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Friday, January 30, 2015

Initiation School

Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to observe a longstanding tradition in Basotho culture: Lithokong (Di-tow-koh-ng). This is a ceremony celebrating the return of teenage males from the mountains and the conclusion of Lebollo or Initiation School.

Traditionally, boys would leave their families for 5-6 months to go to the mountains with a few instructors, returning as men. Today, many but not all teenage males participate; some for a full six months, others for as little as two months as allowances for the value of more formal high school education have been made. 

There is a shroud of mystique around Initiation School, as only those who have participated know what actually happens. From what I have been told, it can vary depending on the instructors. One consistency, however, is a reticence to discuss it. Another is that it includes circumcision. 

Since my arrival in Lesotho, I have heard some Westerners disparage Initiation School as an archaic and possibly barbaric tradition, however, as mystery breeds many rumors about what happens in these traditional programs. I, on the other hand, have noticed that the teenage males who have attended show far more leadership qualities than their uninitiated peers. Just because we do not get the privilege of complete understanding and knowledge of a cultural tradition, does that mean we should be quick to pass negative judgments? 

Regardless, the ceremony celebrating the end of Initiation School is a sight to behold. The newly initiated men are all freshly shaved and bedecked in matching kobos (blankets). They take their turns singing while standing in front of the group, their voices incredibly low. 

While each sings, his friends and family members may enter the ceremonial space to place gifts on an animal skin. The gifts are then sprinkled with blessed water. An instructor attaches those gifts that may be pinned to the man's kobo, such as bracelets, necklaces, bandannas, and hankerchiefs. Larger items, like additional kobos are folded and given to the man's family for safe-keeping.

For each man, this takes nearly half an hour, so between the 20-30 men and breaks, the ceremony took two full days. This was one of the later ending Initiation Schools in the area, so many of these men spent 2-6 months in the mountains, 2-3 days in ceremony, and then reported for the first day of school on Monday! 

The freshly initiated men wear bells when they return from the mountain. I am not sure how long they will continue to wear them, but right now it is easy to tell when passing teen returned from Initiation School in the village!

1 comment:

Susan Pederson said...

Westerners love to disparage what they don't understand. This cultural tradition marks the passing from childhood into manhood. For Jews, the Bar Mitzvah signifies the same rite of passage. But it got me thinking, what is the rite of passage for Americans who aren't Jewish? In some Christian traditions, children are baptized at birth, some by choice as teens, confirmation happens at different times in different faith traditions but when do we call them men? What rite of passage do they participate in?