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

Initiates with their guardians on route to bathe, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1976. Photo by Arthur Bourgeois.

During the liminal period, initiands suffer what Turner (1970: 99) has called “sacred poverty” as they give up any possessions associated with individuality. If circumcision is practiced, all boys are operated upon in the same fashion, regardless of the social status of their families. Here we see recently circumcised Yaka boys dressed in raffia skirts. The sameness of the costume eliminates social identity recognized through clothing, but also refers to the straw fencing and other measures through which sacred precincts are secluded following the customs of the ancestors (see Grootaers and Eisenburger 2002). The boys are led by their initiators to a stream near their camp, to bathe their wounds in cool water. Streams provide spiritual purification, for water is associated with providence, and the structure of a stream—formless water between opposite banks—echoes liminality itself. Across Africa, boys are initiated at younger ages and for shorter periods than in the old days, because of school calendars and other factors.


Democratic Republic of the Congo; Suku peoples. Performance. Video by Arthur Bourgeois.