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Right of Passage to Manhood Celebration in Tanna

Junior helping the other men with the food pile

Male Right of Passage ceremonies are celebrated in Tanna Vanuatu once a year. Mothers of young boys ages 5 to 10 decide the year their sons will become men. This year, little Junior, aged 8, was sent into the jungle with a medicine man. He was given a “calming drink” but no anesthesia. After the ceremony, the men stayed away for more than a month while Junior healed. When he returned to his village to see his mother again, he was celebrated, not just by his own village, but also by the one where she grew up, which happened to be Port Resolution where we have been anchored since we arrived in Tanna.

The two slaughtered cows beside the gifts of food, are carefully placed to face the recipient village

  In Port Resolution, we’ve been fortunate to get to know a villager named Stanley who is related to Junior’s mother. Junior’s village is small and not on the tourist trail of those who fly into Tanna for a day of sightseeing, or arrive by cruise ship to the other side of the island for the same reason. The experience we had here was real and authentic village life, unlike the dancing we saw at another village, which seemed like a show put on for visitors.

The men drag the cow to the give to the other village

  In these pictures, you can see Junior proudly stepping into his role as a man of his village: wearing his new boots, giving a hand to remove the bamboo poles supporting the cloth-covered pile of food being gifted to the village where his mother was raised, slaughtering cows to exchange between the villages along with piles of food (mainly root vegetables and large bags of staples). Before being exchanged, each village’s pile of food was covered with many colored cloths, and was then blessed and sanctified by the village elders.

even the children participate in butchering the cow (yes, I blurred the neck for the squeamish)

  The cow killing seemed brutal to me as a non-meat-eating westerner, but I humbly realize the importance to the village of this ceremony, the special occasion of eating this cow they have cared for and raised since birth for this purpose, and the necessary and as-kind-as-possible way they killed the cow.

Many young children had never seen a cow slaughtered before

  The men of the village tied the cow to a tree and subdued it by throwing rocks and coconuts at the bone plate above its eyes. Once the cow was dazed, they beat that same spot with the flat back end of an axe until the cow appeared to be semi-conscious. Then one man approached the cow with a machete and slit its throat. All pulling together, the men dragged the dying cow to a spot alongside the pile of food. One man explained to me how important it was that the cows each faced the village they were being gifted to. Port Resolution also gave a live goat to Junior’s village.

Junior, the circumcision celebrant, in front of the food piled up in his honor

  From the youngest children’s reactions as they peered at the dead cow, you could tell they had never seen a cow slaughtered before. In this subsistence culture, dining on beef is a rare treat. When the cow was later carved up for cooking and to separate its hide and all the parts of its body that could be used, the children gathered closely around, fascinated. Later we saw young children prancing around the village carrying hooves, ears, legs, and other cow parts that had could not be repurposed.

Men from Junior’s village greeting the elder women from Port Resolution, his mother’s village

  We were honored to be welcomed to share Junior’s special celebration. Unlike in some villages which are more commercially-focused on producing events for tourists, this village is a smaller, quieter one not frequented by tourists. We were the only non-villagers there and were invited to participate rather than just watch from afar.

I’m kneeling beside the dead cow stroking its nose, helping the children not be afraid

  Once the cow had been dragged to the food pile, I found myself in the midst of some frightened children standing nearby.  One father had brought his very young son over to touch the cow, which made him frightened and cry. This got the other slightly older children crying. I was still shaken by the animal’s death myself, but I knelt by its head and gently petted the hair on its nose and said (in English, which the children didn’t understand, but they understood my soothing tone) “gentle, gentle.” I marveled at the effect this had on the children; they stopped crying and began gently petting the cow, and stopped poking its still-open eyes.

I was so honored to be powder-anointed and welcomed by the women folk of the village

  I had baked a cake and brought that as a gift to Junior’s mother. Over many miles, we’ve learned how warmly welcomed homemade frosted cakes are to villagers. Later, when I saw women cleaning up, I jumped in to help two women rewinding the long bolts of cloths that had run from the food piles to the two chiefs of the village (a part of the ceremonially as the chiefs received the gifts from the other villages). I also helped the women fold and put away the mats, baskets and fabrics that had covered the food piles. Suddenly, one of the women anointed me with powder and gave me a beautiful basket she had woven. The villager who drove us back to our boat told me this gesture was special and signified gratitude and my acceptance into the tribe.

Junior, thank you for letting us share in your circumcision celebration!

Can you imagine anyone more beautiful than this elder woman of the village?

  Being a part of this circumcision ceremony, and the only non-villagers there, was a privilege we won’t soon forget.

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