August 29, 2007

Torn Flesh and Manhood

I'm always a little shocked by stories rite of passage rituals that involve tearing flesh as part of the path to manhood. There are countless examples both ancient and modern. What moves me is not the imagery of the pain inflicted. It's the power of the commitment, of both the men and the young males involved, to do what ever it takes to turn boys into men. I think those rituals represent the critical importance of man-making for these cultures.

What follows is a modern story taken from the unlikely source of the Sidney (Australia) Morning Herald Travel Blog for Wednesday August 29, 2007. It describes the experience of a white man visiting a small African village, and being invited to a man-making ritual.

While in Uganda on a tour out to see the mountain gorillas a few years ago, we stopped off for a few nights in a tiny village called Sipi Falls, which is a fair way off the beaten tourist track. There we were quite a novelty, and easily got chatting to some of the locals.

Curious about the group of teenaged boys we'd seen marching through the streets in traditional dress, we asked a few people what was going on.

"Oh, it is our tradition," one man told us. "It is to mark their journey into manhood. Tomorrow they will all get ... How do you say it? Circumcised?"

Yes, circumcised ...

"Do you want to come along?"

How do you turn down an offer like that? So the next day a group of about six of us, clearly the only white people in the entire village, followed everyone else on a pilgrimage along dirt roads and through banana plantations, before arriving at the site of the ceremony, where, as the token mzungus in town, we were honored with a front row seat.

There, 10 boys lined up, naked, in front of the waiting crowds, and were circumcised by an elder. Standing, clutching a length of wood in front of them, not one cried out, or even flinched, instead fixing a steely gaze on the audience. One by one, as they were given a nod of approval by an elder, they raised the piece of wood above their heads and let out a triumphant scream, echoed by the crowd.

We walked back to the campsite in silence.

What is the impact of this story on you?


  1. Anonymous6:14 AM

    Thanks for sharing. WOW, talk about acceptance in front of others, sure beats a cold shower in public. This would grow hair on your chest. Of course, in our soft male culture, this behavior would not be tolerated…. and painting one’s toenails would be more preferred …by some.

  2. Anonymous11:18 AM

    The impact of the story of the young boys being circumsized was to reflect on how men will inevitably INEVITABLY wound their child. They just need to choose if it will be consciously or unconsciously.

    However some men shy away from this concept. There are a lot of S.n.a.g.s roaming around (Soft New Age guys) who I wouldn't feel could rise to any occasion or who could "watch my back" in times of trouble. These men often espouse words of "light" and enlightenment" but fail to take into account that we as men are made up of 'matter' that is we do cast shadows. The brighter the light shines on me, the darker my shadows might be. The two go hand in hand. And a whole and complete man has a whole and complete spectrum of feelings, emotions and 'voice'. He doesn't just speak in hushed tones with a sitar in the background. His life would not be whole in complete if he never roared over the fury of the wind or sound of waves on rocks, or exuded exuberance or anger or passion or compassion. All of these "extreme' emotions and actions have a place in the life of a man.

    None of this new-age, no-hard-edge stuff will initiate a boy into being a man.

  3. Anonymous12:15 PM

    It's amazing that the two previous responses mention 'soft male culture' and 'SNAGS'. Such negativity toward our fellow man!!

    When I think about liberated, healthy men, I think about men who have broken free from the unhealthy expectations society/culture places on them. The need to be a warrior, to be hyper-competitive, to win, to make war etc. Being healthy from my perspective is moving away from the traditional masculine journey (that has created a lot of screwed up men who do not command respect) to a man who knows how to hold his masculinity while stepping out of traditional roles/mindsets and embracing the feminine journey.

    And don't get me started about circumcision! It's mutilation period. Life will wound you - you don't need to be mutilated to know your wounds.

  4. Anonymous8:56 PM

    Your piece on torn flesh bring back many vivid memories of my childhood in Ghana, W.Africa.

    The memories are mostly of an incredible interest by the boys in Africa at age 9-14 from all the different tribes I interacted with: Ga, Ashanti, Ewe, and Hausa.

    They were extremely interested to know if I was circumcised. I didn't know why. Years later while studying cultural anthropology I figured it out.

    I knew the boys would be gone for a "time" and often be bandaged and sore and it was all a big mystery to me. I was just pissed they couldn't hunt and play soccer for a few weeks. Soon we would be back to doing that but I always noticed there was a distance between us that I did not understand.

    Of couse, now I do.

    I have to thank for much of this understanding. Often I want to diminish the impact of the organization because of my religious background.

    However, recently I was refreshed to see the results of the transition in my son. He got into a space of getting drunk on the weekends. I didn't say much, just prayed and made him promise not to drive.

    About a month ago I offered him a beer when we were having pizza. He calmly said, "I quit drinking". I said "Oh when do you decide that?". He said, " a couple weeks ago, it was getting to be a problem".

    I was 47 when I went through my "intiation" at a warrior weekend in the Mingus Mountains near Prescott,AZ.

    After my weekend I treated my wife differently. I was a different man and my son wrote in my father's day card, "Thank you for becoming the hero I always knew you were."

    With no "recruiting" effort or even suggestion on my part my son decided on his own to go the moment he could. At age 18.

    I truly wish I had been able to go through some type of ritual during my young adulthood. Seeing and experiencing my son's acceptance of personal responsibility and the willingness to do whatever it meant to continue growing both inspires and saddens me.

    What a blessing to be a man.


  5. Tony Bowring Tas. Aust.5:18 PM

    Yes I can appreciate the commitment & the courage of these young men.
    I too would walk back to the campsite in silence .......... maybe bent like a pen-knife & clutching my genitals.

  6. Dave A.7:13 AM

    You ask what effect this story had on me? I am jarred by the romanticisation of the brutalization of boys/young men. Its origin is probably in warrior training. Their stoicism is admirable, but any necessity for the continuance of this custom is saddening, for it would signal that young men will again go to war or other dominating practice.


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