Fred LaSor: Coming of age in Zaire

While I was stationed in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in the late 1970s, I had the good fortune of being invited to a coming-of-age celebration for a pair of twin boys in a remote village. The invitation was extended by a man who came several times a year with artifacts to sell because he knew my wife and I liked to buy traditional pieces for our collection.

We lived in Zaire three years, and knew several sellers of ethnographic artifacts. Some of the masks and statuettes we bought from those vendors still hang on the walls of our house in Minden, others hang in a number of museums.

The artifact seller told us one day twin sons of a village chief would be celebrating their boyhood-to-manhood passage in a couple of weeks. Twins are special in Africa, and if we wanted to witness the celebration he would guide us. We were delighted and flattered — no other foreigners would be present, but the chief wished for us to participate in the most important rite of passage his sons would celebrate.

The day came and we were ready with camping gear, food, and gifts for the boys and their father. I wasn’t mentally prepared, though, for the arduous drive. The vendor had told us it would take “several hours.” He was way off. We left home early in the morning and didn’t arrive until late afternoon. Several times during the drive, I was ready to abandon the trip and turn around. The road was dusty, potholed, and occasionally blocked by vegetation, and I noted the farther we went, the narrower it was. Clearly, few vehicles had preceded us, and when we arrived I saw the road didn’t exit the far side of the village — we were truly at the end of the road, a fitting image.

The village contained a handful of mud huts, one of which was vacated for our use. There was no furniture, but we came prepared to sleep on the ground and eat food made at home and brought in an ice chest.

We called upon the chief, delivered some gifts for him and his sons, and walked quickly around the village. Manioc and vegetable fields surrounded us, the only source of food for the residents. There was no market nearby where you could buy salt or a box of noodles. The same man who sold us masks walked regularly to the village carrying trade goods like matches and kerosene he exchanged for the masks he sold.

Night falls quickly near the equator. We ate dinner around a small fire in front of the hut and turned in. The silence of a jungle village wrapped around us, but morning came soon with palpable excitement in the air. Drummers slowly took up a pounding beat that carried on all day and into the next night as the chief celebrated his boys’ entry into adulthood.

The twins paraded through the village, bare skin streaked with white clay, wearing only a raffia loin cloth. Family and friends knew they were men now, after being taught the responsibilities of manhood by village elders. Unlike the children of American millennials who are raised gender-fluid, here were boys-becoming-men who understood their future role in the village.

The dancing was spectacular, the drumming mesmerizing, the memories permanent. We filmed as much as we could and later turned that film over to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. D.C. Had I known beforehand how bad the road was I wouldn’t have gone. Afterward, I knew I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

Fred LaSor retired from the foreign service in 1997 and lives now in Minden.


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