We have a cultural ritual for girls when they come of age. Women gather and bless said girl, the ceremony is filled with prayers, the girl is adorned in traditional clothes akin to a bride.
This ritual is alien to me. Growing up, it was just my parents and my sibling. We were a few thousand miles away from our extended family and thus, traditions and rituals were never really part of our daily lives. Mum and Dad were strict parents, discipline translated to love which we tested from time to time like all children do. But I never defined myself by the colour of my skin, my religion or background. This remains true to today.
When I told my mum about my first period, she rang her mother to ask what she should do. Grandmother prescribed eggs, a daily teaspoon of oil (coconut? I don’t know) and perhaps other traditional concoctions for my consumption. My parents agreed that it wasn’t practical for us to adhere to traditions where we lived.
Fast forward two years later, we went back to my grandparents for my aunt’s wedding. Cue elaborate ceremonies and traditions. The elders agreed that since my coming of age wasn’t marked previously, they would do so whilst the family were together. A lot of fuss went on in the background and my mother told me that I was to wear a traditional dress for the ceremony.
It was all too alien for me. I was a tomboy, happy to run around in shorts and t-shirt all day long. The boys regarded me funnily as they suspected something was up but the elders kept them in the dark and away from the fuss. I felt extremely uncomfortable as no one bothered to explain anything to me and I really didn’t want to wear a traditional dress. I just wanted to run to the field and kick a football with my cousins.
My mum wasn’t having any of it and reprimanded me, to which I responded by tearing up and the tears kept flowing all day. A well-regarded elderly neighbour dropped by with some flowers in the afternoon and saw how upset I was. When she found out it was because I didn’t want the fuss nor to be clad in the dress that was picked out for me, she gave out to my mother and aunt.
‘Why are you making a girl cry on such an auspicious day? Don’t us women have enough tears to bear in our lives? Let her wear want she wants. The garment isn’t important. She’s been brought up in modern times and doesn’t understand tradition like we do. What’s key is that we’re here to help her transition from a girl to a young woman.’
I ended up wearing a simple outfit – a tunic top and leggings. The ceremony was kept extremely short. I was blessed by my elders including my saviour, there was a flower bath which I was left alone to partake in and it was all over within an hour. My mum wasn’t best pleased but she came to accept that I was part of a new generation where traditions, though important, possibly need some assimilation into modern lives.
I am now a mother to a little girl and I’ll never forget my elder’s words ‘ don’t make girls cry’.
(She bawls at the drop of a hat by the way!)