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RITES OF PASSAGE - The initiation rites of young people

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RITUALS OF PASSAGE – The initiation rituals of young females

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RITUALS OF PASSAGE - Matrimony, Sexual Relations, Divorce

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MACUA – RITES OF PASSAGE – The initiation rites of young people

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

When born, the Makua child is still not completely integrated into society. His true social birth occurs when he takes part in the initiation rites. Children who are not initiated are factually considered as being incomplete, partly like animals. Indeed if a non-initiated child dies, even the funeral rite is reduced (similar to what happened in the past with children who had not been baptised).


Both males and females must take part in the initiation rites, which we can consider as true social births, and only after it can they take part in important moments of collective life, such as ceremonies, funerals and village meetings. The signs left on the body of those who are initiated (circumcision, tattoos, pricking the clitoris) become the physical signs/marks of how the individual’s personality and status have been transformed.

For males, the initiation rites are normally held during the winter months (July, August, September), when not much work has to be done in the fields, and when the families still have stores of food in the granary and money earned from the harvest; rites in fact are very costly, with money needed to pay the rite specialists and for the connected celebrations and ceremonies. This is why the rite is normally held when at least about ten children of between eight and twelve years old can be united in the village, with all the families of the initiates contributing to the costs. The true rite takes place at a certain distance from the village, in a small field that has been purposely prepared for the occasion. During the rite, which lasts about one month, the initiates cannot have any contact with people who are external to it, and if one of the initiates dies during the ritual period, the parents are only informed when it has ended.


At the beginning of the preliminary phase, traditional sacrifices are made to the ancestors by pouring flour and alcoholic drinks at the feet of the sacred family or community tree. A community meal is eaten in the hut of the village head and all the participants bring a burning ember from the village head’s fire to light the fire in their own home. While on this matter, I will tell you a story: in a village where I worked in the district of Pemba, the village elder made his sacrifices at the feet of a tree with a completely white bark. He wanted the return of the wellbeing brought by colonialism, when a great plantation gave work to the whole village. He spent many years making sacrifices for these conditions to return, so much so that the people jokingly said that the tree had become white because of the countless sacrifices made with white flour.

The initiates march to their field and, once there, they hold a ceremony lasting three days and three nights, during which some dancers dance all the time with leopard skins (the symbol of authority and strength) and other animal skins to instil fear, respect and obedience in the soul of the initiates. Stories and legends are told of people, animals and nature in general. When this phase is finished, various tests of strength are imposed, such as not vomiting a drink that causes retching, or being circumcised. With circumcision, each initiate has a godfather who accompanies and helps him.


During the preliminary phase, insults and affronts are shouted at the initiates to make them humble and urge them to correct and strengthen themselves. Fundamental teaching is given: a popular knowledge of life and its main phases, community traditions and history, legends and mythical people, society’s laws, regulations and procedures, the initiates’ rights and duties. A recitative language of cheering and repetition is used, with the body becoming an instrument of knowledge and learning through recitations and performances that are almost theatrical. Enigmas and riddles are used to teach, with the support of music and mime: the main instructor gives rhythm to the music, the dancers dance, the instructor sings the first part of the riddle and the other instructors sing the solution, while the initiates clap their hands to accompany the rhythm. In addition to theoretical teaching, there is also practical teaching: the initiates are taught to hunt, build objects and houses, bury the dead. During the rite the boys’ hair is constantly kept badly cut, while the boys themselves must be as silent as possible and avoid certain types of food.

The initiates must pass some tests of strength such as throwing spears, hunting, have a purifying bath in the river, etc.

Even the parents of the initiates must follow various regulations, such as dressing badly, not washing, not combing their hair, and not having sexual intercourse.

At the end of the rite the initiates receive another name that indicates both a state (essential dimension) and a mission (functional dimension). Examples: Patience, He who denies, Reason, In god, Witness, You have seen my suffering, The son of the spirit, Watchful, The saviour, The master of the lightning, Were written, The master of the sun, Big eater.

Finally, the reintegration phase comes, where the camp is destroyed and burned, and where the initiates have a purifying bath and return to the village, showing the skills they acquired. At the end there is a community meal held with family members and friends, creating a celebration that lasts a whole day.

MACUA – RITUALS OF PASSAGE – The initiation rituals of young females