Childhood

By Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Initiate relaxes before a fire following his circumcision, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1976. Photo by Arthur Bourgeois.

What Turner (1970: 99) calls “the peculiar unity” of the liminal period can challenge other aspects of life ordinarily taken for granted. Sex distinctions have great significance to societies structured by kinship, for instance, because it is through gender that clans, lineages, exogamy, and other relations are determined to organize cooperative life. If boys' initiation makes men, then a first step may be for the boys to “become” girls or to blur their gender. As such, they are symbolically sexless or bisexual, and “may be regarded as a kind of human prima materia—as undifferentiated raw material” to be shaped by the initiators (ibid, 98). Circumcision is the next step toward the cultural construction of men, as the “female” foreskin is removed. Circumcision is dangerous, both because of infection and because it “opens” the boys to those with evil intentions. Here a newly circumcised Yaka boy holds talismanic packets and a chick in his hand as protection during this time of vulnerability.