Rites of passage

Using ritual to reclaim young people in trouble with the law

Vanja Karth

Central programme concepts
Concluding considerations

Since the beginnings of humankind, we have made use of rituals. Rituals bind us together, a collective phenomenon, throwing a bridge between the banks of a river that some call life, others death (Virel:1980:129). Sally Falk Moor (in Driver:1991:137) sees rituals acting to "provide daily regenerating frames, social constructions of reality, within which the attempt is made to fix social life,to keep it from slipping into the sea of indeterminacy."

Ritual disrupts chronological time: it is the eternal return, for it can transform any given moment into a new beginning. By repeating itself, yet always remaining the same, ritual gives to a world in continuous motion a recurrent, unvarying element of security (Virel:1979:129). More specifically, cultures around the world have created ceremonies and rituals - what the French anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep called "rites of passage" - around individual life crises :those crucial moments when we pass from one state of being to the next (Van Gennep:1960:3).

One of these such life crises is adolescence. It is a time of great confusion for young people, no matter their colour or culture. It is a time of rapid physical change and of intense feelings and fluctuating emotions (Newman and Newman:1987: 337). It is also a time most deeply misunderstood by our culture (Pinnock:1995:4). Crossing the bridge between childhood and maturity is a perilous passage and in traditional societies it has long been accepted that young people need a process to guide them through this time (Cohen:1991:45).For example in South Africa the South Nguni peoples have long acknowledged their childrens' transition into adulthood with their "intonjane" and "amakhwetha" puberty rituals for girls and boys respectively.

To become acknowledged as responsible members of society, young people need to understand where childhood ends and where adulthood begins and what their society expects of them (Cohen:1991:66). Yet Western culture has largely abandoned the rites that honour adolescent transition (Cohen:1991:45). Rituals have been eclipsed and celebrations degenerated into commonplace events. As Bill Moyers states "[modern] society has provided adolescents with no rituals by which they become members of the tribe, the community. All children need to be twice born, to learn to function rationally in the present world, leaving childhood behind"(in Cohen:1991:45).

Unfortunately, South Africa has inherited a nation in which traditional social structures and sanctions on behaviour have disintegrated and the government policies of the past have created generations of poor and socially dysfunctional families (Pinnock:1995:2).We are left with many young people who have been poorly fed, indifferently educated ,living with parents who are stressed by poverty, relocation and unemployment (Juvenile Justice Drafting Consultancy: 1994:3).Thus many of these young people have little sense of stability or security in their lives, beyond the bitter knowledge of continuing poverty ,and little hope of rising beyond their circumstances. Extremely high numbers of these young people - especially boys - have chosen or have fallen into methods of dealing with their lives in ways that violate the law (Juvenile Justice Drafting Consultancy:1994:3).

Our culture's response to young people who get into trouble with the law, has been one of retribution.We lock them up and until recently, we whip them, and we still expect them to emerge from these experiences as better and responsible citizens.We are constantly reminded that an ever-increasing amount of young people are appearing in court for increasingly violent crimes, yet the present system continues to use methods and procedures that neither put a halt to crime, nor assist young people into taking responsibility for their actions (Juvenile Justice Drafting Consultancy:1994:2).

Our culture tends to exclude youth from responsibility only to blame them for their irresponsibility (Brentro et al:1990:20).

We need to move away from our punitive and retributive practices towards rehabilitative, educational and restorative options, in an attempt to reclaim our youth who are in trouble with the law (Muntingh:1994:4). Many of the young people who are getting into trouble with the law can, and should be, diverted from the criminal justice process, and we need to start to develop new and creative methods to deal with these youngsters: methods that will encourage the young person to take responsibility for his/her actions, to be made aware of the effects of the offence on the victim and a chance to change their ways and escape from the vicious cycle of crime.

If we go back to the idea that a life crisis occurs at those crucial times when we pass from one state of being to the next, then we can consider that when a young person gets his or herself in trouble with the law is one such time. It is a time when the decisions which take place on how to deal with that person will have consequences that can form the person for the rest of their life. Incarceration has often been said to teach little more than crime and tends to reinforce behaviour which leads to criminal activity - youth are impressionable, adopt role models and are relatively easily influenced (Vardon:1988:106)

If rites of passage are to be considered a process by which we pass from one state of being to another, then we can adopt and adapt them to put a halt to delinquent behaviour.Warfield-Coppock states that "initiation is the idea of making a choice, preparing for a period of time, assessing and accepting new steps or new experiences" (Warfield-Coppock:1992:3). The time for rites of passage can be construed as both a time of crisis - of change and opportunity - and ceremony (Warfield-Coppock:1992:153). Then, to use the words of D.H. Lawrence, " to these rituals we must return, or we must evolve them to suit our needs " ( In Cohen : 1991:175).

One such way of doing this is to extract the concepts used in rites of passage and use them as a process by which to guide young people back into society as mature and responsible citizens, and to give them a sense of pride as to who they have become, avoiding the stigmatisation that tends to result from retributive punishment.

Central programme concepts

We live in a multicultural society in South Africa, with a rich source of traditional cultural practices that honour young peoples entrance into social maturity, but we cannot focus just on one culture's practices. Rather we need to extract the archetypical elements that exist in all rites of passage and formulate a programme around them.

Van Gennep divides a rite of passage into three phases: separation, the liminal phase of betwixt and between, and reintegration into society with a new status (Van Gennep: 1960: 11). Rites of separation are to detach the subject from their old status or condition ; transitional rites in which the subject receives instruction on becoming a new person ; and rites of incorporation to allow for re-entry into society with a new status (Pinnock:1995:5).

The most effective place for a programme of this type to occur would be in a wilderness area. Most of the young people who are in trouble with the law are inner-city dwellers who are unfamiliar with the wilderness environment (Nold and Wilpers:1975:156). It is a neutral place which is totally detached from that which the young person is familiar, and a place to provide the necessary challenges or adventures to promote personal growth (Ramsay:1988:6).Getting in touch with nature assists in the process of being in tune with self.

All ritual is rich with symbolism and a programme of this nature needs to include symbolic acts. One such act, is that of symbolic death. The symbol of death is that of transformation or change -it denotes the passage from one stage to another (Warfield-Coppock:1992:99). In South Africa the Venda, Tsonga, South Sotho and South Nguni include this symbolism in their puberty rites - the boys are naked except for a blanket and their bodies are painted white (Ramsay:1988:13).For the adult to be born the child must symbolically die (Cohen:1991:66). Or in the case of a programme for offenders - the criminal in the young person must die and the law-abiding citizen be born.

Learning is the fundamental basis of a programme of this type, and often the most important lessons learned in life are painful (Warfield-Coppock:1992:100). Ordeals are often used to teach lessons of powerful importance, and restrictions of some kind should be incorporated to assist the process of gaining discipline and self-control (ibid). Restrictions symbolise sacrifice which is required to obtain the important things in life, or a symbol of real life situations of meagre means (ibid). They also serve to distance one from the dependence on the "easy life" and from the usual societal stimulations .Restrictions may include:

Instruction in matters relative to conducting one's life as a socially responsible and mature adult form the main part of a rite of passage.Central to the whole process needs to be those lessons which assist the person to accept responsibility for his/her actions and provide guidelines by which the young person can base his/her life. Included in this should be :

Very important in a programme like this is the idea of team work and group co-operation. Activities need to encourage group decision-making abilities and co-operative efforts. Adolescent rites of passage invariably include a shared ordeal that bond its members. In the words of Professor J.A. Jackson " trials of strength and endurance... are common to all initiations. The adult must be brave in the face of danger and must be steadfast in the face of pain". (in Cohen:1991:89).

For example, the Outward Bound programme in the United States includes a team activity in which a thirteen foot obstacle must be scaled by all members of the group - an impossible task without teamwork , and one which encourages mutual trust (Nold and Wilpers:1975:156).Also included should be high-risk controlled situations of immediate confrontation, in which the young person is compelled to face his own abilities and inabilities, to make decisions for himself (Nold and Wilpers:1975:157).

The wilderness environment allows for such acts to occur , be it abseiling or rock-climbing, but pitting oneself against the forces of nature allows for the assertion of "machismo" in socially acceptable ways (Nold and Wilpers:1975:156). Boys across the globe play out the need to test their mettle, to become heroes (Cohen: 1991:86), and this environment allows for them to prove themselves.

Another process by which to test the courage of the young person and by which he can prove himself is to include a solo experience in the programme. The young person should spend at least a day and a night entirely alone, except for basic food and shelter. In this type of a situation the young person is forced to face his own reactions and fears. Being alone triggers thoughts of one's past present and future, and allows for the boosting of one's independence and self-reliance (Nold and Wilpers:1975:157).

Because one of the major psychosocial crises which occurs around adolescence is that of peer relationships and of a sense of belonging to the group, the programme needs to include group experiences that encourage positive peer relations (Newman and Newman:1987:339 ).Besides the type of teamwork mentioned previously,the young people must be included in group activities such as the collection of firewood and water, cooking ,singing, music (for example drumming or marimba playing). Drama can be incorporated so that through role playing and characterisation the young people can learn problem solving techniques in a fun and creative manner (Brentro and Ness:1983:272).

Also included should be the recounting of daily events with the group and leaders, bringing emotions and experiences to a conscious level; allowing for the reinforcement of positive actions, integration of success into the young people's self image and for the clarification of values (Nold and Wilpers:1975:155). There also needs to be the opportunity for the young people to see themselves in a historical and universal perspective, as a part of a continuum in time and space , and need to have conveyed to them the eternal lessons of life which can best be achieved by the telling of myths and legends (Eliade:1958:19).

The final phase of a rites of passage programme is the reintegration back into society with a new status. This process should include some kind of celebratory ceremony - publically acknowledging the changes that have occurred in the young people and allowing for a sense of pride as to whom they have become.Because parents play such an important role in the self -concept and socialisation of the young person, they, or a significant adult in the young person's life, need to be involved in the final ceremony (Warfield-Coppock:1992:157).

They need to be a part of the acknowledgement of the young person's new status in society and to encourage them to continue living their lives in this way.

A programme of this type should leave young people with a sense of being in control of their lives and of the choices that they make. There should be an improved sense of self as well as new skills having being learned with regards to dealing with life problems and positive peer relations. The challenges provided give young people a greater sense of their own potentiality, and opportunities for group interaction and leadership, strengthen their committment to society and give them a sense of themselves in a universal perspective (Nold and Wilpers:1975:155). Ramsay (1988:16) reports significant decline in recidivism rates in programmes of this kind. For example the Visionquest programme in the United States which is based on traditional North American rites of passage, displays a 30% recidivism rate compared to 70% for conventional rehabilitation programmes.

Concluding considerations

Perhaps the first consideration in conclusion should be of determining what type of offender should be eligible for a programme of this sort. The initial determining factor should be that the young person needs to admit his/her guilt. Without this, there is little chance of the young person being willing to change his/her ways or of taking responsibility for his/her actions. Then too the offence committed cannot be serious, but neither should the offender have committed too petty an offence.

Young people who are committing violent crimes need to be directed through the criminal justice process and are thus not eligible for a diversion programme of this type; and those committing very petty offences should only be receiving warnings or else it will result in the net-widening effect, which in turn detracts from the potential efficacy of the programme.

In order for a programme of this type to work with young people who are in trouble with the law, it needs to include a follow-up aspect. Traditionally, young people always had access to elders in the community who could assist and offer guidance. With the breakdown of traditional family structures and the social circumstances of many of the young people who are getting into trouble with the law, they often lack adult guidance ,and there need to be resources available in the community for the young person to utilise and to offer support. The leaders of the programme need to maintain contact to some degree,continued interaction with all the group members should be encouraged, and members of the community enlisted to act as mentors, so as to reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

Adolescence is a time filled with danger and an enormous potential for growth (Cohen:1991:45), and if we can tap into the inherent need of young people for guidance through this time, we can reclaim many of them from the vicious cycle of crime. By using a rite of passage to mark the end of who they were and the beginning of who they have become ,we can avoid the stigmatisation of conventional methods of punishing young people and instead we can heal them and return them to society as better and responsible citizens.


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