A Glimpse of Ceremony and Community Resilience

Teenage boys on a fundraising mission for their coming of age ceremony.
Teenage boys on a fundraising mission for their coming of age ceremony.

from Livingston, Zambia.

We’re driving through Livingston, a city in Zambia with a population of 300,000. Quentino, our guide, suddenly turns down one dusty street and says, “This is important. This is special.” I see hundreds of children at the far end of the block. They are running to and from something I can’t make out, laughing and making the kinds of screams that kids all over the world make when they’re a little scared and excited and curious.

As we approach, I see a small group of teenage boys walking with a masked figure. Quentino explains that we’re observing a tradition from the Luvale people who live in northern Zambia. Every year, young teenage boys are taken into the bush for 1–2 months where they undergo rites of passage into manhood including circumcision. In the months before the ceremony, the young men travel across the country raising funds, which is what we witnessed.

I watch the faces of the children and am reminded of the importance of ceremony and ritual to a whole community. Most of these children are not Luvale; they will never participate in this ceremony, but they have their own traditions. But now, in the streets of Livingston, they share each other’s.

I wish my son had had, or would have some kind of rite of passage or transition into manhood. Eighth grade promotion and high school graduation are as close as we come. I feel a sense of loss that there’s no meaningful way to mark transitions. I know that such ceremonies are sources of resilience—of connection to others, of connection to ancestors and culture and a past, and perhaps at their best, of connection to self.

I’ve struggled to help my son understand the poverty we’ve seen in Zambia and South Africa, uncertain of how I can help him see people in their full complexity—both the suffering and what they have. But there’s something in this moment of seeing the children chasing the masked character, in their laughter and communal celebration, that approximates what I hope he’ll see, that helps round out the picture of their lives. It’s exciting and fun and makes me want to jump from the car and join them.

Local children in Livingston, Zambia, watching the masked Luvale character in fear and excitement.