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RITES OF PASSAGE - The initiation rites of young people

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RITUALS OF PASSAGE - Matrimony, Sexual Relations, Divorce

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Column by Dr. Timi GASPARI
anthropologist and specialist of the peoples of Mozambique

Human life in every society is marked by rites of passage, namely those rites when a person abandons his current social status and acquires a new one. With matrimony, a person transforms from single to married; with baptism a non-Christian enters the Christian community; with doctorate ceremonies a student becomes a doctor; through funerals a person enters the community of the dead; after the initiation rite a child becomes part of the adult world.

Macua7ritratto -51In these rites the individual abandons his previous status and learns the new values, rights and duties connected with his new status. The rite affects not only the individual but also the whole of society: societies need to classify their members, to know who is who and what everyone’s role in society is. Through rites, society removes and adds members to its various categories of people; rites are therefore that delicate moment when one touches and alters the structure of society, which is made up of individuals and the relationships that bind them to each other.

All rites of passage have a triple structure: there is a phase of separation when the individual abandons his previous status, then a threshold phase when, isolated from the rest of the community, he receives new knowledge and learns his new rights and duties, at times having to overcome tests of strength and skill, and finally a phase of reintegration, where the individual returns to his transformed community with his new status. In the various rites that exist in the world, these phases can have a different extension and importance: in some the separation phase is so constricted as to be expressed simply by some symbols, in other rites instead it is a phase lasting several days or weeks. It is the same basic triple structure used in stories and fairy tales, where a person – the protagonist – has to abandon the life he was leading to face tests of power and difficulty in order to beat his adversary, and at the end of the story he comes out of these events transformed (becoming a hero, or a king, or married, etc.).

This is why rites are so important, and not just in the most “traditional” societies such as that of the Makua people. Rites are important for many reasons: because they teach members their rights and duties and because they give order to the society, restructuring its categories of individuals, but also because they use symbols that express the fundamental values of their society when carried out, so they supply important elements for understanding a specific community: it is a moment in which the society can speak to itself, and when it can benefit by rebuilding and modifying its own narration (all societies are dynamic, they change, and the rites are moments when these changes can be approved collectively).

We will now describe some rites that are important for the Makua society.


For the Makua people, a new birth consolidates the hope that life continues, that the bond between past and future strengthens, and it is a signal that our forefathers continue acting as intermediaries between the source of life and society. With a new birth, the whole community becomes stronger. This is why sterility is seen as a calamity, a punishment or a curse, the result of the transgression of some law, incorrect behaviour or someone who hates us. Given that new births strengthen the bond with our ancestors (e.g. by giving the newborn baby the name of a forefather, this baby will have some characteristics of his dead namesake; there are many small occurrences that indicate this special bond between a newborn baby and his ancestor, for example if a child receives the name of his grandfather, the living grandmother will jokingly call him “my husband”, and when the child grows and becomes engaged, she will joke with the fiancée by saying that she is jealous because the bride-to-be has stolen her husband), greater wellbeing will be guaranteed to him. When a couple is sterile, questions are asked to try and find the reason, traditional remedies are used, sacrifices are made to ancestors and, when nothing works, a possible culprit is looked for (for example someone who placed a curse on the couple). If there are no favourable results, the couple can seek help from others (the husband can make another woman pregnant, or another man can make the wife pregnant). The child that is born is fully recognised as being the child of the couple, and all ties with the biological parent are removed. Alternatively, the couple can divorce.


During her pregnancy, the woman is treated as if she was ill, because what she is carrying in her womb is considered to be delicate and fragile. During this period the couple must continue having sexual intercourse, because it is believed that this strengthens the baby and helps to complete its growth. An aside, a small story: there once was a married couple, the wife became pregnant and the husband had to leave for work in South Africa. Before leaving, the husband urged his wife to always go to church and to behave well. When the husband returned, the child was already born, and the man praised it, how lovely and strong it was. The wife said “Yes, you left and went to South Africa and I had to have the child alone. Thank goodness the priest helped me finish the child, otherwise it would never have come out like this”.

A woman shows she is pregnant by dressing herself and wearing her hair in a different, more unkempt way. She is taught by the women instructors of the village, those who normally carry out ceremonies and rites. This instruction can be held in the house of the queen or in one of the instructor’s houses, and they give information on pregnancy, the sexual behaviour to maintain with the woman’s husband, personal hygiene and the rites and limitations that the mother-to-be has to follow.

Childbirth is completely segregated, and only women can attend, normally the instructors/old women of the village. The child is born in a peaceful place that is distant from children and men. If there are complications during the birth, the husband must do a series of things (empty the house, dress himself badly, show himself to be sad) and the woman must confess all her incorrect behaviour, her unfaithfulness, to the elder women present. She can tell all the problems she has with her husband, she can insult and slur him, and she must confess the name of the child’s true father (if not the husband). At this moment, even the elder women can unite and confess. Everything said during that period remains in total secrecy and will never be divulged to anyone who was not present. After the child exits from the birth canal, the umbilical cord is cut, the baby is bathed in water prepared in a special way, the placenta is buried and a series of small rites are held. If a girl is born, the women give a very prolonged cry of joy, because females guarantee lineage and as such the growth of the family, while if a boy is born the cry lasts for a shorter period. The father, hearing the distant cries of joy, stamps his feet or pours out water.


Close family members, for example the maternal uncle, the father, the grandparents or someone who is very important for the couple, have the duty of giving the new baby a name. The name can be inspired by many things: a fulfilled desire, an important event in the life of the family, the name of an ancestor, anything that is special for the family. For the Makua people, names designate the nature of the person. This is the first name that is given to the baby, but during his life he will receive others, given to him by friends, or during his initiation, wedding or when he is elected head. This multiplicity of names indicates the complexity of the personality of each one. Examples of names are: Happy, Silent, Listener, Son of the cricket owner, He who breathes fire, He who I am with, The heart of someone, He who sleeps, Strong, Nervous, He who walks badly, Do what you want.

When about one year old, a small ceremony is held for the weaned baby. The ceremony involves a purifying bath followed by a meal with all the family members, friends and important people in the village. With this small ceremony the child integrates more into the community and his entry into life is further established, given that he has lived through his first, and most critical, year.

RITES OF PASSAGE – The initiation rites of young people