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

Kabre peoples, Togo, men’s initiation. Photo by Allen F. Roberts.

An achievement celebrated as boys graduate from their initiation camps is often the endurance they have learned, sometimes over the course of many months. It takes strong men to eke lives from the harsh climates and poor soils that characterize much of sub-Saharan Africa, and initiation teaches important lessons of perseverance. Men must be physically capable as well, and this they often demonstrate in public contests. Here an adolescent emerging from the last of several initiation sequences observed by Kabre people shows his manly qualities through feats that test both his moral and physical courage. He and his fellows climb a steep mountain path in a painful duck-walk, and when the initiation master signals, they clang locally forged gongs against iron rings on their thumbs. In so doing, the initiands reenact a sacred journey to the heights where baobab trees stand as ancestral sentinels. Should a boy stumble or fail to ring his gong, his misstep will be remembered scornfully.