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