The Death of Ritual

20 July 09

Today was a down day during which we debriefed the previous two weeks with Edunova and then had time to ourselves to decompress. Decompression and stray thoughts lead to what’s below.

Becoming a Man:

At 18, Xhosa males are taken into the bush where they become men. According to Khonaya, our guide for our township tours, this ritual is about “learning the identity of the tribe” and “grasping the true essence of ritual.” During their time in this conclave, the boys are circumcised.

During the ritual, Khonaya told  us, the boys are not allowed to flinch or show signs of pain. “Being masculine,” he said, “you have to handle the pain.”

This was just about as much as he could tell us about the ritual as the men are not allowed to divulge or describe what happens once they return.

In fact, during yesterday’s braai, when Terry asked one of the Xhosa Edunova facilitators about when he was taken into the bush, all of the women at the table excused themselves and Terry was told men weren’t allowed to talk about what happened in the bush. 

“I have a younger brother,” Khonaye had told us, “and all I can do is support him when the time comes.”

Sharon asked if there were any differences once the men returned home. Khonaya said sometimes “circumcised boys in the classroom expect to be treated differently” especially by female teachers.

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around all of this for over two weeks now, and I just don’t think I can. More to the point, this is one of the pieces that creates a breech in my ability to understand the culture here. I’ve no basis for comparison. While I’m certain this ritual and others like it have far-reaching social implications, I simply don’t know what I don’t know.

When I see the community that exists here, the strength of the social structure, I begin to worry that the plurality of America also means we’ve watered down or lost our rituals along the road to coexistence. While I’m not suggesting the adoption of this particular ritual, I do wonder if the lack of a shared threshold experience leaves most of our youth without a clear sense of whom they are and where they come from.

One thought on “The Death of Ritual

  1. Very wise and thought-provoking post, Zac. I know that we have many rituals and rites of passage within our FAMILY and we are very conscious and deliberate about fostering a sense of family history so the girls know who – and whose – they are.

    But what about kids without strong family ties? No wonder they turn – perhaps more intensely than other kids – to their friends, cliques, and other “artificial family” substitutes for comfort, roots, and a sense of belonging.

    And when they spend more hours in school than in almost any other place (aside from home), it is natural that they would turn to teachers, administrators, and peers in a familial way. This must pose a huge challenge to admins and teachers.

    And I do think it impacts our entire society, this lack of cohesive traditions and rituals on a national scale. But I think we have a tremendous opportunity to recognize, respect, build on, and adopt international, world-wide, and human-wide traditions and rituals as our world shrinks and as we start to regard all people everywhere on Earth as our neighbors.

    “Just two things a family brings:
    one is roots, the other wings.”

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