National Initiation Rites conference, July 23-25, 2017 African Christian Initiation Program
Theme -The Making of a Kenyan: Towards National Identity and Character Virtues
Addressing the Youth Gap: The Emergence of Modern Rites of Passage, 1997-2016
Emergence of modern rites of passage in Kenya over the last twenty years is evidence that stakeholders in the formation of children and youth are aware of a huge disconnect between desired and actual identity and character virtues embraced by our young. I am aware of four categories of these modern rites of passage: the traditionalist, the ad-hoc neighborhood, the institutional and the renaissance model that mixes old and new. I suggest four reasons why despite our gallant efforts, we still miss the mark in our formational quest. We idealize the nation-state and institute one-size-fits-all strategies, we approach young people as “heads on sticks,” try to motivate them with unidimensional carrots and sticks, and hold onto the centrality of the magical “cut”. I will propose four keys to bridging the gap: aligning the stories we tell with those we intend to convey; designing appropriate “liturgies” that instill those stories; empowering the appropriate “priests”, and reimagining the rites of passage cohorts. I will conclude by sharing my hope that this conference helps bring clarity to the default liturgies we currently use to form our youth, determine if they reflect our intended telos, and perhaps begin mapping ways of bridging gaps identified. I will urge rites of passage practitioners to consider ways of networking for fellowship, accountability, and benchmarking best practices.
1. Youth gap is capturing the hearts of young people in the formation of national identity and character virtues. Emergence of modern reconstructions of rites of passage are a sign of the gap. Four models:
a. The traditionalist model.
b. The ad-hoc neighborhood model –not linked to an institution.
c. The institutional model – churches, schools, as the “village”
d. Renaissance model – art form focus
2. Why we miss the mark – applying prescriptive haste
a. Myth of nation state – one size fits all solutions
b. Brains on a stick – information equals transformation
c. Carrot and stick model – entrepreneur/jobs Vs punishment
d. The magic of the cut for transformation
3. Bridging the gap
a. Clarify the telos of a national identity and character virtues
b. Align liturgies with desired telos
c. Empower the priests – families and non-parental adults in network closure
d. Reimagine the cohort for long term support
Conference hopefully identifies default liturgies, gap with telos and begin bridging.
Encourage formation of networking for rites of passage practitioners. 2 – 1 = 3
1. Youth gap is capturing the hearts of young people in the formation of national identity and character virtues
In 1996, a mission agency that was working with street kids in the Fuata Nyayo part of Mukuru slums in South B did an informal study. They gave 16 street children between the ages of 13-16, crayons and drawing paper, and asked them to present pictorially where they saw themselves as adults in 15 years. I was later shown their beautiful but to me, very revealing drawings.
Fourteen of them drew matatus. Elaborate manyangas with huge colorful slogans and artwork that was relevant to the fads of 1996 Nairobi. That left two kids. One drew a coffin, replete with a cross, and flower arrangements. The other drew a family-a man, woman and two children. Beautiful.
This was not an empirical study, – the sample was not even representative of Mukuru Fuata Nyayo. I don’t even remember what the gender of the children was. Nevertheless, I was disturbed by the import of the drawings. Was this the depth and breadth of the imagination of these teenagers? Why would they have such limited views of their futures? Why such a low ceiling of what was possible? Why did none of them draw a doctor, or an engineer, or a teacher? Not even a politician? Why matatus? Not to cast unnecessary aspersions to the matatu industry, as they are an important part of who we are, but why was it that this is what captured their imagination the most?
Surely they had been exposed to other possibilities? They saw you and I in our nice cars living the good Kenyan middle and upper class lives, driving our children to private schools in the morning and then going off to our nice offices. Why would they not desire these white color jobs? They saw some of us hustling our way into matatus on our way to work in banks and supermarkets and hospitals. Why would none of them want clerical jobs? Or perhaps they saw us pass by on our black mambas going to serve as domestic workers or to factories in Industrial Area, or in the back of lorries shipping us to construction sites. Surely more of them would have thought of possibilities in arts or sports? Why not farmers or shopkeepers or a myriad of other everyday people they met daily?
Perhaps some had even attended some school, and they had seen teachers and headmasters, and cateresses. Surely they heard the clarion call of our school systems. Get an education which would lead to a good job, and a good life.
Someni vijana, muongeze pia bidi;
Mwisho wa kusoma; utapata kazi nzuri sana…
Without doubt, they had at some point been paid to attend numerous talks on mentorship and entrepreneurship and Kazi kwa vijana. Surely they went to campaign meetings and heard promises about the coming opportunities for youth, and education, and electricity, and development. Why didn’t at least some see themselves as entrepreneurs in areas other than the matatu industry?
We were all charmed last year by Morris Mwenda, the eloquent street boy whose video articulating why he was in the streets in impressive English went viral. All he needed, he said, was opportunity. People jumped on it. They settled him into a children’s home in Gachie. They took him places; he even met the then chief justice and was given a copy of the Kenya Constitution. Yet within a week, Mwenda was back in the street, trying to explain to befuddled Kenyans why he had run away.
Clearly there is a disconnect between what these kids are told and taught and even what is enforced by caning (as Morris clearly dramatically revealed), with what they really believe of themselves. There is a gap between the script we keep writing and that which is embraced by many of our youth.
After seeing the drawings by the 16 teenagers, I began observing street kids more carefully. Whom did they interact with? Whom did they trust? It quickly became clear to me that the lawyers and academics and doctors and professionals don’t talk to them. When they approached our cars in traffic on Uhuru Highway, we shut our windows and turned on AC. We might keep the window open for long enough to throw some coins so they don’t smear our cars with fecal matter, but few of us actually interact or connect with them.
I noticed that the matatu guys, on the other hand, did connect with them. They talked and joked and high fived them. They let them cling onto their matatus when the police were not watching. They were fellow “sufferers and hustlers” whom they could relate to. Their lives were fun and adventurous and attractively reckless. One teenager I was working with at the time explained that school was a waste of time, because “manambas get a thousand a day, which adds up to thirty thousand a month,” a fat income in 1996. The matatu culture clearly has what it takes to capture our youth’s imagination! Could it be that they have captured the imagination of most Kenyans, defining what our culture really is? If you want to ponder with me, think of how we behave on the road.
But I digress. I was talking about the youth gap, which is my topic today. Clearly we recognize that there is a gap between where we think our youth should be headed, and where evidence points they are headed. The fact that we are here today says we see this as an issue. We know that for some reason, as a people we are not effectively transmitting our values and desires to our youth as much as we’d like to. We say the right things and invest in numerous methods, but clearly when working with youth, a + b doesn’t necessarily = c.
We Kenyans also know full well the humongous portion of our demographics that are young people, and either the threat it confronts us with, or the immense opportunity and possibilities, depending on where one stands. For stakeholders in the education of youth, we recognize that we are on a journey.
Eked in the memories of many Kenyans are days and stories of old, when men were men, women knew their place, and youth were respectful. We somehow know that the rituals and ceremonies of our pre-colonial communities had something to do with instilling and sustaining the stories that defined who we were and how we functioned at tribal levels. Each person knew who they were and what their roles and responsibilities were.
• A Maasai was proudly Maa, a pastoralist whose vision of the good life was a large herd of cattle, and good pasture
• A Jaluo found their identity as lake people – fishing and agriculture and a strong spirituality.
• The Mkikuyu knew his identity linked to land and trained their young to protect it and farm it.
I propose that the reemergence of rites of passage in different modern forms in our country is evidence that we intuit that they had a big part to play in the propagation of these identity forming stories. In redesigning these rituals, we are attempting to reclaim an age-old educational tool for today’s world. This conference to talk about initiation rites affirms that belief.
I need to point out that this memory of a glorious rites laden past is not, in my experience, a universal phenomenon. People in the West talk of rites of passage, but they often mean a personal thing-such as losing one’s virginity or a first drink or smoke or being initiated into a college fraternity or sorority, or at best a nuclear family affair such as a high school graduation party. Seldom do they refer to them in the context of a community. I have had conversations with educators in West Africa where traditional ways of life were interrupted centuries ago by slave traders and the best of them could also not relate to rites of passage. South Africans seem to have better rites of passage memories, and the rites of passage seasons that are a phenomenon here in Kenya bi-annually are also prevalent there. However, their independence history is so short that they haven’t yet began conversations on modern rites of passage yet, to the best of my knowledge.
Emergence of modern rites of passage
All this to say, we have in our reconstructions of rites of passage an educational tool that we know is powerful, and we have the privilege of being world leaders in thinking through them in a modern, human development and formation educational context. My understanding is that the purpose of this conference is to begin mapping the landscapes of how these reconstructions look like in different parts of our country.
Before we begin our discussions in earnest, however, would you allow me to share my thoughts on what I have seen, heard and experienced, and make some follow-up remarks from that?
I speak as a practitioner who began designing rites of passage within the church context in Nairobi twenty years ago, 1997. It was a somewhat accidental start. I was a youth worker at a church that was struggling to hold the attention of youth once they were done with children’s Sunday School and began high school. The leaders of the church met to explore solutions to the participation attrition we were experiencing. An anthropologist in our midst suggested rites of passage and it immediately clicked for everyone. A few months earlier, at a youth ministry course, I had heard of rites of passage from Dr. Emily Choge who is here with us today. We could clearly see how just as villages were the community units for rites of passage in days of old, we could present the local church as the village for our diverse and cosmopolitan congregation.
Over the next few years, this initiative grew into Tanari Trust, which this year is working with over 45 different churches and organizations helping to design ROPES. It was clear that this initiative scratched an itch that was sorely felt. Other initiatives represented here also emerged. As I have participated in, observed, and lately studied these recreations of rites of passage, I have noticed some differences in approach, philosophies and even worldviews in the models that have emerged. May I propose four broad typologies I have seen? This is by no means a definitive taxonomical arrangement of the different models. Rather, these are just my own attempts to begin to make sense of a fast-growing phenomenon in Kenya.
a. The traditional model.
I will call the first model the traditionalist model. This model goes back to days of old and tries to recover initiation rites wholesale. It is indeed a reconstruction because it follows the original tribal/village based rituals which were interrupted by some force of changing times such as colonialism or displacement. The attempt is to restore the values and mores of a people to traditional values. It holds high the value of tribe, clan, traditional culture. The traditionalist model can involve either or both male and female candidates.
As a child growing up I saw it first hand in Muchatha, which was then more rural than it is peri-urban today. My neighbors held circumcision rites for their daughter and went traditional. My family was not invited because of our Christian heritage and when the singing and traditional muratina started flowing, I was quickly ushered into the house by my parents and forbidden from getting outside to see. From my window I could still see and hear the drunken, vulgar songs, and smell the molasses in the alcohol. My former childhood female playmate, the initiate, completely ignored me and looked down on me from then on.
Some features: Traditionalist rites are somewhat subversive, and they tend to alienate those aligned with modernity.
Secondly, they dislodge the initiates from the trajectory of life they were previously on. My former playmate was no longer interested in school, got pregnant within a year of the rites, and I have no idea what happened to her thereafter. Often, those going through traditionalist rites of passage tend to get out of step with their contemporaries who don’t. They often stop performing in school, and no longer fit well in modern local contexts that relate to their generations. Recent studies in Keiyo and in Igembe indicate that this dislocation is true even today.
Perhaps the metaphor in the Bible of trying to hold new wine in old wineskins best represents the dissonance that seems to result from traditionalist rites of passage today.
b. The ad-hoc neighborhood model.
I will call the second model of modern rites of passage the ad-hoc neighborhood model. This is when parents get together as friends and decide to take their children of similar ages through initiation. It is a gallant effort by the parents to create an age-group cohort.
My own irua as I transitioned into high school was a good example of this. My father, who was a church leader, could not take me and my brothers the traditionalist way. Instead, when my turn came, he gathered several fathers of boys in my gichagi neighborhood and took us to get the cut together at a health center. To the best of my knowledge, the other fathers jumped on this opportunity, reflecting a deep hunger for some sort of initiation rites for their sons. The cohort was not really linked to any institution, and the neighbors being the same tribe was incidental to where we lived.
Many Kenyans do something like this for their children. They pull together groups that are not necessarily connected to any institutional structure, thus the ad-hoc classification. The rites tend to be one-time events without much lead up or follow up. My own friends from my cohort are scattered all over the planet. Our lives have gone in very different directions. Our values are drastically different, and actually at least two of the six have died of HIV/AIDS. The ad-hoc groups are better than nothing. Usually, however, no two groups look the same, either in form or ritual or process. They just are what they are.
c. The intentional modern institutional model.
The third model I want to share about is probably very well represented here by participants of this conference. I am calling it the institutional model. The rites are organized around the institutions of churches, schools, children’s homes, camps, or some other expression of organized community. The institution provides some sort of organizational structure, usually with authority lines well laid out. There is often intergenerational community represented, at least within the authority structures.
This is the model that I would place my youth work experience that I earlier talked about within. I am aware of other churches such as the Presbyterian Church with Rev. Wilfred Kago, the Anglican Church with the Rt. Rev. Bishop Timothy Ranji and others, organizations such as Compassion International.
I imagine that we will hear about other institutions that facilitate initiation rites. This model holds a lot of potential because it leverages on the organizational sophistications of the institutions involved. The institutions can be regarded as the “villages that raise up the child,” a metaphor that opens up all sorts of opportunities for multiple initiations from womb to tomb. The cohorts also have better structures for longevity as they can ride on the backs of alumni associations and the likes.
d. Renaissance mix of old and new.
Finally is what I call the renaissance model. This model, in my view, is more focused on form and rituals than on much else. It cherry-picks or selects details of deep traditions that are attractive while ignoring others that might not have artistic value, thus my choice of the term “renaissance.” It is somewhat out of context because everything else about the environment is very modern and sophisticated. Then in the middle of the opulence of iPads, Italian suits, Clive Christian perfumes and Rolex watches, comes a traditional circumciser who will not circumcise, but facilitates the selected rituals. Not to deprecate the noble and important work done, but the renaissance model is often class oriented and exclusive because the costs of participation can be very high—this is art for the rich. Renaissance models of rites of passage are somewhat paradoxical in this mix of deep traditional forms and high sophistication and opulence. Some families will ship their kids from abroad, and the rites of passage become part of the holiday activities.
These are four categories of modern initiation rites that I have encountered here in Kenya. They are not a comprehensive list, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with my classification. What they do hold in common is evidence of a desire for the recovery of traditional educational tools for the formation of our youth as they grow into adults.
2. How we miss the mark. – The gap
Even as these methods are employed, the gap between the character virtues and identity we desire for our youth and the facts on the ground are still evident.
No, I am not a prophet of doom. I know that we do produce amazing people in our population. Somehow, we end up with world class Kenyans such as Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya, educator extraordinaire who founded Kakenya Center for Excellence that helps young Maasai girls rewrite their stories. Kakenya, incidentally went through traditionalist initiation rites as a child, and still rose to beat all odds. And we have leaders such as Kennedy Odede, who grew up in Kibera with all the hardships and perils that go with that, but went on to found award winning Shining Hope for Communities or SHOFCO, whose mission is to interrupt stories that propagate cycles of poverty.
To me, our successes are those young people who become real contributors to our society. They don’t have to be rich entrepreneurs or politicians or big corporate types.
Yes, we do have emerging national heroes and heroines and will continue to have them, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that we still have young boys and girls whose biggest dream is to drive matatus or marry a rich guy.
Would you indulge me as I engage in diagnosing this gap? Diagnosis involves looking at a issue and identifying not only its symptoms, but what its causes might be. Sometimes, that leads to solutions.
Many Kenyans were shocked by findings of Uwezo Kenya that nationally, only three out of ten students in class 3 could read and comprehend materials intended for class two students. We learned that up to 21% of those in class six and seven were incapable of reading the same class two level work. We were dismayed by the academic levels of some university graduates. Yes, there are gaps there, but that is not the kind of education I am focusing on today.
National values and character virtues have to do with deeper levels of learning. Learning that touches the imagination of the student. Learning that writes the stories that they embrace. Learning that touches on the people we really are, rather than just what we know. Ugandan Philosopher/theologian Emmanuel Katongole writes:
Stories not only shape how we view reality but also how we respond to life and indeed the very sort of persons we become. In other words, we are how we imagine ourselves and how others imagine us. But this imagining does not take place as an abstraction in the world of fantasy or as the unbounded free play of a mental faculty called the imagination. The idea that we can be anything we wish to be is one of the most insidious lies we can ever entertain–(that is fantasy). Who we are, and who we are capable of becoming, depends very much on the stories we tell, the stories we listen to, and the stories we live. Stories not only shape our values, aims and goals; they define the range of what is desirable and what is possible. (Katongole, 2011, 4).
We are interested in education that crafts redemptive formational stories; stories that touch the hearts and desires, the loves of our young people. Contemporary education philosopher James K. A. Smith asks the question, “What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love”? Perhaps asking questions at that level might help us examine the youth gap at a deeper level.
The youth gap is a reality we all agree exists. We sense it and we can in most cases articulate it. Charts and figures abound on our youth demographics. We know about their sexual habits, how they spend their time, their levels of literacy and their substance abuse. We have good records of their involvement in gang and crime activities. We are not ignorant of the fact that we somehow don’t have them figured out.
In our desire to do good, we however often fall into the trap of what Emanuel Katongole calls “prescriptive haste.” Prescriptive haste is “when, in the rush to come up with relevant recommendations, insufficient attention is paid to what is actually going on, particularly regarding the underlying stories that produce the realities…” In our compulsion to do something about the gap, we implement knee-jerk solutions that are often inadequately informed. Sometimes we implement them at great cost. Some, like Kazi Kwa Vijana, are eventually abandoned. Some like 8-4-4 are enforced, even when everyone pretty much agrees they are a disaster. Unfortunately, rites of passage efforts culprits of this too.
I want to take a risk, recognizing that this is a gathering of stakeholders, some of whom have been involved in formulating these solutions. Please allow me to suggest some assumptions that lead to prescriptive haste in how we educate our youth. Spurious assumptions that lead to inadequate or incomplete solutions.
a. The myth of a nation-state
I will call the first spurious assumption “the myth of a nation-state,” borrowing once again from Emmanuel Katongole. This assumption sees our country as one homogenous context defined by our national borders, and attempts to apply one size fits all solutions to education needs.
For an example of this, go back with me to four years ago, to the build up towards the 2013 elections. Like in the current season, there was anxiety about the kind of leadership the country would elect, and that the election process might yield violence. Many stakeholders accurately identified the youth as a crucial demographic that could make or break the process. The USAID came up with a project they called “Yes Youth Can,” reflecting the American administration of the time.” The defining issue identified by Yes Youth Can was that bad leadership in Kenya propagates itself through an ageing oligarchy that undermines democracy. They proposed that young people, given a chance, might offer better leadership. The project sought to stimulate a whole new level of leadership by creating village councils of youth called Bunges, from the bottom up all the way to national leadership. The hope was to give youth a chance to interrupt pathways to leadership that were based solely on wealth and dynasties and privilege.
The assumption that this could work the same way all over the country was a big factor, in my view, that undermined the program. The project ignored local leadership structures and how leaders emerge in different communities. It ignored existing leaders and hierarchies and tried to circumvent that in a standardized way throughout the country. A whooping investment of $55M reaching out to close to one million youth yielded only about 75,000 youths joining the youth Bunges. Some of the Bunge leaders ended up being the very ones that are part of the establishment. The project ended up in some cases funding and propagating the very cycles it was suppose to interrupt. I do not know the status of those Bunges today, but I know that the project was eventually abandoned.
I think that one of the limitations of Yes Youth Can was the assumption of the nation-state; that the whole country could be put into one big box with a catch-all program. The nation-myth state ignores the diversity of the country with different histories and stories that define the people, and specifically the youth, today. The unspoken assumption is that people exist in a vacuum and just need a compelling program to fix them. The nation-state approach ignores colonial history with its divide and rule stories that continue to run their narratives to this day.
The nation-state assumption ignores inequalities born out of historical circumstances that perpetuate themselves to this day, and which command present day narratives. In any context, there are the rich and poor, the connected and the isolated. There are barbies and sufferers; village shaos and urbanites, those nurtured in privilege and those who brought up in highly tilted situations of injustice. Applying the same solution to both naturally favors one and disadvantages the other. This gets that much more complicated when you consider the different cultures and sub-cultures that define the different neighborhoods, sub-locations, locations, and all the way to counties. Taking all these demographics and realities and squeezing them into a box of artificial solutions is the nation-state fallacy.
During elections, our politicians do not fall into the nation-state myth. They recognize that each village is different and work at that level. They shift political alliances and identities and parties based on the complexities on the ground. They know when to wear a Swahili kofia, a Maasai beaded shirt, and when to carry a fly whisk. Moreover, they know how to work at that local level and to re-write stories there, or leverage on existing ones in a way that results in votes.
Perhaps that is where we need to borrow from as educators. We need to understand the different contexts, the stories that define the histories and current realities of the contexts, and consider the unique strategies that can rewrite those stories. Reconstructions of rites of passage that are contextual are excellent opportunities for that rewriting.
b. Brains on a stick
A second assumption that might propagate the youth gap is one I’ve alluded to before- that knowledge is the same as formation. That if we apply the right information, and perhaps ensure that there is mental understanding, then students is transformed in conformity with that knowledge. The assumption is that knowledge transmits identity, virtues, skills, and transformation. We imagine that if we “talk to our youth” correctly, they will embody what we tell them.
Our education system greatly hinges on this assumption. Things may be different now, but I remember my son in class 8 in 2013 was required to be in class at 7am at a leading school in Nairobi. His classes went on till 5:15pm. That year, he was not allowed to participate in music, sports or any other extra-curriculum activity, so that he could concentrate on his studies. Passing his exams at the end of the year would have marked a great success. This is by no means unique to Kenya – it was one of the subjects educator Paulo Freire tackled in his “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”.
The assumption prevails in our homes too. When parents start lecturing kids, the poor youth stare into space and zone out. After all they often already have the information. Don’t drink. Don’t have sex. Don’t take drugs. Study hard and get a good job. Of course they go out and do exactly what they want to do, not necessarily because they were told to.
Don’t get me wrong. The life of the mind is very important, and we need information. School is important and we must use the lecture method sometimes. Parents must talk to their children and teach them what is right. Right now I am using the lecture method, talking at you and passing on information that I hope makes sense. What would be a wrong is to assume that I am forming or transforming you with this information.
The mantra for this model is that you are what you think. Educator James K. A. Smith calls this assumption “brains on a stick. The model assumes that formation lies solely in the mind. This is simply not true, or else we would make drivers by teaching driving in a classroom setting. We would coach football or rugby in a classroom and make great sportsmen and women. The classroom helps with giving information about these skills, but for growth and real learning, we must go out there and drive or play rugby. We must engage the rest of our bodies and faculties.
Yet how many mentorship programs are about big names filling large lecture rooms with awestruck kids, talking virtues to them and assuming they will change? I participated in the pre-university National Youth Service training that was compulsory in the mid 80’s. At boot camp, they made us sit in the hot sun on the parade ground and listen to Nyayo era demagogues try to indoctrinate us. Of course, we were not convinced. Even if we sometimes might have agreed with what they were saying, that did not make us upstanding wananchi. Indeed, pre-university NYS nurtured some of the most ardent government critics of the day, and introduced all students to one another so they could organize protests more efficiently.
This brains on a stick assumption is a big one, and we all fall for it repeatedly. We go back and gather more steam and repeat the same thing hoping for a different outcome. If the outcome of talking was change, then I wouldn’t find myself telling my teenage sons over and over…”I thought I told you this and that many times before! You are being disobedient!”
The brains on a stick fallacy is a big factor in the youth gap
c. Carrot and stick model
A third assumption that is a result of prescriptive haste is one I will call the carrot and stick model. This model promotes financial prosperity as the reward for successful youth formation; and punishment, often the cane, the deterrent from negative behavior. We have equated our national identity and character virtues to material wealth. It is the quick, catch-all vision of life often given to our youth. If we can only empower them financially; create jobs for them, teach them entrepreneurship, make sure they have the right papers for employability, then we will seal the gap.
Doing all these things is very good, and financial stability and jobs are necessary for thriving, but surely our national identity is more than the depth of our pockets! What about community values? what about courage, citizenship, family, love, faith, civic identity, philanthropy, magnanimity? What if we focused on forming good people, rather than rich people? In my view, would it would yield responsible financial sustainability as a byproduct.
Africa, and indeed the world, is replete with examples of what has become known as the “resource curse”. Countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone have suffered poverty and strife and underdevelopment despite, and indeed because, of their vast natural resources. These resources cause internal and external strife, and when mined without the right human software to manage them with integrity and wisdom, they become a curse. Venezuela, whose population is currently suffering abject poverty and hunger has the largest known oil deposits in the world. There is a biting petrol shortage at their pumps, and the country is quite unstable. If the carrot of wealth and financial resources were equal to desired identity and character virtues, the wealthiest country in the world, in my estimation, would be the Democratic Republic of Congo.
So it is with our youth. We hang the carrot of financial wealth as the ultimate goal. If wealth was the most important virtue for human formation, then our politicians would be the most virtuous people in the country. Mobutu Seseseko and Adolf Hitler would replace Mother Theresa and Mahatma Ghandi as icons in our history books. There is clearly much more to life than wealth. By focusing so much on wealth, we keep the youth gap growing.
I don’t need to say much about the other end of this model. We motivate too easily with punishment. We take the saying, “spare the rod and spoil the child” too literally, and skip advise on how to show the child the way. Again, I recognize that the days of school canings and court sentences that included lashes of the cane are on their way out, but we still punish our youth too easily.
d. The cut is magical
My final spurious assumption, is about the magical cut. At a modern rites of passage ceremony a few years ago, I heard the statement, “having foreskin is lacking foresight” repeated several times. The speaker had done his research well and listed out communities around the world that circumcise their men, and stated the virtues of such communities. Fortunately, he did not dwell much on those who do not circumcise.
In communities that circumcise, it was traditionally assumed that the dirty, uncultured, uncircumcised nobody kihii boys would go face the knife, and that they would return as clean, cultured, and purposeful, men. They would now be allowed wear long trousers.
The magic of cutting the foreskin or the trimming female genitalia continues to capture the imagination of many to this day. The act of cutting, takes on a magical, larger than life place in communities. The cut, it is assumed, removes all childishness and transforms the initiates into virtuous men and women who understand who they are and what their purpose is.
No wonder these beliefs have led to young men and women feeling like they are not complete because they are not cut. We have read or heard of girls dying because they tried to self-circumcise and bled to death. We know of initiates who discontinue their schooling because they now consider themselves men and women. The focus is misplaced.
One day, driving through a part of Western Kenya I will not name, we were accosted by a riotous crowd of young men who were burning tires and blocking the road. As we waited for police to come and clear the barricades and scatter the protesters, I gathered courage, put on my youth pastor’s voice, and ventured out of the vehicle to bond with the youngsters so I could find out their grievances. They wanted their female circumciser who had been arrested to be released immediately. I asked why they would want their girls circumcised. Their spokesman replied “lazima hiyo kitu ikatwe bwana. Inatukwaruza na kutuumiza wakati tunatafuta raha!”
Truth is, the cut may have some medical benefits connected to hygiene in men. Beyond that, it is a symbol no more powerful than the metal my wedding ring is made of. If I lost the ring, I might get in trouble with my wife, but I remain married. But my wearing the ring does not make be a virtuous, family supporting, faithful husband. That comes from other dispositions, beliefs, mores and qualities that are closer to my heart.
So it is with the cut. Reducing rites of passage to the magical physical cut totally undermines the need for comprehensive, community-facilitated experiential learning. It negates the value of the rituals of separation, liminal practices, and reintegration. It negates the role of interpretive communities. It ignores the need for intergenerational involvement. It doesn’t address the need for well thought through mentors and sponsors and family members who commit to the candidates for the rest of their lives. So, the cut is but a symbol.
To summarize, the nation-state myth, brains on a stick, carrot and stick and the magical cut are but a sampling of some of the Elastoplast-level prescriptively hasty ways we sometimes try to fill the gap that we see existing between the humongous potential in our youth, and where we see them heading.
3. Bridging this Gap
Would you, allow me in closing, to suggest some ways that we can bridge counter these assumptions and bridge the gap? One caution – I am no expert on these things. Being a parent of two teenage boys after doing youth work for over two decades has humbled me thoroughly. Young people are not puppets we can maneuver, or brains on sticks that we can program. They are thinkers, feelers, and lovers; independent human beings who discern, see through fakeness, evaluate, face temptations and make their own choices. So being a supposed youth expert is, in my view, a myth. The day before I left home, my 18-year-old son and I had a spat that sprung out of nowhere, almost went out of control, and made my preparations for this talk feel almost fake. To use a metaphor by Christian counselor Larry Crabb, I propose the following not as a doctor, but as a fellow patient, who happens to have been observing the hospital perhaps a bit longer, and has some ideas to share with an incoming patient.
a. Align Telos and Action
My first thought is that we need to clarify what our goal is when we talk of a national identity and character virtues.
Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle asked the question, “what is the good life?” He asked this with regards to ethics, at somewhat temporal level of behavior and conduct, but the same question can mean “what is a life worth living?” What are some ultimate goals that are worth pursuing and perhaps even sacrificing for? In philosophy, something that is oriented towards a goal or end or the Greek word telos is said to be teleological.
I propose that if we can clarify what our telos is, it becomes easier to focus our efforts and assessment of how we are doing in bridging the gap with our youth with regards to a national identity and character virtues.
Human beings are teleological creatures said 4th century Augustine, bishop of Hippo in modern day Lybia. We all have a telos, whether we know it or not; whether we articulate it or not. And we live out our lives in ways that reveal of what that telos is.
Problem is, as fallen people, we can very easily say one thing and even mean it with good intentions, but live our lives in ways that reveal something completely different. Our real telos is what governs our actions, and often it is clear to others even if it is not clear to us. Wangari Maathai’s telos was clearly environmental protection, which is why she made a not so good MP—it was difficult to align the two. Mahatma Ghandi’s telos was seeking justice peacefully and he was wise to refuse the business of government. Usain Bolt’s telos has to do with speed, while Vladimir Putin’s has to do with power.
It is easy for us as observers to recognize a man whose telos is wealth and power, no matter that they claim to be motivated by servant-leadership. We recognize the dirty old man whose telos has to do with pleasure, and not promoting the welfare of youth through entrepreneurship. It doesn’t matter what you say your telos is, what you do gives you up.
What then, is our telos as a country? To what end do we seek to empower our youth? Is the acquisition of an education, of a job, of making money, yay, of even creating wealth our goal? What of people we know who are rich and influential and are even creators of wealth, and we wouldn’t wish our worst enemies’ children to emulate them? No wonder studies in Kenya indicate that our youth do not consider most of our political leaders to be role models!
So, what is our telos with regards to a national identity and character virtues? What is the good life that our young can aspire towards? Do we have clarity on that? Can we articulate it?
One of the best descriptions of outcomes towards which we could point our youth, that I have come across, is from the field of positive psychology, and specifically positive youth development. The telos of positive youth development is to nurture youth who exhibit what they call the “Five C’s of PYD.” These are:
1. Competence: a positive view of one’s actions in social, academic, cognitive, and vocational domains.
2. Confidence: an overall sense of positive identity, self-worth and self-efficacy.
3. Connection: positive bonds with people and institutions that include peers, family, school and community
4. Character: a respect for societal norms, moral standards and integrity.
5. Caring: sympathy and empathy for others
PYD says that a young person who consistently manifests the Five Cs, over time is also actively involved in integrated and mutually reinforcing contributions to themselves, to their family, community, and civil society. This inseparable “contribution” is the “sixth C” of Positive Youth Development. I would summarize that the telos of positive youth development is to provide opportunities, skills, and scaffoldings for our youth to develop into contributors of society.
Can we develop programming that has something like that as a clear telos?
b. Liturgy that aligns with the telos
Having articulated a telos, we need actions, beliefs, lifestyles and narratives that align and support it. We need to be actively crafting and living out a story that reflects the telos. We must be agents of the story. And having embraced and exemplified it, we ought to propagate it.
I will use a religious metaphor to propose a time-tested way of propagating stories in the way we mean them here. All religions are hopefully concerned with the wellbeing of their adherents. To communicate values and beliefs; to invoke the help of the deities, and to facilitate community, all religions make use of rituals and ceremonies. Such rituals and ceremonies are more for the benefit of the worshippers than they are for the gods or deities. I believe that these ceremonies, or what I am going to call liturgies, are tools for the formation of the adherents. Liturgies are found in many religions. They are the Islamic Salat, praying five times a day. They are Tero Buru in Luoland, or the maasai’s Eunoto, or Native American Pow wow.
And all these liturgies capture the imagination of those who participate in them. You see, liturgies are repeated over, and over again, and form they become habits. We are keenly aware of the need to create rituals or liturgies for infants so that they can go to bed when we want them to. Drink your milk, hug mum and dad, hold onto your security blanket, and sleep. We do it when learning to drive, especially manual vehicles. Press clutch, shift to free gear, press brakes and keep clutch depressed, turn on ignition. Slightly tap the accelerator to start the car. Engage clutch, shift to the next gear and slowly release clutch as you increase pressure on the accelerator. We do it repeatedly and it becomes habit. It becomes who we are. Drivers.
Liturgies immerse us in the story. By engaging all senses, they increase believability, and by repeating them, they form habits. They assign deep meaning to relationships, significance, loves, values, and so on, so that eventually the meaning is intrinsic without having to think of it.
For example, three women walk into my office. I receive one with a kiss, the other with a hug, and the third I give a warm handshake. These mix of liturgies affirm my relationship with these people: my wife, a close friend, and someone we are just getting to know. I don’t have to explain what happened. If I did, I would go crazy. Imagine a world devoid of liturgies, having to think each time you wake up; this is my son. I need to tell him that I have seen him. I need to tell him that I love him. I need to tell him that I am in a hurry. And the same thing again and again whenever I see him. Life would be untenable! A quick hug communicates that deeply. We are ritual beings!
This is why rites of passage are important. They are liturgies. But what stories do they tell? Do they tell stories of a time gone by? Is that our telos? If so, then we go ahead and tell that story. But we need to recognize when that is no longer in step with where we are as a people today. The liturgies we create for our modern rites of passage, need to have meaning that is aligned to the telos that we clearly articulate. A telos that reflects todays aspirations as a people and as a nation.
And we must tackle liturgies that conflict with who we claim to be. Be it liturgies of financial attitudes, crooked politics, broken families, unfair education and so on.
c. Empower the priests –
Liturgies have priests. These priests use liturgies to shape imagination, habits, desires, behavior and character formation. My third proposal on bridging the gap is to carefully consider who these priests are in our youth, to empower to the ones who create desirable stories in their lives, and to disempower priests who propagate negative stories.
Priests do and we do. They lead and we follow. They direct and guide and command, and we follow willingly. In formal liturgies, this is done intentionally. With informal liturgies, the neuron mirroring might happen without our noticing, but it does happen nevertheless.
Positive Youth Development research identifies three important categories of people that are key to the formation of young people. These are parents, non-parental adults, and peers. I propose that design of rites of passage that install these three as priests in our initiates’ lives.
Parents and in general families should play important roles in the rites of passage. One of our challenges in Kenya today is our temptation to subcontract our parenting roles. We allow house helps to raise our children and some parents end up neglecting their duties because the children are fed, clothed and generally taken care of by these paid staff. We parents also subcontract to teachers, and pastors and other youth leaders. These people are good at what they do, but there are roles that belong to parents, and should be owned by them.
I propose that rites of passage are a Kairos opportunity for parents and families to establish their place in the lives of the adolescents. They need to take charge of preparations, be thoroughly involved in the flavor the rites of passage take for each cohort, and not abdicate responsibilities to the experts. Each rites of passage cohort of initiates should have a corresponding cohort of parents who are getting to know one another, becoming a team, learning together, and making decisions alongside the church leaders, community leaders and others who design these rites of passage. And there must be roles for the parents and other family members during the ceremonies. During some of the rites of passage represented here, parents are required to go and spend at least a night if not more, with the initiates, and are given real roles that include planning together with their children what the transition that is taking place means for their futures.
Of course there are parents who are absent from their children’s lives for one reason or another. Some are dead, like in the case of orphans, while others are too busy making money and yet others are just irresponsible. Rites of passage are an opportunity to reinstall either these very parents back into the lives of their children, or to find and install alternative surrogate parents to take up those important roles.
Likewise, I propose that we carefully consider the non-parental adults who participate in the rites of passage. Studies show that at early teenage, as adolescents begin exploring independence from their families, the voices of the non-parental adults in their lives become very important and influential. They take heed to non-parental adults who invest meaningful time in them, engage in one-on-one relationships where they not only direct but also listen; and who set clear boundaries as to what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. These adults are the people in this room – the community workers, pastors, teachers, and older mentors. The impact and influence is even higher if these non-parental adults are in communication and cooperation with the adolescents’ parents, a phenomenon called “network closure”.
I propose that any modern rites of passage therefore ensure they have significant roles for parents, surrogate parents, and non-parental adults from institutions that are key to the adolescents’ lives. By this I mean that churches, community groups and even schools all play some role together in the design and facilitation of rites of passage. All of these become the priests, or what is called “interpretive community” for the rites of passage
d. Reimagine the cohort
Finally, a word on cohort of initiates. I propose that we seriously consider how to empower the candidates’ peers so that they can strengthen the formation we desire for our youth.
Rites of passage researcher Victor Turner, in considering the bonding that takes place within the cohort that experiences rites of passage together, proposed a term deeper than community. He went for the Latin term communitas to refer to this group.
We Africans know the role of age-mates, or riika (kikuyu) ipinda (Kalenjin). Research shows that adolescents are more likely to be influenced by their peers than by all the other “priests” of the liturgies I have been talking about. How do we take advantage of this for youth formation?
One thing is to intentionally participate in the formation of the cohort. I propose that this responsibility falls on parents. Parents decide what community context their children go through their initiation in. Is the context a school? A group of neighborhood friends? A church group? Having determined this, the parents should get to know the other families that make up the cohort, and to work together with them in the design and facilitation of the initiation.
Finally, parents should be intentional in how they encourage the life of the cohort during and after the rites of passage. They should help facilitate initiation celebrations, and to work together with the non-parental adults in network closure to build the cohort.
And then they should consider how to facilitate the life of the cohort beyond the rites of passage. Some communities represented in this room encourage parents to organize cohort get togethers after the rites, at least once a year. They also designing rites of passage at other life transitional points. Some churches, after the pre-high school rites of passage, also facilitate post high school rites of passage to prepare the youth for young adulthood. Retaining as much of the cohort as possible for these latter rites strengthens communitas.
Final thoughts: 2-1=3.
• This conference is the first of its kind to the best of my knowledge where rites of passage of different stripes are together discussing what they do.
• How can this become a regular thing? How can we share best practices? Our targets are the same people – the Kenyan youth. We are all invested in the development of identity and character virtues. Can we work together?
• There are models out there of disciplines working together to encourage and share best practices with one another.
• Their experience has been that 2 – 1 = 3. Willingness to share = more for everyone.