Initiation is a process of culture transmission and community survival. It is always a collective responsibility. Nearly all African cultural groups mark major points of transition throughout the life cycle by rituals and ceremonies related to birth, end of childhood and beginning of adult life, marriage, eldership, and death. Generally, African cosmogonies view the human life span as a journey along a spiraling cycle in which the individual exists in the spirit world before birth, is embodied and born into the physical world, and, at death, the disembodied spirit returns to the spirit world to be reborn in physical form.
By the time children in African societies reach adolescence, they know their place within the social fabric of their communities and have learned important aspects of their social and cultural heritage. This is accomplished through everyday life in the context of family and lineage. This preparation, however, is regarded as insufficient. Initiation is required for admission to adult status. Three practices that feature prominently among initiation rites are education in the ways of adults, seclusion of initiates, and circumcision. This entry looks at those common practices and describes their use among two African peoples.
Education and Seclusion
After the observances that mark the child's birth, the ceremonies or rituals of the initiation period that mark the transition from child to adolescent to adult status in the community are the second major point in the life of the individual. These rituals and ceremonies establish the place of the individual among the adults in the community.
A girl or boy will never be considered a woman or a man no matter what her or his physical age unless she or he has undergone initiation. The initiation period is an introduction to knowledge that is only accessible to adult members of the community. Through this education function, essential knowledge deemed critical to the continuity of the people, their collective identity, and their way of being in the world and universe is passed on from one generation to the next.
In West Africa, especially, initiation to adulthood is a prerequisite for other forms of initiation, such as those required for membership in secret societies or entering the priesthood. Although not all African peoples focus on the initiation period in the same way or to the same extent, most give it special recognition. Variations exist in the frequency in which initiation rites are performed, age at which initiation occurs, time of year, length of seclusion, and, if circumcision is performed, who is responsible and how it is done.
Initiation rites often include a period of seclusion away from the home environment to ritually introduce the initiates to the art of communal living. Girls are taken away to be with female elders and boys with male elders. During this period, the elders will share their wisdom, teach the initiates the roles of functions of vital ceremonies and rituals, transmit the cultural history of their people, and ensure that they know the personality traits and behaviors valued in their culture. The period of seclusion is symbolic of the life cycle. The initiate's childhood dies. Living in seclusion is likened to living in the spirit world after death and being reborn to rejoin the community as an adult.
Circumcision and Identity Marking
The deep structural significance of circumcision is rooted in African cosmogony and is directly traceable to ancient Kernet (Egypt). In the example of the Dogon (Mali) cosmogony, symbolically removing something female from the male and something male from the female is meant to establish the dominance of a single sex in an individual. Thus, circumcision is thought to clear the way for the individual to behave in the world as a responsible being.
Circumcision is a ritual of scarification that in precolonial times was almost always part of the initiation process. During initiation, the shedding of blood, through circumcision, creates a bond among the initiates (male and female), the land, and the ancestors. The cutting of flesh symbolizes the passage from childhood to adulthood. The scars on the initiates' genital organs are also deemed to be marks of unity that identify and integrate them with their people.
Female circumcision, increasingly regarded as genital mutilation, is at the center of a controversy that is viewed by some as “an old and hopeless tradition” and by others as a valued tradition that must be maintained. Many African countries are signatories to the United Nations charter abolishing the mutilation of children. However, the tradition continues to be practiced among many ethnic groups, often in great secrecy.
Initiation to adult status in some ethnic groups incorporates scarification, the filing of teeth, and other markings to identify membership within the ethnic community. These processes are also tests of endurance that earn praise and respect for those initiates who can withstand the pain with no outcry.
The brief descriptions that follow are of initiation practices that continue to operate in contemporary African societies. They reflect some accommodations to the demands of wage labor and the influences of Western religions and schooling.
The Asante puberty (or nobility) rites for girls are not performed until after the onset of menses. It is the responsibility of a girl's mother to inform the queen mother that the girl is ready to be initiated. Traditionally, the queen mother would examine the girl to ensure that she is not pregnant or had not had sexual intercourse. This process would then be repeated over three consecutive menstrual cycles. In contemporary times, this practice has increasing become more symbolic.
Rites delineating the transition from childhood to adulthood for boys are not commonly practiced among the Ashanti. There are, however, ceremonies for boys that are largely tests of bravery and that vary widely among localities. In one type of ceremony, less popular in contemporary times, young men receive from their fathers a weapon as a symbolically important gift. During the ceremony, the elders of the clan are present, and prayers are offered to the deities for their protection and guidance in times of anger.
The kindezi system of the Bakôngo people is an example of an initiation process adapted to circumstances that require adults to leave their children to go to work. Kindezi provides social readaptation/ preparation toward fatherhood/motherhood responsibilities. The kindezi system, said to have existed in Africa from time immemorial, develops the moral and intellectual character of the youth and provides the basic elements of cultural concepts. Its philosophical foundations rest on the social, political, cultural, linguistic, and economic foundations of Bakôngo life. In African regions where agriculture is the bedrock of the local economy, the role of kindezi is of unquestioned value.
The one who practices the art of kindezi is called the ndezi. Every member of the community, at one time or another in his or her life span, is an ndezi. There are three main categories of ndezi. The first is the young ndezi, the second is the old ndezi, and the third is the occasional ndezi. The birth of a child is viewed as the rising of a unique “living sun” into the community. The child will traverse five stages of changing social roles and statuses: (a) the young child who needs an ndezi, (b) the child becoming a young ndezi, (c) the “living sun” becomes part of the community productive force, (d) the “highest kindezi”—elders able to offer experience and serve the community, and (e) “old-age childhood” or the setting of the “living sun.”
The ndezi, in their role as teacher, initiate children into the community and prepare them to become adults who know who is who in the community, the elements of its social structure, as well as the structure and hierarchy of kinship relationships. The kindezi system shapes the life of the child and, in doing so, shapes the entire life of the community.
- initiation rites
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