A small mud-covered child stands naked and trembling in the dim light of dawn. Encircling him, family and friends wait in silent anticipation for the ceremony to begin. The time has come for the boy to become a man, but first he must withstand the knife.
Every second winter, in the month of August, adolescent boys of the Bukusu tribe in Western Kenya face this test. Before acceptance into adulthood, they must endure all without exhibiting pain.
In the West, teenagers scale railway gantries to emblazon their fame in spray paint letters. They make names for themselves at parties by always throwing the first punch or downing the last beer. On the sporting field, they aggressively imitate their "role models" in the quest to become admired as "real" men. With few legitimate avenues available to express their prowess, some young men resort to risk-taking behaviour through sex, drugs, petty vandalism and theft. Through these de facto tests, boys push the boundaries of their adolescence, straining for acceptance by adult male family and peers. Often, it ends in tragedy. More often still, it never ends.
Age milestones have never been an effective method of separating the men from the boys. At 18, you may gain legal access to drink and promiscuity, but little else changes. The infantilisation of adults imposed by omnipresent advertising, the commercial worship of youthful irresponsibility and whimsical consumerism has helped to perpetuate the cult of "adultlescence".
"Thirty is the new 20," comes the catchcry. "Growing old is a state of mind!" How true this is. It seems that the fountain of youth lies in avoiding responsibility. Thus boys have babies and so give birth to the next fatherless generation. Attempting to fill the void, male "adultlescents" purchase great totems of masculinity: big houses, fast cars - but no family to fill them with. And so aged bodies conceal puerile minds. In the absence of any true rite of passage, they impotently flaunt their virility, leaving others to bear the costs.
In generations past, our forefathers faced up to adversity head on: they had no choice. Through struggle, they learned to value that which was most dear - family, community and fraternity. They had responsibility thrust upon them but never shirked the load. Yet what comparable tests of courage are available to contemporary males?
There is a great silence regarding what it is to be a man in today’s society. The positive has been replaced by the normative. We ought to be better SNAGs, more metrosexual; we are to be more loving, more understanding. These are all ideals to strive for. But too many men, it seems, get lost on the way there for want of knowing where to begin.
As we’ve progressed from a "traditional" to "modern" society, we seem to have forgotten that one can be rich in a multitude of ways. Too many men have climbed the corporate ladder to find they don’t like the view. Others have amassed great wealth only to find the more you have, the more you have to lose. Thus our greatest triumphs often lead to our greatest setbacks.
Where does this leave the next generation of boys? To what should our current teenagers aspire? How can they both be proud of who they are, and become the men their community wants them to be? Perhaps masculinity has always been measured by how many or how much: how many killed; how many conceived and how much in the bank.
What we are sorely lacking are constructive methods by which boys can transform and emotionally re-emerge, ready to carry the burden of male responsibility. For there are two kinds of freedoms: freedom to and freedom from. By recklessly pursuing the former, we have denied ourselves the latter.
I am certainly not advocating the introduction and imposition of initiation rituals of comparable brutality, as those practiced by the Bukusus (or university fraternities!). However, the certainty that such rites offer, and the transformation they entail (even if only symbolic), seems to beg the question: why have we abandoned our own initiation rituals?
The trials of pregnancy and motherhood seem to represent, for many women, some clear demarcation between their "current" and "former" lives. Yet too many fathers seem not to share this same transformation.
Male society needs to reinvent the formal and informal rites of passage. We can’t expect teachers, psychiatrists, social workers and the law to succeed where we have failed.
There is an age-old aphorism, often attributed to the Jesuits: "Give me the boy until he is seven and I will show you the man." If only this statement were taken more seriously - we would be well on our way to harvesting a rich crop of future leaders.