Adolescent Initiation Rituals in Rural Tanzania


A review of Negotiating Sexuality: Adolescent Initiation Rituals and Cultural Change in Rural Southern Tanzania, by Meghan Halley.

In her dissertation, Negotiating Sexuality: Adolescent Initiation Rituals and Cultural Change in Rural Southern Tanzania, Meghan Halley provides an illuminating, detailed, and successful account of the complex nature of adolescent sexuality within the context of rural Mtwara, Tanzania. Haley draws on literature from anthropology’s longstanding interest in initiation rituals, scholarship from psychological anthropology examining the relationship between the individual and culture, and current anthropological work examining the impact of globalization on individuals and communities. The historical isolation of this region, as Halley demonstrates, fosters the continued practice of adolescent initiation rituals, practices which have all but disappeared in Tanzania and beyond. Despite the historical isolation of this area, recent changes in the region, including the discovery of oil and natural gas and the expansion of formal education, are collectively reshaping the cultural environment of rural Mtwara in dramatic and meaningful ways, particularly for adolescents. The introduction of new structural and ideological influences in Mtwara, work to challenge existing cultural norms surrounding adolescent sexuality, and thus making it a rare and exceptional location to explore the effects of globalization and social change on adolescent sexuality.

This rich and engaging dissertation is divided into ten clear chapters: a detailed literature review, history and background (Chapters 1-3); methodology and research design (Chapter 4); detailed “thick” ethnographic description of both male and female initiation rituals (Chapters 5-6); a broad examination of the multiple influences on adolescent sexuality within the surrounding cultural environment of rural Mtwara, including a discussion of the ways in which the changes currently underway in the region are reshaping adolescent sexuality (Chapter 7); examination of social change with an emphasis on how formal education is reshaping the cultural environment and adolescent sexuality (Chapter 8); four cases which provide an opportunity for analysis of the various ways in which female secondary school students negotiate their sexual relationships in the unique context Halley chose (Chapter 9); and discussion and conclusion (Chapter 10).

A principal contribution of this dissertation is Haley’s adept and detailed “thick” ethnographic description of unyago for girls and jando for boys, rituals instructing youth on adult life, including sexual activity and reproduction. Halley’s close examination of unyago and jando reveals that these practices play an underlying role in shaping adolescent sexuality both by marking the transition to adolescence — in this setting it is synonymous with sexual maturity — and by communicating the expectations of male and female sexual roles to youth. In jando and unyago, boys and girls receive very distinct messages regarding their sexual roles as men and women, and these ideas are reflected in the negotiation of sexual relationships in rural Mtwara. Though jando and unyago are related to adolescent sexuality, it is primarily in the sense that they are a teaching tool, with the lessons they teach reflecting the broader cultural environment in which the young initiates are prepared to negotiate their sexuality. These rituals have a firm place in Mtwara culture, but as the environment experiences complex changes brought about by the expansion of education, infrastructure (such as the first tarmac road connecting Mtwara to greater Tanzania) and all that it entails (more connection, communication, and engagement with those outside the region), and expanded livelihood options the context in which these rituals are practiced is also changing, not just the place, but the experiences of young men and women and their expectations for their present roles as young adults and for their futures. Halley provides an in-depth, integrated approach to the study of adolescent sexuality, one that is necessary to understand the complex ways in which adolescents negotiate these changes within the surrounding cultural environment.

Halley pays special attention to how these changes affect young women. She assesses the diverse ways in which these girls navigate existing cultural scripts guiding female gender and sexual roles, the specific vulnerabilities and constraints associated with secondary education, and girls’ individual desires and circumstances as they negotiate their sexual subjectivity in the context of cultural change. As evidenced by the high rates of school dropout, the expansion of formal education, in particular, is increasing both female students’ vulnerability to pregnancy and the consequences associated with these pregnancies. These changes are fuelling the emergence of a set of expectations and consequences surrounding adolescent sexuality, particularly for female students, which are contradictory to existing cultural scripts. Halley, in her close examination of female students’ negotiations of their sexual relationships determines these girls are finding diverse and creative ways to navigate both their sexuality and their education in the context of change.

This dissertation draws on the long history of scholarship in anthropology on adolescent sexuality and cultural change, as well as multiple theoretical perspectives from psychological anthropology, to examine how the norms, values and expectations surrounding adolescent sexuality are reshaped in the context of change. By asking “How do adolescents in rural Mtwara negotiate their own sexuality in the context of these multiple and often conflicting influences?” Halley challenges dominant approaches to sexuality by focusing on individuals’ subjective experiences. While post-structuralist theorists, Michel Foucault in particular, emphasize the way in which individual sexuality is shaped by powerful institutions and discourses, Halley’s ethnography provides scholars a critical window into the everyday lives of youth as they navigate these competing and contradictory discursive constructs and material constraints. And, in doing so, she illuminates how individuals change in the context of profound political economic and social transformations.

By situating jando and unyago, what Halley argues is a quintessentially “local” cultural practice, within the changing cultural context of rural Mtwara, this dissertation advances the anthropological literature on globalization. In Chapter 8 Halley draws on Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s concepts of global “universals” and “friction” to examine the impact of the rapid expansion of Western education on adolescent sexuality (see Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). Pairing Tsing’s theory with the theoretical and methodological tools of psychological anthropology, allowed Halley to locate sites of “friction” in adolescent sexual relationships. In doing so, this dissertation provides a multilevel perspective on the relationship between globalization and cultural change by illuminating the ways people respond to these social transformations in their every day lives. Halley challenges the tendency of anthropologists to focus exclusively on “the local” without regard for the global political and economic shifts that shape life trajectories. Finally, Halley provides convincing evidence that global discourses and the competing, and often-contradictory messages they receive profoundly influence young Mtwara women’s negotiations and decisions.

Overall, Meghan Halley’s dissertation offers a compelling ethnographic account of adolescent sexuality in rural Tanzania. Halley is a natural ethnographer and the insights from her ethnographic accounts are valuable to anthropology in general, and psychological anthropology in particular. Halley concludes her dissertation fittingly, by noting not only the anthropological contribution of her research, but also the potential consequences her findings have for public policy, public health, and education in Tanzania.

Susi Krehbiel Keefe
Department of Scoiology and Anthropology
St. Olaf College

Primary Sources

18 months of ethnographic fieldwork Rural Mtwara District in southern Tanzania include: Community ethnography, in-depth interviews conducted with adolescents (both in rural contexts and in secondary school) and ritual leaders, participant observation including the two initiation rituals, and a village survey.

Dissertation Information

Case Western Reserve University. 2012. 453 pp. Primary Advisor: Jill Corbin.


Image: An initiate going through unyago. Photograph by Meghan Halley.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like