Twenty years ago, when I was a volunteer English teacher in Bagamoyo, one of my students named Ally was my right hand in class, helping me translate words to Swahili so I can teach them to the others.
This time around, when I came back to visit, he gave me two gifts, and stepped out of my story. One was introducing me to the sweetest hotel in Bagamoyo, and the other was introducing me to his mother Mwanaisha- Mama Ally.
Mama Ally is a small and lively lady, happy and giggly. I really liked her. Soon after I arrived she invited me for lunch, and so I met Zena, her 18 year old granddaughter.
Maua & Zena
Zena just graduated from high school and it was time for her tribal rite of passage into womanhood. The celebration- Shuhuli- was set to about three weeks ahead, and this period had to be enough for her initiation. In the past these kind of initiations- for girls, and separately for boys – could last up to two years. Nowadays they take place during the longest school leaves which last about a month. Zena was hoping to pass her exams and go forward with her studies. Now was the best time to perform her rite of passage. Maua- the young sister of Zena’s mother and only one year older than Zena- joined the initiation about a week later.
Phase 1: Seclusion
Confined to the house, this is a symbolic state of in between.
A rite of passage is a transformation between one state to another. During their period of initiation Maua and Zena are not considered to be girls nor women. They are in between these two worlds. Their lives as girls have ended forever, but they are not yet initiated into womanhood. For the period of the teachings and initiation, they are separated from the community. In old times, the entire girls age group would be taken by the women far away into the bush to the initiation camp, separated completely from their old lives. Nowadays, each family initiates their girls separately, and instead of leaving for the bush, they don’t leave the house as a symbolic separation stage.
Phase 2: Initiation
During the day they cook, rest, play with friends who come to visit, until the time comes for the daily initiation session. Then their younger girlfriends are not allowed to stay in the house. Only women and very young children who need to be with their mothers are allowed to stay. Men leave as well- this is the women’s sacred time.
I remember one day when a girl and a boy were told to leave. They tried to peek in through the window. They so badly wanted to find out what’s been going on behind closed doors… the women chased them away with harsh words and angry faces, this kind of behavior cannot and will not be tolerated! but a minute later laughter filled the room. The laughter of loving mothers. The laughter of the ones who once were girls themselves, eager to know what takes place in these secretive sessions.
I felt so humbled to be invited into the initiation. Although never initiated myself, I am warmly welcomed into their sacred circle.
But- here comes the part where I have no other option but to sorely disappoint you: I have been sworn to secrecy! The initiation is completely secretive and is only known to the women. Every woman who has been initiated can take part. But they will never discuss it with anybody outside of the circle of women.
Bagamoyo is known to be a place where tribal initiations (for boys as well as for girls) still go on. Islam co-exists with tribal traditions. Or should I say, tribal traditions are a powerful thing, ancient and deeply rooted, and they persist. Anyway, I for one am happy about it. Rites of passage are basic to human living, and I believe we are at a miss without them.
A mixture of tribes live in Bagamoyo, and the initiation at Mama ally’s home, as in many others, was comprised of different traditions. Each neighbor and each family member contributed from her own initiation. This was to me very unique and fascinating.
Maua and Zena didn’t share my enthusiasm though… every day they were faced with another woman they didn’t know, coming up with a new addition to the teachings, full of new energies and stamina…
The ones who were there day after day were Mama Ally, always smiling and loving, and Emmy the young neighbor, who although is only 20 years old and yet to be married, is motherly and sweet.
Read here about the insights the amazing Emmy evoked in me as I was remembering myself at her age.
Every woman is different and brings new energies into the sessions.
A young beautiful relative was fierce and powerful and didn’t try to be nice to the girls but rather push them to give their all, sharing the difficulties of her own initiation and saying they can do it just like her and all the women before her.
Zena’s mother was gentle and timid and hardly joined the daily sessions. She preferred to contribute by helping with the preparations for the big celebration ahead.
One really tough grandmother, Mama Ally’s friend, nearly brought the girls to tears with her harsh words, while Mama Ally was easing the energy with her laughter and jokes.
More women arrived from around the country a few days before the celebration, and joined the daily sessions contributing their own unique energy and personality into the mix.
And it wasn’t all about teaching the girls. As the days went by and more and more women were arriving, the women were enjoying their time together. Laughing, sharing their memories from their own initiations- some were just a few years back, some a life time ago. The sisterhood was becoming so strong, sometimes it seemed like the women completely forgot about the two girls, who were sitted on the floor hoping for somebody to announce the session was over so they can rest quietly in their room. By this time they were exhausted, terrified of the night of the final ceremony, not knowing if they too will manage to pass their rite of passage like all these women before them.
It seemed like I was the only one in the room feeling for the girls. All the rest were pushing them to make progress, reminding them they all went through the process just like them and that it can be done. Even the softer and motherly women were not trying to save the girls from any effort. And as the final ceremony was approaching near, the pressure was rising. The success of the girls will honor not only them but also the ones initiating them.
The girls sensed I was really feeling for them and during the sessions were glancing at me with big puppy eyes as if saying- you are the only one who understands how hard this is for us!!!
That was when I understood I wasn’t helping them at all, and decided to stop feeling sorry for them. Instead, I was spending more time with them after the sessions, lifting their spirits, joking and laughing. But during the sessions I put my trust in the women and joined their confident attitude. Strictly no pity policy!
Phase 3: Rite of Passage
I wish I could tell you about the rite of passage itself. I was told it will be taking place at night, at the home or maybe deep in the bush. The girls will perform in front of all the women, and if they pass, the celebration will take place the next day.
Outside the house it’s been very busy these last few days. Huge pots cooking on the open fire, women doing each other’s hair, children playing … I was feeling tense as I am not an African and am not used to waiting… every day I was told it’s just about to happen, but nothing seemed to be happening.
At this point I’ve extended my stay in Bagamoyo for over three weeks of very hot weather, I will have you know!
This went on for a few days until one morning I came to find the two girls smiling and relaxed, getting their hands and legs decorated with henna. I immediately knew exactly what that meant. The rite of passage took place the night before! And I was not invited! After waiting for it for so long!
I can’t even start to describe my frustration. I tried to understand what went wrong, not that it would have changed anything. I knew I wasn’t going to get any clear explanation. Some of the women said nobody wanted to wake me up, one said she didn’t know I wanted to come. And all these conversations are taking place in Swahili, which means on my part, understanding about half the words and filling in the rest by activating my super power of deep intuitive listening… but that’s for another time… the point is communication was difficult all along.
I knew I would never really know the real reason I wasn’t invited. Maybe they really didn’t get how much I’ve been waiting for it, and maybe outsiders are not allowed to this secretive ceremony, and this was their way to avoid telling me I can’t come.
Either way, these things happen when two completely different cultures meet. Me, the western Muzungu (=white person) expecting clarity and open communication, and the women, with their much more subtle and elaborated way of doing things. Saying no to a guest is rude, not waking her up is another story… and I could see what a funny story this will make, me staying and waiting in steamy hot Bagamoyo, just to miss the girl’s big moment…
Anyway, now it was time to rejoice. I put my disappointment aside and was ready to enjoy the day. The Pembo, the traditional beer was ready after 3 days of cooking, plenty of rice was being prepared, today everyone will eat and dance!
That day, spending time in a room full of women getting their selves ready, being decorated with Henna, doing each other’s hair, it was a happy day. I was a woman among women. No cultural difference was felt. I was part of the sisterhood. Even after so many years of facilitating women’s groups and circles in Israel, something deep inside me still yearns this simple and happy time of women together. No workshops, no spiritual work, just- being together.
And this time, Maua and Zena were happy too! The hard part was behind them. The moment they feared passed and their rite of passage was successful. Now they were being celebrated!
פורסם על ידי Ella Harari ב- יום שישי, 8 בינואר 2021
After the henna dried up, they were taken for hair and makeup just like young brides. They looked so different in their fancy gowns and makeup. I thought they looked gorgeous in their kangas (the traditional fabrics) and their henna decorations! But these are modern times and nobody cares the Muzungu likes the “African look”, nor should they…
Phase 4: Celebration!
Making their appearance in front of everybody was overwhelming for Maua and Zena, especially after these weeks of seclusion, and their smiles disappeared once more…
We danced, we laughed, everybody together, family and neighbors, women and men, and lots of children in their best clothes.
פורסם על ידי Ella Harari ב- יום ראשון, 8 באוגוסט 2021
Mama Ally was dancing proud, not letting go of her red purse, as to remind everyone it’s giving time… and people were giving generously. Only red money bills were to be seen (which are the highest).
פורסם על ידי Ella Harari ב- יום ראשון, 8 באוגוסט 2021
It was time for Maua and Zena to dance with Mama Ally and present themselves- and for her to present them- as women to the whole community. They are no longer girls. They are beautiful mature women, part of the sisterhood of all women. Sorry, they didn’t allow me to post the video…
Relieved to go back inside the house, the smiles were back on their faces. Now it was really over. Happiness filled the room, they were with their friends, surrounded by the many presents they have received, and they were glowing. The floor was scattered with new dresses, kangas- the traditional colorful fabrics, and other presents from loving relatives and friends of the family.
The day was over, Maua already left with her relatives, much relived if I had to guess, to go back home. Zena stayed on with her grandmother Mama Ally.
The next day I came to say goodbye, carrying my farewell gift- printed photos of the celebration. None of them own smartphones, and this is my way to share my photos with all of them and leave them with something to remember the experience.
Last hugs and kisses, sad to say goodbye, and I left them and Bagamoyo, for who knows how long this time…
Accompanying Maua and Zena through out their initiation, I could see what a wonderful gift they have been given by the women.
Each woman gave them her unique example of womanhood:
Caring, tough, timid, strong, gentle, rough, sensual, funny, motherly, young or old. They were all there in all their beauty. In all their feminine power.
Even though Maua and Zena might not realize it now, I believe these matriarchs will stay with them and inspire their own maturing into womanhood.
My dream is of women initiating girls everywhere. It has been my dream since the first celebration I was invited to over 20 years ago in Bagamoyo. I will be sharing that story soon.
Can you imagine being celebrated this way?
Surrounded by your community?
Taught about life by the women of your family and family friends?
Can it be done?
I believe so. With some creativity and open minds. With good will and open hearts. I have a few ideas already that I will be sharing soon. Of course the men of the family initiating boys as well.
What do you think? How did this story make you feel? Would love to read your comments!