"Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we may ourselves treading on men's dreams. More serious still, we may forget that God was here before our arrival."
It was December 24, the Jubilee Year 2000. In the early hours of the night, we enacted the Christmas story in a rural center of our parish, St. Kizito in Kabanaga, Zambia. Bo Patricia, who is a team member of the Garden of Oneness, was then in full-term pregnancy with her 10th child. She acted the part of Mother Mary and it was so real as she carried her own child.
As we went to bed that night, I could hear Patricia was in labor pain in the next room. Two other women were helping her. As the baby turned in her mother's womb, I went into the room with anxiety. I said, "Just hold on; can you wait till tomorrow?"
She did and so did the baby. After the Christmas celebration, I brought Patricia home. She went into labor the next day and gave birth to her last born, a little girl, on December 26 and named her Maria.
Recently, Maria came of age and, along with four other members of her extended family, Maria was celebrated. Her becoming a woman was celebrated. It was a colorful, prayerful, joyful, wonderful gathering of family, friends and neighbors. Yes, the whole community of life rejoiced! The banquet hall was the open air, sheltered by the mango trees with a bright blue sky for the canopy. The floor was decked with the sand of the Kalahari desert.
How inspiring it is to see the way a community celebrates womanhood and welcomes the young women to the stage of adulthood! It is like the RCIA we have in the Christian tradition.
I was invited to participate in the ceremony for the final day of celebration. The entire ceremony lasted two weeks and had several stages.
Announcing the ceremony:
The young women were each covered with a blanket and, with song, dance and ululation, the women elders took them out of the village to a fruit tree in the field before sunrise. It is an invitation to the young women to be early risers. The women elders sang and danced with them for an hour or two.
A flag was hoisted in the middle of the homestead to let the local community know there was a mukiti (initiation celebration) in this village.
Time of separation and seclusion:
The girls were then taken to a lapa (secluded area), led by a mentor and accompanied by the elderly women. They stayed here for two weeks and were instructed. They were initiated into the way of life of the tribe, of the family, of ways to build relationships with themselves and others.
Values such as respect, how to be responsible people in the community, how to behave in the way they dress and relate with others, and how to pray, among other aspects, are at the center of the whole initiation process. It helps them to awaken to who they are and to know the difference between being a child and a young woman who has been instructed.
They also did some work in the field, like planting maize and groundnuts (peanuts), and collecting firewood for cooking. They went through a path specially created for them so that the seclusion is honored.
The young women have mentors to accompany them on this journey, to call them to take their place in the family, community and the community of life. Mentors take time to explain critical matters of life so that they are able to connect the past with the present as they focus on their future with hope. It was a period of intensive instruction, helping them to claim who they are as women. Other women joined them in the evenings to sing some traditional songs as well as to give instruction.
Mwalanjo naliele, katumbwa, kanyina sibeviso
You are no longer a young child, don't play with your parents' bedroom
or your mother's bag, you can't just play anyhow anywhere.
The young women listened attentively and accepted the instructions. They clapped their hands to show they have heard and accepted. It was also a preparation period before the actual day of mukiti. Others who have been through the bwalanjo (initiation) joined them mostly in the evenings to chat, share, sing and dance.
Eve of the celebration:
The women of the family, women friends of the village and of the parents spend the whole night with the young women singing, dancing and dramatizing traditional songs that have meaning and purpose. "You need to be a woman who is generous," they sing.
The mentors asked the young women if they remember the meaning of the songs and proverbs they were taught and asked them to review. It was a night to recap of what was learned.
Time of integration:
The morning of the celebration, the young women were beautifully dressed in their new traditional chitengi suit, which is a sign of being a respectful woman, a sign of womanhood. I had the privilege of being inside the lapa (secluded area) and meet the young women and their mentors. The young women were standing together so respectfully, hardly lifting their eyes to look up, palms folded in a sign of reverence.
The women of the family and friends accompanied the young balanjo (initiates) and brought them out of the lapa covered with a blanket or a colorful sheet. There was great rejoicing as they were brought to the arena. Behold the face of God; behold women of the Light; behold bearers of life and love. Bo Patricia led this journey of rejoicing. The whole community rejoiced, sang and danced and eagerly waited for the unveiling of the young women by the parents.
The parents came forward singing and dancing carrying the symbols of a small hoe and axe. With it, they unveiled the young initiates with a word of advice. "Everything has been cooked and is on the plate. It is up to you to choose. My name will be respected in the way you behave. The behavior of the child is connected to the family so don't disappoint us as family."
As part of the ritual, the parents gave them a small gift of money. More singing and dancing and sharing of gifts by well-wishers followed. Following that, the choir sang and we had the proclamation of the Word, reflections and prayers. Some of the elders were invited to give the young women a word of wisdom. I was invited to speak, too. It was a grace-filled occasion.
An open-table celebration:
The whole family, friends and neighborhood joined to welcome the young women. I was wonderstruck by the open-table hospitality of the family. All were welcomed; no one was excluded. Crowds of people, children, men and women, came and I asked myself, "How are they going to be fed?" Amazing miracles of generosity! No one was sent away hungry. Everyone had a place at the table.
How do they do it? I do not know. I stand in awe and wonder at the openhearted generosity and hospitality. Awakened and challenged, I wondered, "Do we experience such hospitality in our communities? Do we have an open table?"
Seeds of the Word are present in all cultures, giving them identity, dignity, continuity and security. Every culture is a sacred expression of the Divine. Every culture is a face of the Divine, painted in many colors. Every culture is a voice of the Divine that can be heard and recognized by those who listen with the ear of the heart, see with the eyes of the Spirit.
For me, the whole celebration was an experience of Eucharist, the way Jesus would have it. Each time I partake of the heart of local culture, I also feel drawn deeper to my own Indian culture and learn to appreciate it. I came away with a heart full of gratitude for having partaken of a sacred way of being community. Truly, God was in this place and I saw her face, heard his voice. We sang and danced with the Holy One.
And I am painfully conscious of how we have desecrated the face of God, the voice of God in other cultures and other religions, because of our narrow worldview and our small experience of God. We have discriminated, dominated and have been divisive toward peoples different from us, causing untold pain in our world.
We have failed to encounter each other as fellow pilgrims and have trampled on other's beliefs, values and dreams. We forget that no one culture can reveal the complete face of God. No culture is perfect and all cultures need to be redeemed, transformed in the light of the values that enable life for all.
Who am I and who are you? You and I are children of the universe, we are earthlings, children of Mother Earth. No matter our color or creed or tribe, we all belong to the household of the Holy One. Let us bow in reverence to the One who is the center point of all cultures and all beings: the Light within all life, the Face behind all face, the Color within all colors, the Heart within all hearts.
Let us take our place at the table of life as one among many. We are many lamps, one flame.
Thanks to the Musiwa family for their suggestions and contribution to this column.
[Teresita Abraham is a Presentation Sister from India living in rural Zambia. She is passionate about the new creation story and spirituality of being in communion. Together with the local community, she has created the Garden of Oneness, a Sanctuary of Peace and Harmony where she lives and works.]