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The meaning and importance of the Initiate Festival

The African Calendar’s Lunar Year, which has its roots in Karaism,  has three very important festivals The Lunar year is divided into three seasons of four months each. These are the ploughing (akhtel) harvest (faro) and initiation (shemu) seasons.

The Initiate Festival falls from May until August. The season starts on 1 May – the birthday of the mother of the sun (MaraMuhale). The day would often feature communal celebrations. On 25 May the star Canopus rises before the sun to announce the birth of the son or world (ShambeChembe) of the virgin mother (MaraMwari). This birthday announces the opening of initiation school which closes at the end of August before the African Calendar’s New Year starts. The beginning of the New Year finds the youth well prepared to face the challenges of the year.

The initiation practice marks the transition or rite of passage from childhood to adulthood in boys and girls and is acknowledged, if not celebrated in most cultures and religions. In Africa, it remains one of the most widely practised traditions. In Africa Religion, initiation has a  legal, spiritual and psychological significance and is considered one the most important events in a man’s life. Before a boy is initiated he is not seen to be responsible for his actions and transgressions and his father takes responsibility for him, making any repatriations where necessary. Following initiation he is considered an adult and responsible for his own transgressions and reparations.

During the initiation period, initiates are isolated from the community and are seen as people who are in limbo. Traditionally these boys are visually different to the men and boys of their communities and are often have their bodies painted, usually with mud, and dressed in clothing specific to initiatives.

Many initiates go away to an initiation “school”, where the teachings and practices are considered sacred and in many of Africa’s cultures still remain highly secretive. During this time the boys are circumcised. The cutting of flesh symbolises the shedding of youth and the preparation for adulthood. The bloodshed from this ritual also becomes a connection to the ancestors and community. During the initiation process the boys are blessed and the spirits and ancestors are invited to protect them and guide them into adulthood.

Following seclusion these boys return to their communities. This return is considered a rebirth and greatly celebrated. The initiates are now considered young men, responsible for the own actions and ready to prepare for the next stage in their lives – marriage and procreation. Traditionally a man cannot get married, nor father children if he has not been initiated.

Sadly in recent times dangerous practices have sullied the initiation period, with ‘illegal’ schools attempting to make a quick buck through fees, or worse kidnapping and ransom. Every year the media reports on botched circumcisions and infections that have left many boys dead or disfigured. Calls have been made to ban the process entirely, while attempts are being made to allow for the prosecution of such illegal schools. However there needs to be a balance between traditional culture and the safety of these boys.

“The guardians of South African health and culture must find the means to work together to protect the sanctity of our traditional practices,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2015. 

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