The town was small and the birth of a baby was always good news. But of course before a baby could even be conceived, a man and a woman must come together first in courtship and in marriage.

In courtship women were not supposed to make the first move. Boldness was somewhat tolerated among young men, but they must be prepared for rejection ("talbog") at least on the first few tries.

From the onset of puberty, a young woman was expected to stay close to home. Unlike the young man's corning-of-age rituals which were more or less held in public, the traditional entry of a girl into adulthood was a private ceremony between mother and daughter.

The day I reached puberty, my mother boiled some water with solace (a fragrant herb), let it cool down a bit, and made me sit very still on the bottom step of the stairs. While not a word was spoken, she slowly poured a third of the warm water over my knees and let it drip down to the floor.

Then, quietly she told me to climb up and sit on the third step. The second third of the water was poured again on my knees and down the shins. Three more steps up and she finished the ceremony with the last third of the water.

Years later, I thought of the gentle wisdom of this ceremony: the mysterious quiet, the warmth, the simplicity, the trust in an older person's truths. Above all, I wondered at its historicity. How many generations of women on my mother's side had been initiated this way? I imagined my grandmother to have done the very same things to my mother. But no words were exchanged - just the quiet, comforting movements.

In contrast, the boys' coming-of-age ceremonies were said to be held outdoors and were quite brutal. On Palm Sunday, boys 13 to 15 years old were suddenly called "matanda" (adults). As such, they sponsored and decorated the platforms from which girls sang "Hosanna" at the procession. There were no adolescent years in those days. Boys simply leaped from childhood to adulthood on a certain Palm Sunday.

The brutal part was to happen in the afternoon of the same day. One town elder would gather all the "matanda" for a swim up and take them to that part of the river where the trees were the thickest.

One by one (so I was told), the boys were stripped down and given a handful of guava leaves (an antiseptic) to chew. Then with a sharp blade, they were circumcised, each unable to scream as he spat out the chewed leaves into the wound. With no time to waste, they were told to jump into the cool water of the river and swim. Of course the girls were banned from watching this ceremony, and I doubt if they would have wanted to go and see.

Back to previous page Read next section
Go Back Next