The Gift of Passage

One day, my mother pulled me out of school. Just for a day. I was 17. It had occurred to her that I needed to be given a rite of passage.

That rite turned out to be an Anglican one. The Church of England had erased our cultural rites and bequeathed us theirs. Ok, so some aspects of some rites needed to go but we threw away the baby with the bathwater. I was an African child born into an Anglican identity. A thing like that. One day we will talk about life as a hybrid creature.

On this day, my mother sent one of my aunts to come to the boarding school I attended and bring me home.

“You are to be confirmed today,” my aunt said. “Oh?” I said. This will be interesting. I had not done the catechism classes that qualified one for this rite. My mother must have rigged me in. It turns out the big Bishop guy who lived in the city of Mombasa was coming to visit the village and all manner of pomp and circumstance was underway. This included the confirmation rite of several young people in the village who had been taking catechism classes for weeks and were now proud graduates who could recite the Ten Commandment backward, the Nicene Creed without missing a beat and whatever other Anglican dogma required for this rite of passage. I had done none of this, but I had an idea that I should not kill and I should honor thy mother and thy father. How my mother got me on that list of new Anglican initiates is still a mystery. Well, she was mother. She just cared that I too must be celebrated.

When I got home, my mother showed me a white dress I was to wear. I loved it. It was new and it fit perfectly. It also awakened in me my unknown attraction to ritual drama and its therapeutic powers. I hadn’t started my war with religion and borrowed spiritualties yet. I hadn’t reached the age of needing an identity. I didn’t care one way or the other about getting a Bishop’s hand placed on me and according me permission to eat the body and drink the blood of Jesus. I do not remember believing in anything in particular. Whatever forces were molding me were doing a fine job of not waking me up to question belief systems.

My godmother, who I don’t ever remember knowing until then, was there with the gift of a white plastic tote bag decorated with big beautiful flowers. They used to sell those bags at the market for a hundred Kenya shillings. At that time, that converted to $0.15. Let me tell you about that bag. In its years of existence, I had gone on to love it and its gloriously cheap plastic self until it melted away, literally. See, years later someone had accidentally placed it too close to a hot iron. I had taken it to the fundi for mending and he sewed on a mismatched plastic patch where the big ugly hole had formed. Imagine that – mending a bag worth less than US 20 cents. There were other bags far more durable around the house, bags I could buy from the city, and bags I could get from relatives who would visit regularly from the US. But this particular bag was special because it was gifted to me on a special day. The stitches that held up the patch quickly came undone. I had stretched the bag’s life to an unsalvageable point. Eventually, I had to let it go.

I was telling you about that special day. A goat had been slaughtered and chickens dispatched to poultry heaven. The soil had soaked in the sacrificial blood of these animals and the ancestors grudgingly accepted the shift in customs and whatever syncretism had spawned out of the forced marriage of spiritualties.

The compound was coming alive with festivities and before long, we would all be trooping back from church where the Bishop had placed his hand on us and said something. Each initiate would head on to their homes to be celebrated by family. I don’t think there ever was a single parent who sat down to think- I’m going to celebrate the fact that my child can now eat a deity’s body and drink its blood while capable of reciting commandments written by said deity’s father who lives in the skies and appeared on a mountain and wrote said commandments on a stone with his finger and only one guy who stayed on that mountain for forty days without food witnessed this thing.

Ok, seriously, the idea is to officially confirm your child as having passed the test to become a wiser human ready to bear the responsibility of being a morally upright member of society. Every time I drink that blood and eat that body in sacrament, I’m supposed to renew that pact of moral fortitude, surrender my pride to a higher authority, and celebrate my communion with fellow humans. I can live with that. In fact, years later, this ritual gained a lot of significance in my life as someone who abhorred injustice. I would later come to meet a community of Episcopalians committed to social justice who held this ritual in a circle around the altar. It reminded me that no earthling – from the wiggly worm in the soil to the tallest standing human – was superior to another.

People will always celebrate their children as they become adults, and for my mother, it seemed any rite of passage that did me no harm would do. Had I been older and awakened to the fight for my spiritual identity, I might just have requested for mwazindika dancers and their drums that sent old ladies into a trance when the boom of the beat was just so. I’m glad I wasn’t older.

For that one day, the world in my father’s compound would revolve around me. I have never forgotten just how special that felt. You carry this gift of love in you forever. That’s how my mother had planned it. It was beautiful.

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