What does coming of age mean for me?

My friend Lauren recently asked me and a whole lot of other people, “In some cultures our passing into adulthood is celebrated by a ceremony or a ritual, in some cultures adulthood is marked by the passing of a test, and in others our passage is marked by gaining rites with reaching certain age.
Is coming of age pure biology or is it cultural? What kinds of tests did you have to pass in order to be where you are now? Did you attend classes, take part in a ceremony, or take a personal pledge to enter into adulthood?”

Ironically, we have been discussing initiation rituals in my West African class. In many cultures in this part of Africa, initiation plays a central role in creating a sense of belonging and cultural identity. Coming of age is celebrated through elaborate masquerades, separation, transition and reintegration into society.

For me as a Zimbabwean, it is difficult to identify ways in which the youth transition from childhood to adulthood. As Shona (Ndau) person, I am currently not aware circumcision or community rituals that mark a sense of coming of age. I suppose that means that the transition to adulthood is more personal and abstract for my society. It is perhaps a result of my national identity as a Zimbabwean and a Christian world view.

My parents first refereed to me as  an adult after I had written my A’ Level exams and when I started thinking about what I wanted to study in college. This meant that although they would still be able to heavily influence the ideas in my mind, specific decisions were now in my hands. Therefore, I was an adult.

I decided to explore this concept as part of my final project for class.  I created a video, which can be seen below , and I projected it onto a white mask made out of plaster. ( I will try to upload the performed video soon) Here is my artist statement for this project:

Despite geopolitical boundaries, clashing cultures and religions, women all over the world have to face different challenges that allow them to be recognized as people who have moved from youth to womanhood. In every tradition, whether Western or African, all female beings reach a point where they have to ask themselves, “What does it mean for me to enter into womanhood? Or what do I have to do to embrace my female identity?”

In my own journey, I recently began to ask those questions as I read about female initiation ceremonies in parts of West Africa. I learnt about the Bamana in Mali and the importance of the Bogolan cloth and female circumcision. I was intrigued by the Nowo masquerades, and loved the fact that this mask was made by women, performed by women for women entering into womanhood.   I discovered that in Central Sudan, women embraced hleeta, (scarification patterns) as a woman’s mark of beauty. This made me wonder if that was any different from the way I used face powder and eyeliner every day. I wash my beauty marks away at night;  yet they incise theirs into their skin.

Outside of official initiation ceremonies, I found that women still put themselves through various challenges in order to find a sense of female worth. I saw the elaborate hair styles that the  Fulani women in Guinea paraded in, and thought about the agonizing six hours that I sometimes put myself through just so I can carry a proud head full of braids. I still do not really know what it fully means for me, a Zimbabwean, Shona girl living in the USA to become a woman.  I am still exploring this idea through my work. The words that you hear are exerts taken from various writings I found in regards to West African women. They include an exploration of gender and theology in Africa by Mercy Amba Oduyoye  and writing by Hauwa Gwaram a poet. The images that I included are from various parts of the world, including South Africa and the United States of America.


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