(Prose part 1) African Initiation by Louisa Calio

Louisa Calio with Ghana family hosts2

Author third from left, with her Ghanaian family hosts

Part One: Ghanaian Festival

… Once again the Kwando family welcomed them. They had arrived auspiciously. “Tomorrow will be the most important Ga festival,” Kwame said. How privileged they felt when he spoke with the elders to get them permission to enter parts of the ritual normally excluded to outsiders.

“You’ll come to our most sacred ceremony in which the Unseen appears,” he continued in a whisper. “I may be a Christian, but I’m an African first, and the Unseen can never be ignored or trifled with. The Unseen represents our greatest fears, our blindness, addictions and the hour of our death. Its face is covered by raffia and Its body is shaded by a white powdery paste, because the Unseen has walked in two worlds: the world of the living and the world of the dead. The call of the drums is a warning to pay attention, because no one knows the hour of his death. Pay attention, they say, because what is unseen eventually becomes visible.”

“Kwame, you’re an African theologian!” Will exclaimed, truly impressed. “We’re so fortunate to have you with us,” Lucia added. Their remarks made him feel warm all over. It was inspiring to be appreciated and respected as an elder for his love of African religion and art. Most of his friends had laughed at his interests. They were westernized, into pop music and making money. They had called him “old man,” but now he felt proud to be like the ancestors rooted in knowledge and wisdom and ready to pass on the secrets of his traditions to any who demonstrated a sincere interest. He liked these new friends.

Tirelessly they watched hours of dance and ceremony under Africa’s hot sun. Later that afternoon, Kwame led them to a secluded area far from the festivities. On a deserted and dusty road, huge clay drums made the heaviest sounds they ever heard. Although there were spectators in ordinary dress who carried fruit drinks to watch, when “the Unseen one” appeared, their casual manner disappeared and they backed away in awe. The children present drew in closer to their parents, grabbing at their clothes and burying their faces behind their legs or in their skirts when It passed.  Faceless and hidden under a flowing, long raffia headdress, the frightening specter approached slowly and deliberately. At first Will and Lucia had a million questions, but as the Unseen neared, they were consumed by the moment and the mystery, unable to utter a word until the ceremony ended.

Later that night, Ashneen and her husband, Ashtai, came to chat with their guests in the small house. Ashtai didn’t spend much time at home. He lived in a man’s world and was usually off to the country, inspecting farms for the Ministry or meeting his male friends in town to discuss politics. He showed little interest or participation in his family’s day to day activities. There seemed to be a distant respect between husband and wife, but Lucia sensed little warmth. Ashneen’s life was filled with work both for income and her children.

She told Will to take a long walk with her husband. Lucia continued to gaze long and hard at the elder standing under a full moon’s light in the doorway of the blue house: mother of ten, fit, beautiful, brown skinned with long tightly curled jet black hair. She wondered whether Ashneen was happy, lonely or contented with her life? Her cool, serene goddess-like demeanor made it difficult to know.

“You can come in now, Essie,” Ashneen called to the shadows and Essie popped out as if on cue.

“Lucia, we’re going to make you a woman tonight,” she said powerfully.

In this world, being made a woman didn’t happen by birth, age or menstruation alone. It was marked. What would it mean to be made a woman? Lucia felt both thrilled and afraid. She remembered parts of Africa practiced female circumcision. She’d never consent to that!

But more like a dancer led between two partners blindfolded.

“We blindfold you, because many times we walk the paths of life unseeing. It is only the Mother’s love and her moon’s light that illumines our night passages,” Ashneen explained before lifting her veil.

When Lucia opened her eyes, moon‑light had turned everyone and everything silvery‑blue. The women washed her hair and body from head to foot in the warm waters Essie had heated over the fire.

“Water is the Mother’s element. She revitalizes us through her ancient sources. That’s why we bathe you in water,” Ashneen continued.

Closing her eyes, Lucia let the water seep in deeply, cleansing beyond the skin. Essie’s gentle hands patted her dry and then lovingly wrapped her in a beautiful gold and red garment, a woman’s cloth, decorated with ancient symbols of the feminine.

“Let’s go inside, I’m going to pierce your ears,” the elder said with that same gentle but commanding voice. But the sudden fear of a bacterial infection in the tropics prompted Lucia to try to say no. “Maybe we’d better wait on that,” she ventured.

Ashneen’s manner reassured her. With needle, thread and banana skin backing, she went ahead painlessly puncturing her ear lobes. Hidden under a piece of red cloth was a pair of gold earrings shaped like Snakes, a gift from her initiator.

“These are to be worn for at least six months straight. The snakes are a symbol of the two currents of life: positive and negative. Wear them with awareness. Now unwrap your dress,” she directed.

Lucia began to sweat. Suspiciously searching the room for what could be next, she was pleasantly surprised by three rows of decorative white and red beads on the bed. Wrapping the beads ceremoniously around her hips, the women tied up all the ends.

“The color red stands for your life’s blood and the wound that bleeds monthly without killing a woman. White is for the waters of life and fertility. The beads will make you a wonderful lover for your husband,” Essie said.

“How do I take them off?”

“You don’t.”

Naked except for three strands of glass beads and a pair of gold earrings, she ingested her womanhood in a way she had longed to, in a way she wished she could have shared with her mother, sister and grandmothers. She felt proud to be linked to an ancient lineage of women.

“I’m sure all women did this once. Thank you,” she said, as a deluge of  tears  rolled down her face. She tried her best to hide them.

“Never be afraid to cry. We cry when the Earth-Mother is thirsty. You can call me Mother now and Essie Sister. You’re part of us forever,” Ashneen said.

Lucia sobbed, releasing a flood of emotions as they held and comforted her, sharing in the part of her womanhood that was sorrow.

From the unpublished novel,  Lucia Means Light

To be continued.

Read Meet Mago Contributor Louisa Calio.

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