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January 25, 2012 / By Administrator

Initiation Rites

I recently read an interview with Malidoma Patrice Somé, a native of Burkina Faso in West Africa. He is a professor of literature and author of several books on African culture. Dr. Somé has taught in the United States for the past twenty years and has written extensively about the role of initiation rites in society. I was struck immediately by how his ideas resonate with our Global Explorers vision. I’d like to share some of his insights here.

Initiation is understood to be a rite of passage from one stage of life to another, typically from childhood to adulthood. We often associate initiation with membership in clubs such as sororities and fraternities. But many major religions have rites of initiation and passage as well—baptism, confirmation, bar or bat mitzvah. Even getting a drivers license can be seen as an initiation into adulthood.

Dr. Somé believes that in a productive society initiation should raise awareness of life's purpose. Parents want their children to find their purpose, reach their full potential, and acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in life. We each need to have a per­sonal mission that contributes to the well-being of the world, and finding one's purpose is the primary goal of initiation. Initiation also teaches responsibility toward community, village, and culture. We all come into this world with a gift that we must give to the world. We must undergo initiation to discover what our gift is and how to share it.

Teens often seek to live their lives on the edge, taking risks, disregarding authority, seeking challenges and sometimes even danger. This can be a positive part of initiation into adulthood, growing up, and becoming independent. Young people in our culture sometimes create their own initiation rituals, some of which are negative such as drug or alcohol abuse or gang involvement. But there are many positive rites of passage such as joining organized sports and other competitions, having a first job, going to college, or joining the military. Productive societies and cultures channel the developmental needs of young people into challenges that are affirming and safe.

Dr. Somé writes that a successful initiation involves three parts: a separation, an ordeal of some kind, and a homecoming. For separation and ordeal, some African cultures might take individuals to be initiated into the woods and leave them there alone to face the danger and uncertainty of whether they'll make it out. Or they might bury them up to their neck in the sand so that they face extreme discomfort, intense emotions, visions, and even hallucina­tions. But essentially a sound initiatory experience must take young people out of the famil­iar and into the unpredictable space of nature. Dr. Somé says that in light of the threats that modern youth are facing, he wouldn't dismiss initiation on the grounds that it is not safe. Instead he would say that if we love our young people, we will come up with an initiatory process that is life-giving and life-changing.

Dr. Somé writes further that the third part of initiation, homecoming, requires recognition and acknowledgement that the person has survived. He believes that it's not really viable to think of formal initiation without community support. Not a lot is required, he says. All people need is to be held, to be told that they're safe now, that they have arrived home. What young people need is someone willing to cre­ate a space for them in which they can be seen, honored, and praised for what they have accomplished.

In light of these thoughts from Malidoma Somé, just think about Global Explorers.

If you’d like to read more of Dr. Somé, look for: Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman; and The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose through Nature, Ritual, and Community.

Posted by
Louis LaRocco
GEx Board Member