⊕ PSYCHOLOGY | FATHERHOOD
The Many Ways Society
How does a 21st-century boy reach manhood? In some cultures the rite of passage is clear. In others, not so much.
Under a banner urging Ukrainians not to let anyone “stain the honor of your country,” children learn basic combat tactics at a summer camp on the outskirts of Kiev. The experience is designed to prepare boys for military service and to imbue girls with a deep sense of patriotism.
Bare-knuckled and poised to punch, boys from the Venda tribe in Tshifudi, South Africa, engage in the boxing tradition known as musangwe. For boys as young as nine, it’s both an outlet for male energy and a check on aggression. Adults oversee the bouts to contain the violence.
Straining to complete a dumbbell snatch squat, Jack McGrath, 16, prepares for football season at his school’s gym in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Sociologists say an increase in boys’ free time in 19th-century America gave rise to athletics, intended to strengthen body and character.
High schoolers banter on a July evening at a Marblehead pizzeria. In an American culture that presents many different notions of manhood, the search for male identity can be fraught with confusion. Often the barometer for a boy’s success is elemental: how girls react to him.
And so at first light, on the impetus of both Bukusu cultural imperatives and what scientists say is upwards of 1,200 nanograms per deciliter of testosterone coursing through an adolescent male’s bloodstream, Shadrack headed north on foot for the nearby Chwele River. He was surrounded by more than 30 men and boys, and a few cheeky girls who hadn’t yet been shooed away. Songs flowed as the company jogged along red clay roads and fields of corn and sugarcane. At a quarter to seven, Shadrack’s bells and the metal wrist braces were removed. The boy stepped out of his tan shorts. He walked naked down a grassy bank to what was more a swamp than a river. His uncle followed. Hidden in the reeds, Shadrack washed off the cow slime. When he emerged, he was covered with dark gray mud. A sprig of special grass was plastered to his head like the crest of a northern lapwing.
Now the company headed south back to Shadrack’s father’s house, moving almost at a gallop along a different route to thwart any possible witchcraft by persons of ill will. They sang the anthem of Bukusu-land, the famous sioyayo circumcision song that insults the rival Kenya tribe of the Luo, whose traditional entry to manhood entailed removing some of a boy’s teeth instead of his foreskin. “Those who fear circumcision should go to Luo-land.”
A huge crowd—men, women, girls, boys—was waiting at the compound. Shadrack marched into the yard and stood over a piece of cardboard. He faced west, symbolically overseeing the sunset of his boyhood. Still the showman, Shadrack put his left hand on his hip and thrust his right hand above his head as if he’d been studying the victory celebrations of Usain Bolt. The circumciser crouched at his groin. The operation was over in seconds. Shadrack did not blink or flinch or let on that he felt any pain. In fact, when the circumciser blew a whistle signaling the surgery was done, and Shadrack’s aunt and mother and other women were ululating in joy, Shadrack began to prance about.
Shadrack’s father, his uncle, and others rushed up to inspect the job, bending in for a close-up view as if they were double-checking the numbers of a winning lottery ticket. Shivering, perhaps in shock, Shadrack sat down as women wrapped him in colorful shawls.
He would spend the next four days convalescing. Traditionally, new initiates in this community are sequestered for four months with a guardian who will teach them how to hunt, build a hut, tan a hide, and become warriors fierce enough to repulse attacks from cattle raiders and stage raids of their own. Though some young Bukusu males still learn these skills, Shadrack would be going back to school when classes resumed in September. “You can be fierce in school,” says Simiyu Wandibba, a Bukusu professor of anthropology at the University of Nairobi. “You can repackage traditional virtues to suit today’s life.”
Already Shadrack was being treated with new respect; already he was entitled to a new set of patriarchal privileges. No longer would he be dispatched to fetch water from the river or collect firewood or sweep the family compound. Women preparing his meals now would consider his preferences. With a hut of his own in the family compound, he would no longer sleep in his mother’s house or sit at her feet listening to her stories. And come December, in accord with the old ways, there would be a khukhwalukha ceremony when the traditional period of transition from omusinde to omusani would be complete, and the 14-year-old would be formally presented to Bukusu-land as a full-fledged man.
It's hard to watch a Bukusu circumcision ceremony without being whipsawed by a mix of admiration and dismay. Dismay because the kids are … well, kids. I saw five circumcisions in a week, and some of the omusinde were even younger and looked less ready for the ordeal than Shadrack. Is a boy of 10, tempted by the promise of new privileges and pressured to conform, really free to make the decision to undergo this painful and potentially dangerous surgery? And what was done to Shadrack and the others is hardly the extreme of what cultures do to make men of boys. Mardudjara aboriginal boys in Australia are expected to swallow their own foreskins after the cut.
Sambia mountain boys in Papua New Guinea push sharp sticks into their nostrils to make their noses bleed and have to swallow semen after oral sex with young men. Satere Mawe boys in the Brazilian Amazon insert their hands into gloves filled with bullet ants (Paraponera clavata) whose neurotoxic sting is said to be among the most agonizing in nature.
It’s worth asking: Why? The disquieting answer, of course, is to prepare for war. As anthropologist David Gilmore notes, where resources are scarce and the collective welfare uncertain, “gender ideology reflects the material conditions of life.” Boys are “tempered” and “toughened” so they may fulfill the classic duties to procreate, provide, and protect that men have performed for millennia. Whether it’s marshaled to ward off the aggression of other males or to capitalize on weakness, violence is the leitmotif of manhood in countless cultures. To judge from video games, action movies, hockey brawls, UFC fights, and homicide rates in America, violence enthralls men even where material conditions of life are not dire.
What could break the cycle that equates manhood with toughness and stoicism? What might change in men who in their fear of violence—or fascination with it—end up fostering more of it?
Dismay aside, I found it hard not to grudgingly admire a culture that gives boys such an unambiguous path to manhood. The steps are clearly marked. The knife and the cut undeniably make the whole business real. “The blood connects us to our ancestors,” one of Shadrack’s uncles told me. Shadrack’s male privileges may entitle him to the supper he prefers, but they also come with obligations and responsibilities, and by some lights the abuse in the ritual may actually help teach the boys not to respond in kind. “If you’ve literally had cow shit thrown at you, you know you can take whatever life throws at you,” says Daniel Wesangula, a Bukusu journalist.
Add to that the support from bakoki, the brotherhood of boys who have been circumcised at the same time and belong to the same age-group. “Bakoki are lifelong friends,” Wesangula says. “They will carry your casket and dig your grave. If you are acting deviant, parents will send a bakoki to put some sense into you.”
It might be for the lack of meaningful manhood rituals that Oliver’s school recently invited a youth theater group to perform a play called Now That We’re Men. Among the questions on the program: “Who is harmed when [sexual slurs] are thrown around constantly in middle and high school hallways? What is it like to participate in a culture where the most popular video games on the market today award points when players (mostly young males) rape and kill women?”
In my father’s final months last spring, I asked him if he had tried to prepare me for manhood, and when he looked baffled, I asked him if he thought his father had done anything to set him up. More bafflement. I imagine his manhood came courtesy of the U.S. Navy. Toward the end, he couldn’t remember at noon what medical procedures had been performed on him at 11:45 a.m., but he could recall all the shipmates he served with during World War II. He was 19 when he crossed the Pacific on an oceangoing tug. He navigated by sextant, boxed with fellow sailors, and off Okinawa fired his sidearm at a kamikaze. He sailed into Hiroshima Bay two months after the atomic bomb and saw the starkest consequences of men at war, an experience that inspired him to compose a poem that was published in October 1945 in the New York Herald Tribune. It earned him $12, his first wages in a long career as a writer. Protect. Provide. I found a photocopy of the check in his files after he died.
Absent rituals, I think manhood in my family must be a code of values, transmitted mostly by example. My father once explained to one of my college roommates, whose family had a ranch in Wyoming, why he didn’t need a gun to protect his family. In a line that now seems not just the high-water mark of a certain kind of liberal idealism but looms as central to my father’s idea of manhood itself, he said: “The day I reach for a gun instead of a lawyer, there will be nothing left to defend.” That seems almost quaint now in an age when man-boys are trotting to class at the University of Texas with pistols in their pants. And I wonder if there is a manhood ritual artful enough to convey the values my father saw in the two artists who shaped his sensibility—the humorist Robert Benchley and the great trumpeter Louis Armstrong—both of whom he revered for their “humor, decency, and joie de vivre.”
I don’t know how useful it is for Oliver to know there are a million definitions of what it means to be a man or that he is free to choose his own, to figure out on his own what it takes for a boy to qualify. I hope he grasps the responsibilities manhood entails and rejects the inequities it perpetuates and understands what part is biology, what part culture, what’s estimable and worth conserving, what cries out for change. I hope he becomes a man however he manages to define it and expects no special dispensation for fulfilling that vision of himself. He too has a bloodline of ancestors, somewhere out there in the dust. He could do worse than to set his compass by the polestar of humor, decency, and joie de vivre.