What is a rite of passage? Why is it Important?
A rite of passage is a ceremony and marks the transition from one phase of life to another. Although it is often used to describe the tumultuous transition from adolescence to adulthood, it does refer to any of life’s transitions (Births and Beginnings, Initiations, Partnerings, and Endings or Death). There are many passages in our lives if we choose to mark and celebrate them.
Journeys is most concerned with initiatory rites of passage. Initiation is defined in the dictionary as, “the rites, ceremonies, ordeals or instructions with which a youth is formally invested with adult status in a community, society or sect.” We extend that definition to include rituals and ceremonies that help adults transition to new life roles along the path of adulthood – all the way into meaningful elderhood.
When we design rite of passage experiences, we work to assure that initiates come out of the experience with a new and empowering story that helps them take responsibility for the decisions that set the course of their future. We help initiates create the story of who they are and the kind of life they want to build based within the exploration of their own personal values. We also help them find the story that connects them to their community. Through this self-exploration initiates emerge with a stronger sense of personal responsibility to all aspects of their lives – stretching all the way out to the larger world of which they are a part.
In this way both the community and the initiate benefit from a rite of passage. An intentional rite of passage experience provides the space for the community to transmit its core values and confer the role responsibilities appropriate to the initiate’s stage of life, thus insuring cultural continuity, a sort of knitting together of the generations.
Confronting a Sexual Rite of Passage in Malawi
The world has many coming-of-age traditions: sweet sixteens, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras. But in one African country, ‘initiation’ in a Sexual Rite of Passage for girls and boys are common.
CHIRADZULU, Malawi — A slight frame gives her the appearance of a child, but the hardened look Grace Mwase wears makes her seem older than her 14 years. In many villages across Malawi, a largely agrarian sliver of a country in southern Africa, custom dictates that both boys and girls as young as eight attend a rite of passage known as “initiation,” after which they are no longer seen as children. The practice is most entrenched in the country’s south, where Mwase’s Golden Village is located.
Our young girls are age 10 when they are led, along with about a dozen other girls, to remote huts outside her village during winter vacation from school in August. The girls were accompanied by older women from their village in Chiradzulu district, near the border with Mozambique. The women, known as anamkungwi, or “key leaders,” told them that when they returned to their villages they should cook and clean—and have sex. According to Mwase, most of the two weeks she spent at the initiation camp were dedicated to learning how to engage in sexual acts. They are excited for this time with friends away from home, but that feeling quickly give way to dread as they learned the true purpose of initiation.
The anamkungwi told the girls to lie on top of one another and get a feel for the various positions described to them. They then encouraged the girls to “practice” what they had learned.In fact, girls in Malawi are often told that if they don’t have sex upon concluding initiation, their skin will become dry and brittle. This will mark them for life, and they will be ostracized if they don’t complete the custom as their mothers and grandmothers did before them. These guardians often force their daughters to go through with the ritual for fear of breaking with tradition.
Initiation is a centuries-old practice in the region. In many agrarian communities. “There’s nothing like adolescence. You are either a child or an adult.” Initiation is meant to establish the gender norms that boys and girls are expected to follow as men and women. The emphasis on having sex may also have a darker purpose in a country where nearly three-fourths of the population lives below the poverty line. Chanza, who is based in Malawi, says that some parents may actually want their daughters to get pregnant at a young age. A girl is often married soon after she is found to be pregnant, deferring the cost of caring for her and her baby from her parents to her husband.
Mwase sits in an uneven plastic lawn chair in an empty hall used for community gatherings as she recounts her experiences. She had walked to our meeting point in Chiradzulu district from her village to speak with foreign journalists, and agreed to discuss a topic that few women are willing to broach because we didn’t share ties to her community or culture. “You’re like a visitor so you don’t know anything,” she says. Conversing with us, in other words, isn’t as difficult as telling women in her village how she feels about a custom they might support.
Her small, sharp eyes aglow in the dimly lit room, a grain mill whirring in the background, Mwase says the anamkungwi who oversaw her initiation told her to find an older man to have sex with after she left the camp. In defiance of tradition, however, Mwase refused to do so, fearing the costs to her health from unprotected sex. Like many first-born daughters in Malawi, Mwase was raised by her grandmother. She says her grandmother, who had sent her to the camp, didn’t force her to have sex—likely because Mwase never told her about her decision not to do so. If her grandmother had learned the truth, she might have paid a man to take Mwase’s virginity. In some villages, young men hired for this task are called “hyenas,” and they occasionally have sex with many girls in a single village who have gone through initiation together.
Young girls largely are being told to have unprotected sex. The young age at which girls become pregnant.
Female genital mutilation, which often entails the complete or partial removal of the clitoris, is not common in Malawi, though it can take place during similar rites of passage in other parts of Africa. But initiation can leave lasting trauma even without physical injury. The Malawi Human Rights Commission, a government agency, has reported that initiations impinge on girls’ rights to education, health, liberty, and dignity. The Commission further elaborates on some of these rituals, stating that girls are taught a dance known as chisamba “as a way of preparing them for their role of satisfying their husbands in bed,” and that they are made to perform this dance at the end of their initiation “bare-breasted in a very explicit manner as they are being presented to the whole community.” The study also notes, however, that initiation rites vary widely, and that in some communities girls attending initiation are advised not to have premarital sex.
Here in southern Malawi, where initiations are most widespread, girls are often married off as soon as they reach puberty and literacy rates are among the lowest in the country. In the district of Mangochi, which borders the lake, 48 percent of teenagers have begun bearing children—the highest incidence in Malawi. Mwandira says it is hard to persuade local leaders here and elsewhere in the country to stop a custom that has such a long history, especially since annual initiations for boys and girls have become a kind of industry.
In the face of public scrutiny, those who have a vested interest in keeping the custom alive try to do so covertly. Initiation camps are held outside villages in temporary shelters built just for this purpose and then burnt to the ground once children are sent home, Mwandira says. Adults who aren’t involved in managing the camps are not permitted near them. What’s more, the girls who take part in initiations are loath to talk about them.
I spent a day in Mangochi, asking every young woman I could whether she had been initiated. Each time I got a shy smile and swift ‘no’ in response. This despite what Mwandira told me: “It’s not possible to live in Mangochi and not be initiated.”
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