This weekend my grandson, Ace, celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. The day before he was called to the Torah to be initiated into Jewish tribal manhood, I sponsored a Native American sweat lodge ceremony. My Akimel Authum brother Dallas, conducted this warrior initiation sweat for 17 men who sat cheek-to-cheek in the small canvas-covered, willow-framed hut.
This prayerful purification ritual is an intense confrontation with one’s self. In the take-your-breath-away heat, inconsequential preoccupations seem to melt away, and you focus on more significant issues (like breathing).
Scrunched tightly together, we spoke to each other about what we thought important about being a man; sharing a story, an experience, a teaching, that profoundly impacted our lives.
I told him a story about a young Masai warrior I’d met in Kenya a couple of years ago. Joseph was the first-born son of the village chief who would inherit his father’s position and cattle. He was also the first in his family allowed to continue his schooling beyond the first three years of compulsory education. He learned to speak English fluently and was also able to hold a conversation in French and Japanese. Joseph was working as the cultural liaison at our tent camp during our safari.
My wife actually met Joseph first when she listened to him give an evening campfire lecture while I went out on a night’s safari. After the program they spent time together and Joseph shared his uncertainties about the future. He told her he wanted to choose his own wife (not the one that his father had picked for him) and to build a substantial house (not a dung hut that periodically washed away in the rainy season). He told her would not circumcise a daughter if he had one and that his attitudes were estranging him from his father and family.
Elaine felt his suffering and mentioned to him that I was a doctor who worked with American Indians and had experience with such conflicts. The following day was New Year’s Eve, and after dinner Joseph and I had a deep soulful conversation about how people survive in rapidly changing times. We talked about what happens to those first people that I call bridge people, who cross into a world of new experience. It brings combination of discovery and liberation, as well as the potential for conflicts when one sees the world from a completely different perspective.
Joseph did not want to abandon his Masai traditions, but he also didn’t want to live like his father. At the end of our conversation he asked me what I thought his future would be? I said it was possible for him to be a good Masai warrior and also enjoy hot showers.
In the morning before we departed, Joseph came to our tent. I had to look at him twice because I didn’t recognize him in his shorts and buzz haircut. Joseph said he came because he wanted to thank me for helping him welcome this New Year in a new way. He was going home today to greet his father in this new dress and reached into his back pocket and took out the war club he himself carved. Joseph handed it to me, saying this wasn’t the only thing that made him a real Masai warrior; he could tell his story in any costume he chose.
I gave it to my grandson in the lodge and told him it was a reminder that a good man will honor the teachings of his elders, but a warrior will look at the old landscape with new eyes and make his own decisions.
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