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female puberty rites of the Zambian Nkoya: intercultural observation


A Western researcher at the girl's coming-out ceremony of the Nkoya

Wim van Binsbergen


to my daughter Nezjma


Not until the wee hours does the dancing die down. The special festive xylophones (as large as a Dutch dining room table for eight) come to more and longer pauses. The crowd, which has up to that point been dancing, singing and chanting round the musicians, is thinning. The guests of honour (old men in shabby clothes and some fattish men in their forties in jeans and embroidered multicolored shirts, or the other symbol of municipal success: a striped suit) have been accommodated in houses not far from the dancing place. Some very young girls, who have not yet been initiated, are still dancing in small groups at the xylophones, the eyes turned up in ecstasy and sometimes shut; but their teen-age boy-friends have taken the place of the professional musicians and the music is no longer great. Yet every now and then spectacular musical battles develop between these amateur musicians at the various xylophones, in which they profile themselves, through the choice of their melodies and partially improvised wanton lyrics, as representatives of different clans, valleys, ethnic subgroups. Occasionally the fun-making threatens to evolve in an actual fight. But the tendency towards such active expressiveness diminishes strongly after three, four in the morning. Scores of people of all ages are sitting and lying around the men’s fire and the women’s fire. Those awake are still passing the seven-days beer, but those half drunk and asleep are treated with more consideration than earlier in the night.

       The ten or twenty women who had come to sell a pail of home-brewed beer, have long sold their ware. After having stored their valuable empty plastic or zinc container at an address nearby, the women have mingled with the guests, joined in with the dancing and singing, and have finally also ended up at the women’s fire.

       In the atmosphere of sexual implications with which conversations, jokes and lyrics, were saturated earlier that night, several have found a partner for the night, and have (after some dealing with a befriended inhabitant) retired together somewhere to a nearby house; this is a town and one has to do without the bushes which in villages are always within walking distance. The muted conversations around the fire now mainly concern national and regional politics, tension within kindred groups, the cost of living, but now and then one does indeed give thought to the physical and domestic qualities of the one teen-age girl who at this festival, before hundreds of people, is to be promoted to womanhood.

       She too lies in a house near the dancing place, and not, like she would in the village, on a bed especially constructed for her in the open air. But otherwise the rules are the same: she may not utter a sound, may not move, and may certainly not leave her place; even though she has pain from the big white bead that she holds clutched in her vagina, made very dry by means of obnoxious herbs. Even if she is afraid and thinks she’s suffocating under the loads of horse blankets that cover her face and naked body; no matter how bad she has to relieve herself from the beer which, against all rules, her mentrix has given her at the beginning of the evening. In between her choked crying spells she listens to the diminishing sound of revelry. She is especially tuned to the sound of rain. For this is the celebration through which she shall finally become a woman, after months of seclusion in which the only manner she could set a step out of doors was in a stooping position and covered by a blanket; after months of rough sexual and social teachings from the part of her mentrix and other elderly women in the evenings. If rain falls tonight, it means infertility, no sons that will protect her in future, when she will be old and ugly, no loin clothes, no jewelry, perhaps even no food.

       The blood spirit Kanga which at her first menstruation many months ago had given evidence of possessing her body, will be permanently exorcised within a few hours, by virtue of the public celebration of her coming-out. No longer will she dwell in the dangerous intermediate zones in which the powers that manifest themselves through her menstruation blood are still untamed, and cause damage to all vital processes in the community around her. She is familiar with the sight of open, suppurating wounds, tuberculosis, wilting leaves of maize and cassava in the fields, and knows that these are the evil effects of Kanga when still in a state in which the community cannot control him: not only as menstruation blood, but also as the fruits of miscarriages, and through children that were ‘set up blindly’ — procreated without the mother having menstruated since her last childbirth. She shivers at the thought of being the bearer of this force. But within a few hours her coming-out as a woman will (aside of the short periods of menstruation and childbirth) free her from this horrid accessory. She will not have to hide herself under a blanket any more; albeit that from now on she is to keep her thighs covered with a cloth wrap in public. She will no longer be kankanga, a novice, a ‘trainee-woman’ possessed by Kanga, but mbereki, ‘woman’, member of a solidary group of women, well informed about social and physical details of her role as wife, daughter-in-law, mother and mistress, and well aware of rights and duties that derive from them.

       Eaten by stage fright she traces in her mind the dancing movements that have been beaten into her over the past months. She will have to singly perform them before hundreds of men and women, later, after sunrise. But she will be beautiful. Her mentrix has already shown her the stack of cloth wraps with which she will give her hips and buttocks the volume of a matron;[2] the bright head scarfs and the bead necklaces that her favorite sister has put to her disposal; the strings of beer-bottle tops, that she will wear over her cloth wraps so that they will jingle with every dance movement, like the bells in the white father’s church; the rattles of the ball-shaped, wood-crusted rushaka fruit[3] which will accompany the light metal sound with the pointed shuffle of the remaining seed in the fruits; her uncle’s trilby hat that she shall wear on her head scarf and in whose sunken top the spectators will put their coins, as a tribute to her mentrix who has guided her up to this point. And finally the long string of white beads, that was once worn by her grandmother at her coming-out ceremony, — beads that were once traded for eagerly, in slaves, cooking pots, hoes, guns and tobacco, and that will now be draped across her chest over her shoulders and under her arms, accentuating her uncovered young breasts in all their glory.

       Through the thin pole-and-dagga walls of her uncle’s town house she hears the music diminish; now and then she recognizes the voices of her younger girl-friends, who may yet dance carefree and sing to the music, and are calling out to each other excitedly. Her over-full bladder causes a dull pain about to eclipse all other sensations, but she must persist.

       In the corner of the room a much younger girl is peacefully asleep on a straw mat. As a second, almost as a bridesmaid, she will dance along with the kankanga the next morning, just as she has not moved from her side during the preceding months of training. But she still has the real child’s body, is not yet menstruating, and it will be years until she herself will be at the center of a coming-out ceremony.

       At the break of day the mentrix and other women enter the bedroom and pull the blankets off the novice. One assesses if she is still dry, and if she has been able to hold the bead. She is praised for her endurance. Her naked body is rubbed with castor oil. Her crown, temples and breasts are sprinkled with white maize meal; here in town the ceremonial white mpemba clay is not available. Around her hips they drape the strings of multicolored loin beads that for the rest of her life will be hidden under her clothes and demarcate the domain of her nudity, day and night. While the women finish her festive attire, they sing softly the initiation songs that were imprinted on her these months:

‘Listen to what we tell you
on your coming-out ceremony,
Turn not your back on your man
Over his shadow you may never step
Avoid the place behind the house
where your father-in-law urinates.
‘Listen to what we tell you
on your coming-out ceremony,


‘The old woman told us
They made a girl into a woman
Although she had no breasts yet
The old woman told us
They made a girl into a woman
But there was no salt for the porridge.’

and others. The second is also awakened and dressed beautifully, in a manner that only differ in slight details from that of the kankanga.

       When all is done the mentrix wraps herself in a big blanket. The novice and her second crawl under it. In stooping position, their hands resting on the woman’s back, they are to blindly shuffle behind her, onto the dancing place, where dawn has broken and the xylophones and drums, through warming-up runs of scales, have once again been brought to tune.

       Practically all present during the night have gathered again on the dancing place. Aside of a few who are obstinately sleeping off their liquor, the places around the men’s fire and the women’s fire are now empty. Neighbours, and passers-by (in town usually belonging to other ethnic groups than the Nkoya) stop and stand in the passages between the houses. For, although the coming-out ceremony of the Nkoya is in many ways unique, and although no other Zambian people is as skillful on the xylophone, practically everyone in South Central Africa is on the basis of his or her own group’s cultural tradition more or less familiar with the institution of the coming-out ceremony, at which a girl is to dance solo in order to be made into a woman. One stops and stands, not because it is an exotic ceremony performed by the rather disdained Nkoya minority, but because the coming-out of a girl is regarded as of almost universal human significance. The members of the family and of the ethnic group, and other spectators are crowding up to such an extent that the brothers and younger uncle’s of the kankanga have to break off branches from the few, scrawny town trees in order to sweep, in an exaggeratedly threatening manner, the onlookers off the dancing place. Thus a square is cleared in which the girl is to dance, but it silts down again and again with onlookers.

       A small group of women is posted near the musicians. The mentrix and the girls hidden under the blanket arrive at the dancing place like a poorly-imitated giant beetle. Accompanied by the unexpectedly pure music of xylophones and drums (you would not say the musicians have a hangover), the women sing high-pitched initiation songs. The mentrix pulls away the blanket and the novice rises limp and dizzy, her eyes squinting against the morning light. But she soon finds her balance and she begins to dance as she has been taught: taking small steps, barely moving from her place, but with the ankle rattles giving the rushing and sharp tickling sound; with slight, subdued shaking movements of her pelvis, causing the thick pack of cloth wraps to sway and the strings of bottle tops to jingle; her arms bent at some distance in front of her breast, her hands sometimes loosely closed to form fists, and then again stretched out with the palms opened and turned up, as if she were receiving a great gift, or as if she were devotedly offering to the gathered community, in a big half-gourd, all the food that in the course of her life will pass through her hands. Her eyes are practically closed and her head is inclined forward as if she were attentively listening to the music. Humble and modest, she evades the eyes that are intensely fixed on her.

       The intense concentration in which one observes her at the beginning of each sequence of music lasts but a few seconds. Then relatives and friends make their way through the crowd, to put money or white beads on the top of the hat on her head. The girl stops her dance after every song played by the musicians and sung by the women’s choir. She stands in the same characteristic posture (inclined head, arms bent in front of her, hands in half-open fists) while the mentrix removes the donations from her hat. Her second dances along with her by her side (but not by far as beautifully) and also stops at these moments. The young male relatives use the opportunity to clear the dancing square by frighteningly whipping around their branches (but without really hitting anyone); they are so proud of their ‘sister’ that they insist on maximal dancing space and attention for her. Cheers of encouragement and other comments rise from the group of spectators. Close female relatives are crying openly. Many a woman, having come to the end of her small supply of coins, pulls the beads from her own neck, makes her way through the on-pushing crowd, and deposits them on the girl’s hat. Close male relatives are loudly boasting about their ‘sister’. Many, both men and women are moved and are shouting or singing with a lump in their throats.

       Before the girl starts her last dance, the square is once again rid of the on-pushing crowd. At the edge of the square a chair is placed, on which a father of the girl is seated (her actual genitor or one of his many ‘brothers’ — that is to say one of his brothers, cousins, second cousins, later male partners of the girl’s mother, etc.; it is far from self-evident which of the men present is most eligible to take the seat, and a sharp dispute behind or even in front of the scene often takes place in this phase of the coming-out ceremony). The girl dances up to him and kneels down. She claps a respectful female greeting and, with her head humbly turned away, she offers the father all the money that she has collected. The father can barely hide his emotion. There is a lot at stake. The collected amount is a measure for the degree to which the community is pleased with this new woman, and with her mentrix. If the breasts of the girl are yet too small, if her dancing movements are not found sufficiently subdued or musical, or if she has to stop after a few songs, she will reap little appreciation. There are, however, girls who dance like the Nkoya queens of precolonial times, with large full breasts that shine deeply in the gathering morning light; and they work not only through the familiar Nkoya songs, but also boast quite a repertoire of dancing tunes of the Nkoya’s neighbouring peoples in West Zambia. The coming-out ceremony of a girl like that is long reminisced, her mentrix may expect an extremely high fee, and the girl will be considered an ideal wife.

       By the greeting of a father and the handing in of the money, she has definitely left her girl’s life behind her. She is led away under the blanket one more time, to the yard of a nearby house, where she is seated on a mat on proud and formal display. She receives all kinds of gifts: cloth wraps, beads, head scarfs, kitchen utensils, a handkerchief (to clean the penis of her partner after intercourse) and a suitcase that can be locked — for both male and female Nkoya the only private domain from which they can exclude all others.

       The second also receives a small gift and is dismissed from her obligations.

       For the first time in months the kankanga may show her face to men. A blanket still covers her hair, shoulders and upper body; but those who address her elder relatives and are willing to donate a small coin, may fold away the blanket and thus inspect a large part of her physical beauty. Traditionally this is the lovers’ market but in fact nowadays most girls have a steady boy-friend by the time they celebrate their coming-out ceremony. Fact remains that the kankanga shyly but as matter of course undergoes this inspection by the few men who still show an interest. Most of the guests leave right after the dancing is over; habitually moping about the quality or quantity of the festival beer, or disappointed in the performance of the kankanga. Those who stay on finish the beer. A few male elders (up to this point everything has been in the hands of women) are preparing to finish the girl puberty training with a stern talk about her duties and obligations as a grown woman. It is impressed upon the mentrix that she will be held responsible if in future the girl fails to fulfill her duties towards her husband, father-in-law and other in-laws.

       After this talk the coming-out ceremony is over, and the girl is prepared to go through life as a grown woman. Within a few years her relatives will arrange a first marriage for her. There will almost certainly be other marriages after that first one. But never again will a celebration be so dramatically centered around her, as was her initiation — or it would have to be her funeral, that is, if she reaches a ripe enough age for her funeral to leave room for fulfillment and not only for grief.



All maturing Nkoya girls have to go through the training period and coming-out ceremony as described above. Women as well as men, villagers and urban migrants alike, consider this form of initiation (ku tembwisha kankanga: to make the kankanga come out) as the most specific and valid aspect that the Nkoya culture has to offer. The day that she finishes her training period by coming-out, is the most beautiful one for every Nkoya woman. In telling her life story it is a calibrating point in time, for all other events and occasions. In the months April through July one can witness a Nkoya coming-out ceremony practically every weekend, either in the rural areas where the Nkoya form the majority (Kaoma district and its surroundings in Western Zambia) or in the towns of Central and Southern Zambia where the Nkoya immigrants form a small minority. In the years that I did research amongst these people, I visited many of these coming-out ceremonies. While in the beginning I was moved merely by that which was outwardly perceptible, the public aspects of the event, I gradually acquired more insight in its background and meaning. On the one hand, it is the threshold to adulthood, on the other, it is the most comprehensive and compelling expression of the complex of representations, symbols, norms and patterns of behaviour through which, among the Nkoya, the relationships between the sexes is structured and carried over to the next generation.

       It is remarkable that there is no male counterpart to the coming-out ceremony. There are strong indications[4] that the Nkoya did practice: from the middle of the previous century up to around 1920 a form of boys initiation, a variant of the Mukanda cultural complex (of circumcision, secret teachings, masked dances etc.) which are practiced by many peoples of East Angola, Southern Zaïre, and Northwest Zambia. Today however, Nkoya boys are no longer circumcised and (except occasional, hunting camps in the depths of woods that last for weeks) not exposed to any kind of traditional, formal training. The Nkoya even make fun of the surrounding peoples that do practise circumcision. The disappearance of the boys initiation has further emphasized the meaning of the girls initiation as characteristic for the Nkoya culture, and as a concentration point of their cultural heritage. Elderly men and women, who have in modern times have rather lost their grip on the youngsters, emphasize the fact that (as compared to girl — even though nowadays even the latter have grown somewhat rebellious) it is the boys who are really barbarous, unmanageable and uncivilized: for the boys miss the detailed knowledge of and respect for social and sexual rules which are hardhandedly imprinted upon women during the girl’s initiation, but which of course concern both sexes.



Every time I witnessed a coming-out ceremony, I was moved in my innermost being. As the girl danced, the female relatives burst out crying and also the men showed their enthusiasm and emotion, tears would run down my cheeks. I have written several poems about the coming-out ceremony, and a long story situated in a Nkoya environment of a century and a half ago. For years I played with the thought to have my own daughter, Dutch as she may be, undergo the initiation and coming-out ceremony, when her time would have come.

       But what then makes it so beautiful and sacred? What does this exotic initiation ceremony, that in its musical, dramatic, physical and public manner is so completely different from the way my own culture deals with the girls becoming adult have to offer, so that it could time and time again be a highlight in the participant observation of a western, male, researcher? At my first introduction to the Nkoya coming-out ceremony, fifteen years ago, I did not pose these questions in terms of self-analysis, but tried to control my emotion as a confusing by-product of what I held to be the purely scientific, objective pursuit of knowledge. In the meantime I have experienced dozens of coming-out ceremonies, and after the first years I could rely on a certain knowledge of the Nkoya culture, language and social relationships. My interest developed from the so-called scientific registration of an alien culture, to trying to acquire insight in the political, symbolic and esthetic implications of the interaction between cultures, social classes and sexes — including my own. My profession as an anthropologist aims at purposely bringing about such interaction, as a main source of the acquisition of knowledge. I have come to doubt more and more the value of the distant, ephemeral and instrumental methods, which are considered to constitute the conditions for a professional approach. Much of my literary work contains the overflow of contents, images and emotions resulting from that approach; I have come to realize more and more that one word or gesture easily understood and answered in the field, implies knowledge of greater validity and range than most formal social-scientific discourses. The question I raise is not a scientific one, and when seeking to answer it, science can be of mere indirect aid. Self-examination, and reconstruction of emotions and experiences of ‘informants’, hardly fit within the framework of current social sciences, and demand a more personal approach.

       In my question, two problem areas intermingle. In the first place, the contact between the researcher and Africa engenders up complex emotions that we cannot fit into our scholarly reports, but that are nevertheless worth analysing, if only to relativize our scientific findings. In the second place however, in the present case, this North-South confrontation of cultures is crossed by the fundamental confrontation between men and women — a confrontation which since the revival of feminism is no less politicized. The researcher is, in this case, both a westerner visiting Africa, and a man visiting a women’s ceremony.

       In a first attempt to trace the source of my emotion at the coming-out ceremony, a number of additional explanations should not be overlooked.

       By the time the solo dance in the morning is performed, the receptivity and emotional susceptibility of the spectators, including my own, is heightened by the use of alcohol and the lack of sleep; the joy, excitement and emotion of the scores of onlookers is highly contagious.

       Then there is perhaps a certain pin-up effect. A woman breast-feeding her child is a everyday sight in the streets of urban Zambia, and certainly within the larger intimacy of village life; but for the rest women’s breasts are only occasionally shown: at nocturnal healing rituals and at funerals — occasions at which woman publicly seek contact with a supposed extra-sensory world. I always found it shocking to see the upper bodies of little girl at the coming-out ceremony suddenly stripped of their neutrality and presented as ostentatious female nudity, accentuated by the crossed white string of beads and the heavy layers of cloth wraps. Only a few months ago they were still were carefree in their underpants, lugging their little brothers and sisters about. Nevertheless the dancing kankanga is by no means a provocative sight, not to the African men present (for whom female breasts are hardly erotic) nor to the western male spectator, who may come from a breast-obsessed culture, but for whom the girl is too young, and her dancing too reticent (her upper body practically motionless) to rouse any other than fatherly or brotherly feelings.

       And thirdly, the coming-out ceremony is indeed a condensation of the Nkoya group identity: what they consider most essential for their own culture is here visibly performed. The few potbellied, socially fairly successful townsmen who exuberantly indulge in dance, song and drink, who shake the hand-rattles and are crowding up for a turn at the xylophone, at the coming-out ceremony noisily compensate for the fact that in everyday urban life they tend to conceal as much as possible their belonging to the Nkoya minority. The few of the Nkoya people who have acquired a position in the wider Zambian society, are here (because of their leadership malgré lui) just as essential here as the average participants: the many not yet initiated teen-age girls, too young for the role of kankanga, who rock to the music in ecstatic trance and could not be kept away from the xylophones; or the adults who are passionately and hardly secretively taking care of their love-affairs as if the coming-out ceremony were a fertility cult in the first place.

       All this contributes to the total effect, but does not seem to reach the core. The most profound explanation for the emotion is perhaps the one based on the universal aspect of so-called rites de passage. They are to be found in all cultures. Everywhere they have the dual function of emphasizing and safeguarding the normal order of social life on the one hand, and of offering — on the other hand — to selected individuals the opportunity, against a set high price, to effect their own personal boundary transition from one life sphere to another as demarcated (by means of prohibitions, privileges, anxieties) within that order: from foetus to human being, from childhood to adulthood, from the status of an outsider to that of a member, from life to death. The drama of growing up, the hope, the yearning and the inevitable disappointment connected with it, is universally felt, and thus as emotional as the spectator’s personal projection can possibly make it. Experiencing life and death in a foreign community, during field-work, is recognizable in a similar manner, even though the cultural forms in which these rites of passage are cast, usually differ greatly from those at home. The courage, the tests, the promises, the glory of the Nkoya during her solo dance bring up typical adolescent issues that are also widespread in North Atlantic society, through pop music, literature and film. The Nkoya women who burst into tears during the solo dance of their youngest sister the kankanga, explain that it makes them think of their own coming-out ceremony, and of their many beloved agemates who died before they could witness the coming-out of the present kankanga. Over and above this aspect, I suspect that they, like myself, are overcome by the infinite grace and tenderness of the moment, through which the kankanga for a little while becomes the incarnation of all human potential at self-realization, beauty and integrity, which for them (for us) has long been lost. Surrounded by the ruins of older female bodies (very often not much older than thirty) the kankanga is an almost unbearable symbol of transitory perfection, that saddens because it is so fleeting, but also gives pride because the unattainable, for one moment, becomes attainable.

       The extent to which I can identify with the kankanga’s boundary transgression, is thus closely linked to the extent to which the boundaries between my own culture and that of the kankanga dissolve in an awareness of universal recognizability of human themes.

       This answer may be partially relevant, but is not sufficient. For this universal aspect might by definition yield an infinite number of condensation points for my emotion: among the Nkoya, in Western Europe, anywhere in the world. Why then precisely here and now? Undoubtedly because there is an additional autobiographical aspect, which converts that universal aspect to my very specific situation of researcher confronted with this specific other culture.

       But before this personal aspect becomes accessible, I want to assess whether perhaps some other universal factor is perhaps the decisive one. While the initiation ending in the festive coming-out ceremony of the kankanga settles the transition from child to adult, it at the same time expresses an equally sharp distinction which is central to the ceremony and the preceding training, but which is absolutely not transgressed, conquered or neutralized: the one between male and female. Undoubtedly, this distinction, so prominent precisely at the coming-out ceremony, contributes to the experience you have as male anthropologist amongst the audience. And it is here that my emotions, matter of course and universal as long as they concern the passage to adulthood, suddenly become problematic. Is it due to identification based on my being a fellow human being, or rather due to an emphasis on my being male and by implication fundamentally different, that I as a man am so moved at this women’s celebration?

       Is then the beauty that I experience a liberating one (‘even although I am a man I may take part in women’s affairs’) or an oppressive one (‘because I am a man, I enjoy this women’s affair in which the subordination of women is the main theme)? Am I crying of pride over this new woman, human like myself, who after a painful learning process, and with a whole life full of economic, social and emotional uncertainties yet before her, may nevertheless manifest a proud identity as a woman? Or are they crocodile tears, and is my emotion partially caused by the fact that I, as a man, again see a woman being imprisoned within a web of oppressive rules and representation that make her subservient to male interests — with which, across cultural boundaries, I can perhaps identify even more than with the transition to adulthood that the girl goes through?

       Specified as above, the answer to the question concerning the roots of my emotion at the coming-out ceremony will have to entail a statement about relationships between the researcher, the culture being researched and his own culture, particularly in so far as the structuring of gender relations is concerned. Since the optimistic days of Margaret Mead, Clyde Kluckhohn and other ‘humanistic’ American anthropologists, anthropology has often claimed to hold up a mirror to North Atlantic society. Only by showing how comparable matters are structured differently elsewhere, would one acquire an explicit awareness of structures, rules, presumptions of our own culture. Our own puberty seems even more tumultuous and conflictive in contrast with the image of the harmonious puberty on Samoa, etc. Recent doubt has been cast on the validity of Mead’s analysis: according to a contemporary critic, girl’s life on Samoa was not at all as harmonious as she claimed it to be on the basis of allegedly faulty material.[5]This suggests that this mirror effect can work two ways: perhaps the anthropologist only finds what he or she is looking for; perhaps we merely project, onto the cultures to be researched, our own experiences as shaped by the western culture, and mainly report about ourselves under the cloak of writing about exotic others. This effect is probably inevitable and perhaps capable of being compensated, but that does not make it less relevant.

       What kind of mirror, then, does my description of the Nkoya coming-out ceremony hold up to us? Is it the umpteenth image of female oppression, a variation of the almost universal patriarchal syndrome, even more deceptive because it leads to concentrated expressions of great beauty and drama? In that case the man delivering the description is either naive, or a partisan of a male chauvinism surpassing cultural borders. Or does the Nkoya coming-out ceremony indeed contain something that rises above female oppression, and may the man who enthusiastically reports on it flatter himself that his emotions spring from admiration for and solidarity with women? As a man and as a researcher I feel the profound need to formulate this dilemma, to supply the ethnographic material towards such an answer, and attempt to give the answer itself as far as I am concerned. I am aware of the fact that my argumentation will rouse irritation with certain exponents of the feminist movement: they will possibly detect a suspicious eagerness to please, and explain my positive assessment of gender relations among the Nkoya as expressions of a hidden sexism, all the more dangerous because of its good intentions.

       The extent to which the Nkoya coming-out ceremony is a ritual of female oppression, can only be traced against the background of gender relationships amongst this people in general. I apologize for the ethnographic detail required in this case; it is the necessary penultimate step in the self research on which this essay revolves. I realize moreover that in order to tighten my argument not only the ethnography also the autobiography of the researcher should be dealt with in greater detail than I am prepared to do here — so that also in this aspect I have no defence against the obvious reproach of projection and distortion on my part.



Looking at the Nkoya culture from the viewpoint of women’s oppression, one gets a rather negative impression at first sight, which however, when taking a closer look requires many positive corrections.

       In a humiliating training of months, during which the girl is frequently beaten and scolded. Going naked indoors except for a flimsy symbolic cover of plant fibres,[6]she acquires all knowledge and attitudes which she needs as an adult Nkoya woman. Besides specific sexual functioning, the initiation teachings relate mainly to two other subjects: dancing, and daily life from cooking and agriculture, via all subtleties concerning the dealings with relatives and relations, up to ritual taboos concerning female pollution. Many of these teachings are embedded in aphorisms and songs which condense the material in a rather cryptic, emblematic way. The initiation into the mystical solidarity of all women entails the learning of an esoteric language, in which key words of everyday life are substituted by secret women’s words. Furthermore the emphasis lies on the impressing of a certain female behaviour considered ideal, in which the focus is unconditional respect for elders (regardless of sex) and for men.

       Daily teachings are given by the mentrix, who is in charge of the girl. The mentrix is a woman between thirty and sixty years old, who is generally known as someone who successfully lives up to and propagates the rules of womanhood. She should not have strong family ties with her pupil; she is expected to inculcate the Nkoya rules and representations in all objectivity, and to underline these forcefully where necessary, without the danger of preferential treatment, and avoiding the risk that specific sub-cultural peculiarities such as exist in all distinct families and all distinct villages should get the upper hand.

       After practical work in the fields (to which she must make her way blindly, stooped under a blanket) in the daytime, follows a more formal training session in most of the evenings. The mentrix is assisted in her task by other adult women. They take on a distant and unfriendly attitude; a hard-headed or impudent pupil gets a beating. Little wonder girls experience their formal training period as a harsh trial.

       Great emphasis lies on the acquisition of an adult female sexual role. The girl is taught to enlarge her vagina till three fingers can go in; she is taught to wiggle and incline her pelvis during the coitus; and acquires knowledge about secret herbs that (unfortunately at the cost of damage to her fertility) prevent vaginal secretion — to serve the Nkoya male ideal : penetration in a bone-dry vagina. She has already been setting herself to make her labia larger than nature provides: starting in her ninth or tenth year up until her coming-out ceremony, the girl spends hundreds of hours, by herself or in company of girl-friends, indoors or somewhere in an open spot in the woods, stretching these parts of her body until they have reached an extra length of some centimeters.[7]

       Nkoya women take pride in their sexual skills. As long as their claims are made on the abstract, formal normative level of expressing their own culture in general ideal terms (the level that every good anthropologist tries to break through in search of a statements that are closer to real life) those skills are solely judged as their contribution to the satisfaction of male desires. Women are taught to always take male sexual advances seriously; if you nevertheless do not wish to oblige, it is better to make up an excuse that leaves the male Ego intact: simulating menstruation is the easiest solution, and you can always put a bulging, but unnecessary sanitary towel in your underpants. To sexually refuse your own steady male partner is hardly possible at all. On the other hand, a woman must oppress all manifestations of her own excitement let alone orgasm. Having an orgasm is a right of men, and women that show that they ‘feel something’ (the euphemism I seek to conveyed here is the Nkoya, not the English one) stand a chance of getting a beating: the man feels insulted, as if ‘it is not he trying to make her pregnant, but the other way around’. Nkoya women believe that they have less need of sexual delight than their men have; and such pleasure they occasionally hope to derive not so much from their marital partner, but at the most from a lover — and preferably without even him noticing it.

       Considering the fact that sexual delight among Nkoya women usually remains latent, it is not the prospect of orgasmic ecstasy that drives them into the arms of their partners. Among women, the threshold to sexual activity is likely to be lowered by their awareness of a male steady partner’s sexual rights (as conferred, and confirmed, by kin groups through formal agreements and payments), and by the hope for the gifts (clothes, money) which lovers tend to dispense. Moreover, every woman wants to give birth to as many children as possible: basis for respect in the present, and a stake in the future, when the children will be adults and will support and defend her. As the main incentive for sexual intercourse however, Nkoya women mention that they, especially during the formal training for kankanga, were taught that male sperm is an extraordinary strong medicine, indispensable for the proper functioning of the female body. A man who gives you his seed provides you with something of unique value, not only for your descendants but also for your own well-being in the present; and this is the main conscious reason why a Nkoya woman, after intercourse, kneels down before her partner and claps her hands respectfully, genuinely pleased that, of all women, the man has chosen her to manifest his manhood, and has been able to do so. The gesture does not differ from that by which a woman in any other situation thanks a higher ranked man or woman; and only in clapping rhythm and position of the hands does it differ from formal greetings between men (women clap more monotonously and their hands are more cupped).

       This is just one aspect of a whole complex of behaviour by which the symbolic subordination of a woman to her male partner is accentuated. Many other examples could be given. A woman may not go to sleep before her man, and not rise after him. She may not leave the bed without his explicit permission; and for this she has to wake him up: he has to sit up in order to allow her to crawl behind him from her appointed spot the furthest from the outside door where he can best protect her. If she cannot step on his shadow, it is even more unthinkable that she would step over his very body. A night pee thus becomes quite a formal enterprise. She must prepare and serve out his food, then kneel before him and by hand-clapping invite him to come and eat it; but she may not eat with him from one dish. She must heat his bathing water on the fire, and wash him according to strict rules, which explicitly stipulate which hand she may use when and in which sequence the parts of his body may be washed. She must keep his bodily hair shaven. Above all she is the ‘keeper of the house’: hidden diseases, defects, shortcomings, weaknesses, fears, passions, distasteful consequences of excessive drinking — all that is wrong with her husband she must intercept without moping and without speaking about it to a third party.

       Many elements of what we could call the universal patriarchal syndrome are thus also present in the Nkoya culture: older women who pass on to the younger women, practically without direct interference of men, their own internalized values and representations of female submissiveness and male superiority; sexual servitude; absence of an explicit right of sexual enjoyment; the belief that the normal physiology of the healthy female body, in menstruation and childbirth, is repulsive and dangerous; male privileges that have no female counterpart etc.

       Nevertheless, when taking a closer look, the picture will prove to be much less negative, and in many ways not more oppressive that the situation of women in Western Europe until the fifties of this century.

       As far as a woman’s acceptance of, pride in and control over the integrity of her own body is concerned (which is something very different from access to the capitalistic market — although the two viewpoints often merge in modern feminism) we cannot fail to appreciate that many of the recent achievements of the sexual and feminist revolution in our parts have been matter of course to Nkoya women for centuries.

       Not much different from the Western European women under the Victorian ideal, the restraint of female sexuality is brought about through social and psychological mechanisms, and not by physical mutilation. Clitoridectomy does not occur among the Nkoya, and my information that this does occur elsewhere horrifies them.

       The symbolic subordination that exists between man and woman does not appear to be incompatible with a pattern of mutual respect, born by the realization that man and woman belong to two mutually irreducible, yet basically equal categories of mankind. This is most strikingly expressed by what the Nkoya consider the ideal position for sexual intercourse. The missionary position, where the woman is on her back and the man on his belly on top of her, is considered a recent innovation. What is seen as the traditional Nkoya position is free of connotations of female subordination: man and woman are on their sides, facing each other, arms around each other, as equals that are well up to each other. The term that is used for conjugal partners and steady lovers regardless is also telling: man and woman are muntu wenji, ‘each other’s person’. And the ideal conjugal partner is the karembo, the man who, as a teenager, was marked to be the fiancé of a certain girl and, up to some decades ago, in that role played an important part at the coming-out ceremony as the main supplier of firewood for the men’s and women’s fires. Amongst the aged Nkoya one sometimes still finds karembo marriages that were contracted with practically no bride price some forty or fifty years ago (a practically inconceivable term of marriage, in the face of current marital conditions); and these partners can still delightedly recount the tenderness and the patience with which, over a period of months, the boy gradually ushered in the girl to an adult sexuality.

       But these have become exceptions, if they were ever more then that. Nkoya women generally have but little benefit from their husbands when it comes to sexual satisfaction. After their explicit physical training — so shockingly explicit to us — they do however command enough sexual knowledge to find such satisfaction with a lover. The Nkoya are very aware of the difference in role behaviour between husbands and lovers. Among unwed lovers, there is indeed room for tenderness and excitement. As restricted and bound to rules, almost ritualistic, as physical intercourse is within wedlock, so free is it between unwed lovers — one boasts that there is not a single spot of each other’s body, not a single copulating position, that is forbidden; but, as said, it is best that even your lover does not notice it when you ‘come’.

       Nkoya women have wide opportunities to acquire lovers; they are relatively mobile, they can (especially in the context of visiting relatives, particularly in case of funerals) spend weeks and often months away from the house that they share with their husbands, and their sexual escapades are certainly registered by the public opinion, but seldom condemned.

       Since the second decade of this century the formal Nkoya marriage is confirmed by an ever-increasing bride price. Nevertheless, the rights that the husband acquires are limited: the right to the wife’s culturally-defined activities within doors (in bed and in bath), in his yard (where the kitchen is located) and to a certain degree in his field; and paternity rights over the children that she will bear during the marriage. If the bride price has not yet been fully paid (and this may take years, even decades), a man cannot insist on these rights. The bride price is not seen as purchase money, but on the contrary as acknowledgement of the human value of the wife; and as a guarantee for the husband’s good behaviour. By paying the bride price, the man and his family acknowledge that the woman is a free person, the opposite of a slave that could be bought for money. The image of the slave, over whose person the master has absolute command at all times, is brought up in many arguments between married couples and between in-laws: should the man go too far in his matrimonial claims, or should he dramatically in fulfilling his matrimonial duties, then he is steadfastly accused of treating his wife like a slave, — and he is reminded of the fact that he has only limited, specific rights, that can easily be undone if his behaviour give further cause for such action.

       The leading idea behind the marriage ceremony itself seems to be that the man is made aware of the conditional nature of his rights. Through a hedge of brothers-in-law to be, he has to literally fight his way into the room where the bride is with her mentrix or older ‘sister’. Upon arrival, he must through bribe the chaperon to leave the room (after she has given her last sexual instructions to the couple), and once alone with the bride, he has to pay money (formerly beads) before she takes off her clothes, and then again before she allows him to penetrate her body. Early the next morning the chaperon returns to the bridal room ask the couple ‘if all went well’: whether penetration took place and semen flowed. These are expectations where the obligations and the chance of failure are at least as large for the man as they are for the woman. Admittedly, at the wedding also the sexual skills of the bride are for the first time submitted to the scrutiny of the wider society (as represented by her chaperon), but virginity for example is by no means a demand. (The historical information in regard to the question whether such a demand was made in the nineteenth century, is contradictory.)

       The payments made on the wedding night are part of an elaborate circuit of ceremonial payments, to which also belong the bride price itself, the donations in cash at the dance of the kankanga, and payments made at childbirth. The transfer of money marks the individual crossing of boundaries between social groups (sexes, generations, bride-givers versus bride-takers), and defines or redefines the rights of each of these groups and of their individual members.

       If a first marriage is concerned, the girl is rarely free in the choice of her marriage partner: the choice is strongly determined by existing or desirable alliances between villages and clans, and a possible pre-marital boy-friend has to make way. However the chance that this first marriage will be dissolved through divorce within a few years, is quite considerable. Personal grievances of one of the partners (often the woman) then tend to outweigh village political considerations — though elders will try to keep up a marriage that is politically beneficial for them as long as possible, and only reluctantly dissolve it.[8]

       All this contributes to an awareness of balance and relative equality between the sexes, such that the patriarchal syndrome in the attitudes and representations as found among Nkoya women, is often mitigated on the men’s side by a rather considerable loyalty — of which the karembo marriage is considered to be the highest expression. When menstruation or childbirth make it impossible for the woman to light the fire and cook (due to the anti-social connotations of female blood), it is normal that the husband relieves her from these tasks — especially in urban situations normal, where ‘sisters’ of the wife tend to be less available. A heavy taboo forbids the husband to commit adultery when his wife is going through childbirth (which is of course something very different from continuing to fulfil his marital duties towards other wives in a polygamous situation). In general men are loyally committed to the well-being of their wives, and besides the medical interventions (collecting medicinal herbs, having diagnostic dreams, officiating in ancestral rituals) which are expected from them as head of the family, they often spend enormous sums as sponsors to healing cults in which their wives are active. A woman’s rights to her activities in the economic and kinship domains are usually acknowledged without fuss, even if they entail her long absence and the resulting inconvenience for her husband. It is part of the accepted manners that a wife speaks freely with other men (in the family’s own yard — but also outside, for instance at parties and funerals, at the market or in working situations — ), jokes with them, and touches them in socially accepted parts of their bodies when such is appropriate during the conversation; a husband who would object against this would make himself ridiculous. Even much further, bordering on sexual liberties, may go the recognized rights of a woman’s male joking partners from the clan with with her own clan is traditionally paired; and the same would apply to her mufwala (cross-cousin), whose ideal marriage partner she is after all, even though the actual incidence of cross-cousin marriages is relatively low. Awareness of acknowledged male needs indeed make it a normal case that a woman in long periods of absence looks for a temporary substitute for both her domestic and her sexual tasks: a ‘sister’ or a friend, who will not threaten her relationship with her husband. The sexual and the domestic domains are obviously much less sharply distinguished than in North Atlantic cultures. For both the woman can fall back on the normal domestic assistance that women lend each other in cases of menstruation or childbirth.

       The man is aware that his wife is rather well protected by a total of rules of law and social standards, and that he can easily be divorced if she is dissatisfied with the treatment she gets from him. If she can come up with an actionable shortcoming or offence on the part of her husband and win a divorce on that basis (for example, inability to supply her with clothes and housing; or complaints in the sexual sphere: having intercourse with her in her sleep, or suffering from a venereal disease, or from impotence), the man loses the bride price he paid for her. Moreover, his reputation will have suffered such a dent that it will be difficult for him to find a new wife in his immediate social surroundings. The man accepts rather resignedly the fact that his wife in many ways leads her own life. He does insist that she keeps to the public etiquette between man and wife as it was imprinted upon her during her initiation training: the man does know the outlines of these rules, although he misses insight in the details and in their symbolic background. Offences against this etiquette, he discusses with his in-laws in the first place; they will call the woman and her mentrix to task and will, in case of continued complaints, have no other choice than to dissolve the marriage and return the bride price.

       As shaped, in part, by of an entire set of explicit, formally taught and sanctioned rules, the daily association between man and wife among the Nkoya can best be described as a rather distant mutual manifestation of respect (shishemi) — between people who see each other, not as unique lifelong partners predestined for each other, but rather as more or less coincidentally bound together and representing two fundamental social categories: husband and wife. The respect shown to the mutual in-laws is an extension of this attitude. The marital bond is not a continual strife fed by the quest for by authenticity, originality and the desire for individual psychological and sexual fulfillment, and informed by obscure, eminently personal viewpoints and motivations. The possibilities for negotiation and intimidation on both sides are limited. The woman’s viewpoints and norms are firmly set, especially through being rooted in the initiation training that she shares with all other women. The outside world has the right and the duty to test the day-to-day state of affairs within the the marriage against these criteria, and actually does so. Complaints about mutual functioning within the marriage may be expressed without reticence — that is as long as the ‘domestic secrets’ remain untouched; and if redress does not come about, divorce is simple. A high degree of erotic and psychological fulfillment is thus just as exceptional as sinking deeper and deeper, over the years, into a swamp of strictly personal conditions and aspirations, which so often characterizes marriages in our Western society.

       Judicial authorities (villages moots and Local Courts of justice created by the government) contribute to this configuration.

Their accommodating attitude towards women is clear from the in the ease with which women are granted a divorce — if need be against the political interests of the village elders; or in the degree to which women find redress with the court when they feel sexually abused by men. Not the right of orgasm, but indeed the right of self-determination over one’s own body is judicially acknowledged. A woman may go along with a man, be married to him, sleep next to him; but as long as she has not given her explicit permission for every single coitus, sexual contact with her is considered rape and she will meet much sympathy from the judges — as expressed by judicially enforced compensatory payments and easy conditions for divorce.

       The fact that most Nkoya women, in spite of all this, find neither social nor sexual fulfilment in their marriages (nor do men for that matter, but that is another story), is not easily admitted in everyday life, but it is indicated in artistic, mythical and ritual expressions. Many traditional songs (recognizable by their archaic language) sing of the murder between married couples. Numerous are the rumors about women who, in the forest away from the village, breed a snake with a human head (jirombo), a terrible form of sorcery; the snake waylays and kills — on assignment of his mistress — the villagers that she hates, but in the first place her husband and his other women if any. It is indeed so in real life that every death of a man is followed by an inquest within his kin group, whereby his wife must be cleared of guilt from his death; only after acquittal (which is usually, but not always pronounced) can she be ritually cleansed and return to her own relatives. In connection with this it is significant that Nkoya women see no good in a law change recently propagated in Zambia, which (within the confines of customary law as acknowledged by the state) would finally enable women to inherit from their husbands: any suggestion that a woman could materially benefit from the death of her husband must be avoided, for even under current customary law (which excludes such benefit) she is the one who is blamed for his death in the first place.

       In the hunt for lovers, Nkoya women are obviously often each other’s rivals. But even so it is matter of course that sisters and girl-friends, to enhance their own amorous fortune, ask each other for a drop of sperm from their lovers, or agree to substitute each others sexual tasks in absence.

       Especially in the frequent case of several women having to share one husband, they are competitors as far as his sexual and material favours are concerned. The built-in tension that exists in such relationships, again have a particularly mythical expression: sorcery beliefs, sorcery accusations, and the oblique insinuations of sorcery through divination. Ideally however, co-wives are each other’s ‘sister’, and in many cases the bond between each of them is indeed closer and more positive than that between each of them and their husband.

       Forms of female solidarity can thus have a focus in shared interests in the same man or men, but they are especially created by the initiation process and the coming-out ceremony. Not only do these bring about a strong potential identification between female agemates who were matured in the same year — they are automatically best friends; but also between the novice and her mentrix, who (once her strict role during the training period has found its crowning in the coming-out ceremony) remains her lifelong counselor and confident. Such mistrust and hate as often exists between younger and older Nkoya women, does not seem to originate during the initiation training, but mainly in daily productive activities, whereby young women have to work hard under the tyrannical assignments of an old woman (a senior co-wife or a mother-in-law) who from the viewpoint of the younger women is trying to avoid the heavy work herself.

       The economic tasks of the Nkoya woman naturally have a great influence on her relationship with men. At a very young age she learns to provide for her own food and that of her children. The Nkoya consider themselves primarily as a people of hunters, and for a man agriculture is not a source of great honour. In the past, agriculture was primarily associated with slaves, tribute-paying commoner villages, and women. Nowadays this association is gradually changing as primarily men have begun to explore the possibilities of cash crop production.[9] Besides the hard labour (the partial clearing, and the firing, of the fields) the men leave the cultivation of food crops for food to women. Until very recently his society has no or hardly any land shortage, and women who can mobilize the necessary manpower clear an agricultural plot, acquire the personal rights to that plot and its harvest. Also the preservation of the crop and its processing to become digestible food is woman’s work. Women manage the daily cooking-fire (as far as they are not in a state of pollution) and fetch water. They know their way about in the forests and continuously supplement the diet by gathering wild fruits and roots: especially in the annual famine period around the beginning of the rainy season. All this is a great source of pride and security for them. Meat is a much coveted article, and a man who can supply (as a hunter or as earner of a money income) is the ideal lover. While meat is thus a preeminently male contribution, it is only women who are able to produce a complete meal without intervention of the other sex, — even though meat relish will then be lacking. This independent dealing with nature is of enormous economic importance, but goes much further: it forms the practical side of a complete world-view. The forests, the fields, the river where (in shallow wells and sandy banks) drinking water is found, are all filled with mythical representations, symbols, prescriptions and prohibitions. The competent dealing with these elements, with food as the result, gives woman’s work a tranquil self-fulfillment which is fundamental for the identity of Nkoya women. They are at home in their world and need not squander their birthright to men for a plate of food. This grasp on the food production however gives Nkoya women hardly access to the distribution, for whatever cultivation of market crops exists is mostly in hands of men. Nkoya women are furthermore hardly active in market trade, in contrast with the women of the more dominant ethnic groups in Zambia. In the villages, the women have no other ways of making money than beer-brewing, a practice as healer or diviner, and some furtive prostitution; the need of money is, however, limited here. In the towns, where a considerable money income is necessary for survival and little opportunity for agriculture exist, the Nkoya woman becomes actually dependent on a man or men. Here, deprived of a productive basis, and with practically no access to paid jobs in the formal or informal sector, women can economically be blackmailed by men.

       Easy and frequent divorce; a considerable age difference between spouses, and therefore a considerable chance to become a widow; the relatively detached attitude of relatives regarding the married and amorous life of a woman after her first marriage (which was usually arranged by the relatives); the relative economic independence of women in rural areas; — all these factors contribute to the fact that Nkoya women go through a typical career: once, or more then once, a woman after her first marriage chooses herself a more loved matrimonial partner, but in the course of years she attempts to liberate herself from the burden of obligations as wife and daughter-in-law, and relying on her capacities as a mistress and on the increasing contribution of her growing-up sons, she often succeeds in realizing considerable independence. In the last analysis her freedom is threatened more by her fathers and brothers (for her obligations to those she can not shake off) than from the part of actual or potential sexual partners.

       In cases of concrete assault on her female identity the Nkoya woman knows her rights and is supported from all sides. Because she knows she has been taught how to handle a man, the woman also takes on a certain manipulative, often ironic attitude towards men. In this respect the secret initiation training is of great support to her: she is aware of the fact that she knows a lot more about men, and can toy with them physically and in socially much more subtly than the other way around; to women it is often the men who appear as helpless and ridiculous. To counteract the unmistakable forms of symbolic subordination which uphold the the ideal of male superiority, the Nkoya woman is taught a very strong female identity which offers her great security in practically all situations of her adult life, on which she can reliably fall back and to which she can publicly appeal. Not the man, but the culture (interpreted by elder women) sets the standards to which the woman directs her whole further life. Objectively, the subordination is there perhaps, but subjectively it is hardly felt as humiliating because the symbolism by which it is accompanied, is internalized and compensated by a great measure of independence and self-esteem. Different from many other cultures, the Nkoya woman does not derive her status primarily from the power and riches, or the income, of a man with whom she is associated as wife, sister or daughter. Besides she grows up in the realization that her grandmothers and great-grandmother, as princesses and queens of the precolonial Nkoya states were peers or even superiors of men even in political aspects— and the loss of that political status has, in the course of the past hundred years, to a certain degree, been compensated for by healing cults dominated by women, in which much of the old leadership ritual has been absorbed and transformed.[10]

       A Nkoya woman does not owe her value to a man, and a man cannot really deprive her of that value. She is not defenceless against men. The female identity which she possesses is so strong that men do not form a direct threat to it. Hence her ability to reconcile to and even rejoice in, symbolic forms of subordination, which for western women (with an identity, which was — up to recently — much more male-derived, and therefore revocable and liable to destruction by men) would be unbearable.



Of all of this the coming-out ceremony, the glorious public presentation of one new woman according to this standard, is the most complete expression. It is the moment that a woman is permitted to present herself to the society and to confront the society, , with her recently acquired skills and grace. The coming-out ceremony is the celebration of an individual, who may thus take pride in her own unique value. It is not primarily the celebration of a group or of the community in its total: the group shares the celebration, creates the conditions for it, ensures its persistence as a society (in such crucial aspects as the succession of generations, and the arrangement of gender relations) via this celebration — but the individual is permitted to be the focus of all of this. The fact that this individual is yet a very young woman, at the beginning of a career in which she will have to prove herself as woman and mother and in which she is bound to fail in many aspects, makes it even more moving. Precisely through this acknowledgment of the own individual value of the girl and the potential that she carries within her, the subordinate position she holds as a woman and as a teenager is to a considerable extent compensated, or better: relativized and rendered somewhat irrelevant.

       In this respect, it is of great importance that girls are not initiated group-wise (for example per age group, per clan, or per village) but separately. Only in exceptional cases do two girls of the same village have their coming-out ceremony together. Also the moment of initiation emphasizes this individuality. It is not determined by any impersonal cycle of years (such as the succession of male age classes in many cultures of West and East Africa, with steady cycles of about twenty years), but exclusively by the physical maturing of the girl: every coming-out ceremony takes place in the first dry season (March — August) after a girl in question has begun to menstruate and her breasts have taken on fairly adult shapes. The second, herself being before menarche and with a real child’s figure, emphasizes this accent on the individual development of the kankanga.

       Anthropology has often dealt with kinship rituals or state rituals in which social and political order as a whole is supposed to be expressed and glorified. The coming-out dance of the Nkoya girl is however at least as much a ritual of individuality as it is one of community. Incidentally, this applies not only to the coming-out ceremony; within Nkoya culture there are other, comparable ceremonies in which one individual is celebrated in a special way — even if partly as a realization and culmination of group interests. In healing cults scores of bystanders witness how one patient is brought to ecstatic acceptance of the special bond with a spirit whose presence (as manifested by the disease) is thus publicly acknowledged for the first time; in this case the referral to social groups who determine the non-ritual life, is even practically missing — the cultic group does not coincide with everyday kinship or residential groups.[11] In name-inheritance rituals an even larger audience witnesses how the village elders appoint one member of the village community to be the unique heir of a recently deceased, who thus reincarnated confirms the integrity of the village, which as a historic entity possesses and transmits to later generations a limited number of set names and neo-traditional titles. Succession to a position as village headman, chief or cult leader are special applications of the pattern that the name inheritance ritual is based on, just as the pattern of exorcism—acknowledgment—veneration—initiation into the group of initiated, underlies both the healing cults and the coming-out ceremony: for the uninitiated kankanga is considered the carrier of, or possessed by, the harmful blood spirit Kanga. Another special case is the glorification of a great hunter after he has killed an elephant; also in this ceremony the focus is on the individual hunter’s greatness — albeit that his greatness is also considered as the incarnation of former great hunters of the kin group, and part of the ritual revolves on exorcising the dangerous spirit of the animal killed. The highest ritual of individuality is funerary festival, where hundreds of people from the town and rural areas gather for ten days to in order to make up the balance sheet of one human life.— also literally, through improvised mourning songs referring to the biography of the deceased.

       In the light of an inveterate stereotypical image within anthropology, of the African as one with and submerged in his or her social group, as carrier of a status acquired by birth rather than personal effort, and as slavishly subjected to standards and rules that barely foster the development of an explicit individuality, — these rituals of individual glorification are somewhat unexpected. At the same time they offer all the more grip for the personal projections of a member of our Western culture — a culture in which assertion of individuality has been of such central value that one of its central archetypes was to be found in the character of Prometheus: the demiurge who, to his own destruction, defied the gods, introduced fire and thus created the condition for human culture.



Women’s affairs are my affairs too, for I am a son, brother, friend, colleague, lover, husband and father of a woman or women. In writing this text I am continuously thinking of the women in my life and I catch myself hoping to redeem myself in their eyes.

       There is a meaningful parallel between on the one hand my relation as a man with these women, and on the other, my relation as an anthropologist with the culture that I study. Also as an anthropologist there is the confusing awareness that you stem from a certain culture (compare: woman), have kin relations with it, and (based on a combination of positive and negative experiences with your own culture) can be fascinated, tempted, cherished, confirmed in your value, and also rejected, by another culture. On second thoughts, ever since my first field-work my relation to the culture that I have set out to study has been a form of scientific eroticism: the esthetics of ‘the other’ brings about a longing which on the one hand strenghtens that own identity, on the other hand makes a painful but delightful assault on it. The researcher goes back and forth between attitudes and forms of behaviour from which he explicitly takes his distance (with as typical image the field-worker clutching his notebook and pen, and, as an observer, continually rendering account of what is happening around him, and to him), — and on the other hand attitudes and forms of behaviour in which he gives up that distance and is absorbed by the alien social field that extends before him — speaks, dances, sings, eats, makes offerings and so on, as if he hopes to stay there for the rest of his life. It is something you can cultivate, as I did in my field-work in Tunisia and particularly in Zambia; my more recent research, among the Manjaks of Guiné-Bissau (1983), suggest however that as a researcher, one can also adopt a more mature attitude, by which that longing is kept in check, even dropped. More important in this connection is the fact that here, under the disguise of scientific research, a ritual is being performed of at the same time boundary definition and boundary transgression (of self-definition and loss of self), — a ritual that is preeminently characteristic of the situation of the participant field-worker, but that finds its archetypes in universal human endeavours such as eroticism and mysticism. Anthropology is the intellectual eroticism that exists between our own culture and the other one that we are studying. In the game that I play as anthropologist in the field, it is of eminent importance that I incorporate, internalize the other, , can imitate it to a certain degree in my bodily stances, behaviour and speech, yet am not absorbed by it. If I am too afraid of crossing boundaries, nothing will come of my participation and I could have just as well limited myself to the mechanical and blind collection of observational data, without knowledge of language, culture, institutions, collective representations and emotions among the research population. On the other hand, if I were to cross the boundaries definitively and shake off my own culture, then I would loose my role as an anthropologist (whose temporary participation in the stranger culture is in the final analysis only justified by the fact that he will escape, and will report back to a scientific subgroup of his own society in terms derived from the latter society and largely meaningless to the studied society under study); should I stay (and the temptation to do so often all-overriding), then I would become like the many other strangers who, in the course of centuries, have been incorporated in African cultures (or whatever other cultures).

       Crucial here is the parallelism between the two situations of boundary definition and boundary transgression: that between cultures, and that between sexes. The anthropologist does not (lest he ceases being an anthropologist) become a member of the culture under study, just like a man does not become a member of the group of women by whom, in all kinds of roles and capacities, he is surrounded his whole life. The two situations are not necessarily separate ones. The longing that is engendered by one situation, can communicate itself to the other, and either strengthen or dissolve such passion as is generated there.

       The eroticism that I am speaking of here, is something far different from sexuality, though it may lead to it. When I, as a twenty-one year old, was doing my first field-work in Tunisia, it simply did not enter my mind that the longing which I had fallen a prey to, by which I was torn to pieces (and which I — except at the end — felt mainly as confusion and frustration), was perhaps not only caused by what I had left behind me in Holland, but also by the new society in which I was finding my way.[12] The thought that I could try to solve my longing with a love affair with a woman of that culture was so taboo, that it could not even enter my most celibate dreams. My girl-friend had stayed behind at home, I was heavily in love with her. The gender relationships in the Tunisian village (as far as I could get sight on then, through a haze of youth, defective language mastery and dependence on my interpreter) seemed to be so strictly standardized, and the sexuality therein so latent and suppressed, that nothing suggested such a solution. But I did research an aspect of the culture (the veneration of saints and sacred places) in which women played the leading role. In contrast to general stereotypes about anthropological research by men in an Islamic society, women were quantitatively and qualitatively my main informants: and with one of those married women, under the eyes of her husband and relatives and in full observance of all the chaste codes of the local culture, such an understanding came to blossom that it became a matter of course that my girl-friend and I named our daughter, who was born some years later, after her.

       That both tension areas (man—woman; anthropologist—culture) would be short-circuited was much more to be expected in a culture in South Central Africa, where sexuality is much opener, where all strange men are potential lovers for all women, and where men in the same age group strive establish fleeting or a more permanent brother-in-law bonds with each other via their many ‘sisters’. Here too women’s topics dominated my field-work: healing cults in which women are the most important leaders, followers and patients; girls initiation; attitudes toward illness, especially as borne by young mothers concerned about their diseased children; the political role of women in precolonial states. In a manner that was unthinkable in the chaste North African culture, the human body was emphatically present here, but because of that largely freed from stereotypical sexual references and implications. Men and women would touch in conversation, women would nurse their children, the doctor's consultations of the native healers would be more or less public, one would retire when nature called but would offhandedly explain what one was going to do, etc. Here my knowledge about gender  relationships could be derived from the very intimacy it referred to. It is therefore that my own report on this subject among the Nkoya is partially obscured under the veil of ‘domestic secrets’ I myself drew around it — in a manner that is meant to link up with the Nkoya rules about intimate relationships, more so than with bourgeois professional codes of the Western social researchers (according to which making love to, let alone loving, your informants, would be the most effective way to fall off your scientific pedestal). At the same time my report, in so far as it is not bound to specific persons, could be enriched because, once acknowledged and accepted in my role as researcher, I was occasionally let in on women’s knowledge which they (that is according to my impressions) would not dare to share with any man, not even a lover, from their own culture; even so, it is only by sleight-of-hand that one can try to describe the coming-out ceremony (as in the beginning of this essay) as if it made no difference that I was present as a researcher.

       I have sketched a positive image of the identity of Nkoya women, and of initiation and the coming-out ceremony as its most important ingredients; I hope I have not betrayed their confidence. In spite of my autobiographical reticence in this essay, it will be clear that this piece could only be written after I had definitely given up, after many years, my attempts to cross boundaries — from Western anthropologist to Nkoya villager and husband — as too confusing and too bent on loss of self or self-destruction; just as the fact of my own daughter reaching the age of kankanga, in a positive sense formed the incentive for the finishing of this piece.



I think it has become possible to now expose the true roots of my emotions about the Nkoya coming-out ceremony. It is not a celebration of female subordination, and in this respect my enthusiasm over it seems above suspicion, after all. It is primarily a celebration of boundary transgression and of acquisition of identity, and as such a dramatic and non-cryptical metaphor of what occupies me most as a researcher and as a man.

       Witnessing the glorious boundary crossing of the kankanga, from child to woman, in a liberating manner coincides with my own longing for boundary crossing, from foreign researcher to fellow-Nkoya, and from man to woman; just like the acquisition of an adult identity by the kankanga is a image of hope for someone who, as a researcher, risks his own identity, and as a lover also longs for loss of identity. In view of powerful force, at the same time mobilizing and narrowing, of eroticism in our own society, it is obvious that the longing that exists between cultures, may tend to focus on an attempt to penetrate into the sexual secrets of another culture and to internalize them. But it is not unthinkable that under this sexual penetration symbolism lies (because of its projection towards faraway lands) a typical imperialist aspiration to reduce the other to an object, to appropriate and to overpower the other — an additional reason why the boundary crossing had better not succeed after all.

       Nevertheless the kankanga helps me, for one single moment, across to the other side of the shadow which she herself, as has been imprinted upon her, must not step over. As long as her dancing lasts, she seems to be dancing only for me, she sucks up all the longing of my field-work and love-life, and she allays the impossibilities built in that longing. For eye-to-eye with her I am no longer just a Western man, nor does she remain just a Nkoya girl. It is however an image of short duration, dramatic, moving, but (once her dance is over and the feasters scatter quickly, much the worse for lack of sleep and abundant use of liquor) relentlessly referring back to her own primary identities as a woman and as Nkoya, my own primary identities as a man and as Western researcher.

       Anthropology is the science of what would happen if you would take the step. Life is the science of not taking that step, or, once taken, retracing your steps. Neither was I allowed to step over that shadow, and after the tears of this realization I console myself, and perhaps others, with this essay.


[1]        Translated from the Dutch by Juultje Heymans and Wim van Binsbergen. Originally published as: ‘De schaduw waar je niet overheen mag stappen: Een westers onderzoeker op het Nkoja meisjesfeest’, in: Wim van Binsbergen & Martin Doornbos (eds), Afrika in Spiegelbeeld, Haarlem: In de Knipscheer, 1987: 139-182.

[2]        On a less conscious level one might interpret this accentuating of the behind as an imitation of Khoisan steatopygia, — a memory, enshrined in ritual, of the Nkoya’s predecessors as inhabitant of Central Western Zambia; cf. van Binsbergen, in press.

[3]        Nkoya believe that it is from this fruit that the name of Lusaka derives, a headman in Central Zambia who, in his turn, gave his name to an early railway siding where, in the 1930s, Northern Rhodesia’s new capital was built. As from the second half of the nineteenth century, various pockets of Nkoya hunters have existed in what is now the Lusaka area, and the interpretation may not be too far-fetched.

[4]        Van Binsbergen, in press.

[5]        Mead., M., Coming of age in Samoa, New York: W. Morrow; Freeman, D., Margaret Mead and Samoa. The making and unmaking of an anthropological myth, Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 1983; Kloos, P., Door het oog van de antropoloog: Botsende visies bij heronderzoek, Muiderberg: Coutinho, 1988, ch. 8.

[6]        Another evocation of what, from the point of view of contemporary Nkoya historical awareness, must be considered prehistory — a time when human life was less divorced from nature. Interestingly, most food taboos to which the kankanga is subjected during the months of her seclusion, relate to species of fish; fishing has been a very old and originally more prominent element of the economy of the well-watered region of Central Western Zambia.

[7]        Could not this custom, which in Bantu-speaking Africa seems by no means unique to the Nkoya, again be interpreted as an attempt to imitate another physical feature of the pre-Bantu Khoisan inhabitants: their enlarged labia? Cf. van Binsbergen, in press.

[8]        Cf. van Binsbergen 1977.

[9]        Here as elsewhere in this essay, reference is primarily made to the Nkoya under the chieftainship of Mwene Kahare — the group also known as Mashasha, in the eastern part of Kaoma district, Western Province, Zambia. In the central and western parts of that district, cash crop production and the attending changes in attitudes towards agriculture goes back to the late colonial period, the 1950s.

[10]      Cf. van Binsbergen, in press.

[11]      Cf. van Binsbergen 1981.

[12]      The process is described in an essay ‘Eerste veldwerk: Tunisiè’ 1968’, Wim van Binsbergen & Martin Doornbos (eds), Afrika in Spiegelbeeld, Haarlem: In de Knipscheer, 1987: 21-55; manuscript translation ‘First field-work: Tunisia 1968’ available. Barely disguised, it has formed the subject matter of my novel Een buik openen, Haarlem: In de Knipscheer, in press.


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