Tribal Wives 
Diverse Bristol

Coming of age

In many cultures, leaving one’s childhood behind and graduating into adulthood is a cause for celebration. When a woman reaches the age of 15 in certain parts of South America, her relatives throw a large party called a quinceañera. For the young men of Brazil’s Xavante tribe, on the other hand, the pathway to becoming an adult involves spending 15 days immersed in water.


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Photo from Tribal Wives
Hamar women dancing at a cattle jump ceremony to mark a young man coming of age.

Introduction

Tribal Wives 
Diverse Bristol Coming of age

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About Coming of age

Coming of age is the transition from child to adult, boy to man, girl to woman. But when exactly that happens – and how you celebrate or action the change - may depend entirely on where in the world you live.

In the UK, depending on your point of view, people come of age when they reach 16, 18 or 21 years old. At 16 you can get married without parental consent in England and Scotland, but you have to wait until you are 18 before you are allowed to vote, drink alcohol, or buy cigarettes. Turning 21, in comparison, has few legal effects but may be even more strenuou sly celebrated.

In other cultures, the graduation into adulthood may not depend on age so much as on experience and development. Young Hamar boys of Ethiopia, for instance, becoming a man is marked when they can run four times over the backs of their cattle, while the boys of Brazil’s Xavante tribe come of age through a series of tasks including spending fifteen days immersed in water.

Only allowed to leave the water for the occasional sleep, the men-in-waiting are taken to the point of complete exhaustion under the watchful eyes and instruction of the village elders. Once their skin is sufficiently softened, the boys are then ritually scarred and their ears pierced with the bone of a jaguar. Having proved their stamina, they are finally painted with red dye as a sign of their transition to manhood.

Girls, too, have their initiation ceremonies, some more enjoyable than others. In many parts of Latin America, for instance, girls are thought to come of age when they turn fifteen and the occasion is often marked by a lavish party called a quinceañera. Further north, in the USA, wealthier families hold grand debutante balls at which parents present their daughters into high society.

Other female initiation ceremonies might not be quite so enjoyable. In parts of Brazil, Colombia and Peru, a Tikuna girl’s first period heralds a ceremony in which she is painted black, adorned with eagle feathers, and made to sing, dance, and jump over fires for up to four days – all without much sleep. This done, she is then placed in isolation for up to six months during which time she is taught about the history of her people and informed of her future responsibilities. For her, childhood is very much a thing of the past.

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