|Article appearing in the Cape Argus, 22 April 2014
In a disturbing scene in Ian Gabriel’s recent film ‘Four Corners,’ there is a monologue by Gasant, the leader of the ‘26 gang,’ to a group of young recruits about to embark on their first kill. Like a ritual elder at an initiation ceremony, Gasant tells the boys ‘now we got men’s work to do,’ symbolically marking the murder they are about to commit as their entry into manhood. The film raises powerful questions on youthful aggression, rites of passage and what it means to be a man. Whether the fires of our youth tend the hearth of the community or burn down its foundations depends on how we answer these questions.
The film got me thinking on rites of passage for boys in other cultures. On a recent work trip to Japan, I went to the local budokan(martial arts training hall) to train with the judo club. At the budokan, the teacher, a man in his seventies informed me that the word budo in budokan is the samurai version of the knightly code of chivalry. It includes qualities such as justice, benevolence, integrity, honor and discipline. He said that judo means the ‘gentle-way.’ This didn’t mean that it wasn’t devastatingly effective, but rather that it was an art of sublimating raw aggression in a way that elegance overcomes bluster.
I was amazed at how activities at the budokan seemed like a culturally rooted rite of passage for young men. Teachers taught various techniques all requiring courage, persistence and trust and performed with deadly earnest. The members were constantly reminded that they are entrusted with each other’s safety and their focus should be on aggressive play rather than winning at all costs.
At the budokan, to be a man was to epitomize budo. On the mat the young men threw, grappled, locked and choked with unmatched fury but lacked the meanness and cruelty symptomatic of frustrated aggression. Even in the heat of combat, they displayed a sense of fair play and concern for each other’s safety. The few women members I spoke with said that not once did they feel uncomfortable or violated when training with the men. Instead they felt supported and their boundaries respected without any gratis concessions.
My experience at the budokan reminded me of a time several years ago when I acted as a lawyer for the Samburu. The Samburu are pastoralists who roam the dusty and drought prone plains of the lion infested Rift Valley province in Kenya. What intrigued me was despite their indifference to lions, as dusk approached the Samburu would hurry back to their kraals. I was also curious about the phenomenon where many of the Samburu men had AK 47s slung across their backs, an incongruity among pastoralists. On asking, I was told that they were concerned about cattle raiders who had killed a number of young men recently.
Apparently, the Samburu tribes have always had a rite of passage, where an adolescent to be recognized as a man in his tribe, had to steal cattle from another tribe. Cattle raids were conducted according to cultural norms that prohibited killing and gratuitous violence. No tribe lost out on their cattle since they always stole back cattle from another tribe. Moreover cattle raids ensured peace by creating camaraderie and competition among the young men of different tribes. This rite was designed to help boys channel their aggression as they entered manhood. I had witnessed similar such rites to manhood amongst various indigenous peoples I had worked with.
However the civil war in neighbouring Somalia had introduced AK47’s into this mix. Cattle raiders, owing no allegiance to any tribe, used it as a weapon of choice. They roamed the Rift Valley, killing wantonly on their raids, and raided cattle not as a cultural practice, but for sale. In self- defence the Samburu men, had taken to arming themselves, leading to dangerous times where minor conflicts could spiral out of control.
I came away from Kenya feeling that the Samburu were on to something. They had developed a rite of passage that embraced and directed youthful aggression to the service of the community. Though a long way off from rural Kenya, I had witnessed a similar sublimation of aggression at the budokan. Youthful aggression was expressed in its most elemental form, at the level of the body, and then molded into the high art of budo. The initiation to manhood in both these cultures involved ritualized aggression at the level of the body. The rituals initiated boys into a manhood that embodied authentic self- expression while caring for others.
These cross-cultural rites of passage bring us back to the questions posed by Four Corners. They ask for an honest discussion in South Africa on mature masculinity and how we raise boys. They force a conversation on wholesome rites of passage for boys, which replace gangs and positively channel youthful aggression in a dangerous age of gender, gang and xenophobic violence.
The natural fierceness of many men today seems to be infected with an anemic desperation symptomatic of both rampant unemployment and soul-destroying urban service jobs. We are witnessing a rise in overgrown boys who listlessly roam the streets, Internet and malls unsure of what they are seeking but yearning to feel alive. At times their bottled up aggression makes them bullies who do appalling things to their families, neighbors and communities.
We will probably never be rid of this aggression. Instead in the tradition of that old master of sublime aggression, Madiba, we must cultivate rites of passage that transform this unrefined energy into something majestic. We need to transcend insecure machismo and wear our masculinity with the dignity of a warm cloak that nurtures.
Lesle Jansen and Dr. Kabir Bavikatte coordinate the Heroes Project with Natural Justice (Lawyers for Communities and the Environment). The Project complements legal strategies with psychosocial interventions that include rites of passage programs. Lesle can be contacted at lesle (at)naturaljustice.org.za. This article was first published in the Cape Argus newspaper on April 22, 2014.