini­ti­ate and his/ her peo­ple, both liv­ing and de­parted. The en­dur­ing scars where flesh was sev­ered serves as iden­tity marks which all mem­bers of the com­mu­nity bear and share. It is like an ear notch which a man’s cat­tle all bear and gives them some sense of be­long­ing and iden­tity. There is some height­ened sense of com­mu­nity sol­i­dar­ity and co­he­sion when ini­ti­ates com­plete their course and bear the same iden­tity as old mem­bers of the com­mu­nity.

The ed­u­ca­tion cur­ricu­lum that we re­ferred to above takes place within the con­text of a tra­di­tional school. In­cluded in the cur­ricu­lum were ex­pres­sions of sto­icism, courage, en­durance, per­se­ver­ance and obe­di­ence. Life, it was ap­pre­ci­ated, was not a stroll in the gar­den. There were chal­lenges that re­quired en­durance and de­ter­mi­na­tion to suc­ceed. Ac­cord­ingly, in some African com­mu­ni­ties ini­ti­ates were sub­jected to se­vere pain as part of train­ing for fu­ture life.

Con­quest and the ad­vent of Chris­tian­ity have led to the wan­ing of African cul­tural and spir­i­tual prac­tices. Cul­tural prac­tices en­dure when their cos­mo­log­i­cal pil­lars sub­sist. When the very pil­lars that sup­port them be­gin to wob­ble and buckle, the cen­tre will no longer hold and things be­gin to fall apart.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Zimbabwe

© PressReader. All rights reserved.