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Rites of Passage

Lie: Gender and sexuality does not change over an individual's life. They do not have nuance.


Gender and sexuality are a part of our daily lives. They also play a role in important life events, such as birth and marriage. Some of these life events are called rites of passage, where a person moves from one life stage to the next.


Rites of passage are common in all cultures and involve three stages: separation, transition, and incorporation. For example, getting a job is a rite of passage. You experience separation when you leave your previous work, transition while receiving training and becoming familiar with new surroundings, and incorporation when you are settled in your new job and begin work.


Some rites of passage involve the exploration and expression of gender and sexuality. Think about marriage and how the ceremony reinforces gender roles and sexuality through rituals like specific dress codes and ‘walking down the aisle.’ Rites of passage that explore gender and sexuality exist in all cultures.


Mukishi wa Mwana Pwo (Spirit of Young Woman) Mask


Angola, c. 1900

Logan Museum of Anthropology

In Memory of Rita Gaples

This mask (left) represents the spirit of a woman, called Mawana Pwo, but is worn by Chokwe men to embody the spirit. The Mwana Pwo holds the mukishi, or spirit, of a young woman who is ready for marriage and children. Despite its role to honor women and present the feminine ideal, the mask is worn in the male initiation, called the mukanda.


The mukanda is a rite of passage for boys that happens around puberty and seeks to cut ties to their mothers and transform them into adults. The Mwana Pwo is used to entertain the audience during the mukanda while the boys are being secluded.


Women judge the accuracy of the feminine performance. Many Chokwe dances involve the negotiation of gender roles and expression of gender tensions in daily life between the performer and the audience. Gender is not passive, it is actively practiced. Performers and audiences alike explore the grey spaces of gender. 


Unidentified Cultural Group, possibly Azande

Central Africa, 19th or 20th century

Logan Museum of Anthropology


Azande Warriors Posing with Shields and Spears

Central Africa, 1878-1880

Taken by Richard Buchta during photographic tour

Shields like this one (left) were used by the Azande for warfare. Young men in military companies, called kumba gude, often carried their husband’s shield while they traveled with the company. Marriage between men was a rite of passage and part of the cycle of a man’s life. A young warrior pays spears to the boy’s parents as he would if he were marrying their daughter. The boy takes the role of a spouse, doing domestic tasks and engaging in sexual activities. 


When the boy gets older, the expectation is that the union ends and he joins the military company, marrying a kumba gude himself, but there are sure to be exceptions. Both men and women from all social and political standings engaged in same-sex relations. This specific practice fell out of favor when Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom colonized the area, oppressing queer practices and relationships. Despite this, sexual and romantic relationships among men and among women continue.

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