Unpacking initiation rites

Joyce Jenje Makwenda Inside Out
Initiation is helping a person to cross into another phase in life. It is important at every stage in the life of a human being. Initiation makes it easier for someone to understand what they are going to be faced with and what is required of them at each and every stage of their lives.

With initiation, the journey becomes easier and better understood.

In the traditional African set-up, initiation was taken very seriously as this world was seen as a jungle and those who had come into it were obliged to warn and teach those to follow through initiation.

Years before boys and girls reached womanhood or manhood, they were initiated through various ways and it was done in stages.

Through storytelling, they were taught the good and the bad of this world. They were told stories on how to manoeuvre on this planet.

The stories were told in a simplified way, which made the young ones want to engage and learn more.

The storyteller would sing and dance and the young ones would join in. This art of storytelling made a serious story look very light. That way children were taught to know how to choose friends, how to be witty and all sorts of life skills that would enable them to survive in this jungle called earth. There were also educated about their family history, which became community history and national history. This was to inculcate a sense of pride and belonging in them.

The sense of work was instilled as one was growing up, to know that one day you will be on your own and fend for yourself and those whom you will be supposed to look after. All the stages of initiation involved every member of the family in their different capacities although there was a leader/leaders to lead the process.

Then the boys and girls would be introduced to womanhood and manhood.

This was also carefully introduced through storytelling, proverbs, music.

Boys and girls were separated from each other and taken to secluded places.

The separation of boys and girls was necessary in order to explain issues of manhood and womanhood. This is the time when it was emphasised to the boys and girls to understand their ancestors and their roles as men and women.

At the stages of initiating, boys and girls, during puberty stories to warn one to get a good person and one has to know their would-be partner very well, where they come from, what they do in life.

I remember when I was growing up, my maternal grandmother told a story of three girls that had gone to look for firewood and they met a man that they had never seen in the area.

One of the girls fell for him and the man turned to be a lion and ate her.

The other lucky girl narrated the story to the elders. This story made one think twice before deciding to go into a relationship, making sure that they know and understand the person they are going to spend their life with.

The initiates were taken either to the bush or to the house of those who would be leading the process.

This could for be days, a day or maybe just hours. Boys were educated on how to respect their would-be wives, to provide for their families, to make their would-be wives happy, it is said the exercise to make their would-be wives happy took some time.

The training is said to be intense, which I shall not discuss today. This is a man who would not go for two minutes in the recreation room and leave the wife to wonder what is happening.

Joyce Jenje Makwenda is a researcher/archivist. She can be contacted at [email protected]

This training also helps the young man to be disciplined and to have self-control.

The girls were taught the same way the boys were initiated, to respect the man who would be their husband and also to prepare herself for playtime in the recreation room.

She would be taught to understand her ancestor and to be in touch with the ancestor and to prepare her ribbons, which would enhance and decorate her.

The enhancement of ribbon is practised in Zimbabwe and other African countries like Rwanda and DRC.

In one of my articles when I discussed this topic, it was received with mixed feelings, with some saying it is as good as genital mutilation but it is not. Our tradition respected women’s sexuality and they wanted her to be happy and be free with her body and no one was supposed to touch her, not even those old women who would be teaching her.

I will also not go into detail on this issue today as all this is leading me to the subject that I would really want to discuss today.

All this was done with the blessings of the parents who knew how important it was for boys and girls to be initiated into adulthood.

This was in a way initiating the parents to another stage indirectly. The parents would be initiated into accepting that their child has come of age or when they finally come of age they will be someone’s wife or husband or they will have a partner in their lives.

The initiation process was very important as it prepared everyone, the initiates, parents and the family as a whole.

Their minds were prepared to accept this transition. The initiation that was practised in the olden days does not seem to be taken seriously.

Some might say they have been substituted by kitchen parties and bachelor’s parties but those are just for a day or half a day.

I have not been to a bachelor’s party. I only hear what takes place there but the few kitchen parties that I have been, some of them do not really empower women. Those should be called send off-parties by friends as there is not much that you can teach someone in a day that they are going to use for the rest of their life.

Initiation, which was done a long time ago was more effective as this was done over time.

It became more practical and as I have mentioned parents were involved in all the stages indirectly or directly.

Today parents are not prepared to accept that their children will one day have someone in their life and leave them to be with that person.

A friend of mine one day told me that her daughter had found a boyfriend and she came to introduce the boyfriend to her.

She seemed not to be happy and she said, “Joyce ngathi ngiyamukhangela so umfana wakhona ngathi nguyeozabe esenza izinto emtwaneni wami,” (Joyce I looked at him and I said this is the man who will be doing things to my daughter), I laughed! I said to her “Uyahlanya!” (You are mad!), “Joyce ngamukhangela ngezwa inhliziyo yami inyampa,” (Joyce I looked at him and my heart sank). I laughed, this was just free comedy for me.

Unfortunately, the daughter broke up with the guy. After three years my friend came to me with some perfumes that she had been given by her daughter to give me. I opened the parcel and they were written to “aunty with love”.

“Oh bantu ukuzalayikuzimbela, I said (Isn’t it nice to have children?). But my friend was not looking happy.

I asked what was the problem and she said; “Please talk to your children that when they come from holidays bengabuyi bebambe izandla, (they should not come empty handed). I could not understand what she was saying and yet she had brought me expensive perfume, which one of the daughters had bought me.

“What do you mean,” I asked her, “They go to holidays and they come empty handed, I don’t even know how to tell them ukuthi bengabuyi befola nje (they should not come just marching).” “Utshonikanti?” (What do you mean?). She went round and round and then she said; “Don’t tell me that where they go for holidays there are no men.”

I looked at her in disbelief. I said to her; “But don’t forget that the men will do things to them.”

She said; “Kwakuyi kuhlanya lokhuya,” (that was madness that time (when she looked at her daughter’s boyfriend and heart sank), (I was mad at that time), she said.

She now wanted a son-in-law because her mind was now prepared to receive or to have the son-in-law. Her mind had now realised that she also was having things done to her and she now realised that her parents allowed that someone to do things to her.

It took three years to prepare her mind. That is why our fore-parents encouraged that at each stage in life one should be initiated into whatever they were to embark in every stage of life.

For parents to let go can be difficult and yet in the olden day, they knew about these things and people would be prepared for next stage of their life. That is why initiation is important in each and every stage of a human being.

  • Joyce Jenje Makwenda is a Researcher/Archivist she can be contacted at [email protected]
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