Coming of Age in a Season of Endings

Image: Adaku Nwakanma

I’m seated at the edge of my bed, waiting for the end of the world. It’s mid-April and the sweltering heat in Lagos has turned everything into an inescapable heat trap. In Westeros, the fictional world of George R. R. Martin’s HBO-copped Game of Thrones, however, the battle scheduled to take place in snow-covered Winterfell is about to decide who lives and who dies… or dies again. The odds are not looking good considering that their enemies are white walkers — already dead people come back to life with their leader, the Night King, who wants to make sure the memory of humanity is erased.

In Marvel Studios’ Cinematic Universe, another battle is brewing. The superheroes dedicated to protecting humanity face a final existential threat from Thanos — a supervillain who has used his infinity stones to rewind time and make sure that half of the population never existed in the first place.

These battles will be the turning point for many, with the realities of the outcome unveiling after the dust is settled. But, of such magnitude, the battle itself is usually long, stretched out like kilishi, with each key player protecting themselves and identifying vantage points from which to strike; boring, from a bird’s eye view it can turn into a lot of killing, smashing and too many things going on at the same time without so much context; and full of grief and acceptance with the knowledge that, at least, a hard fight was fought.

A battle no matter how it ends often the signifies a new age, a new set of players and kings, cultures and laws. Both these movies seem to have the same premise: the plague of man’s activities on earth, which speaks against humans even in the face of individual traits of courage, love and loyalty. A dire situation quite like the reality of climate change as some allude to, and the battle younger generations like millennials and Gen Z face with older politics still holding the reins, the future even more uncertain than it was a few tweets ago. But the presence of a battle may not be all the uncertainty there is for these generations. At the very least, there is a before — the way things were, and an after — the way things could be, even if neither are guaranteed to be pleasurable.

With the coming of the Europeans to our shores, the instalment of Christian beliefs meant the eradication of any traditional practice deemed pagan, and a merge of every other thing left. Among the traditions swept away, the rites of passages which clearly signified where one stage of growth began and where another ended.

Granted, the goal was simply marriage and a functioning family, which ensured a functional community. Mothers, and grandmothers, would pass on life lessons, cooking, cleaning and the secrets of male pleasure, hair braiding techniques, and family values, to those who were ripe of age so they could learn what it means to be mother, daughter, wife. Most girls married within months of the ceremony. Boys on the cusp of manhood were taught the values and secrets of the land, what it meant to be a man, and what is expected as a contributing member of society. The first rite of passage was childbirth, the coming of a child from non-existence into existence, and after that the coming of age; the passage into adulthood. The next was marriage, then titles and then death, completing the circle of life.

Tribes in Africa like the Maasai in Kenya still maintain their coming of age practices. Girls would undergo female genital mutilation as part of preparations for early marriage, but campaigns and activists have seen these practices change into “circumcision by knowledge” and a guarantee for education. Other practices have seen no such luck and are completely lost as more people ditch communal style living for an urbanised individual lifestyle — not that I would have loved them to continue especially as most were patriarchal in nature and die long, slow deaths.

However, immigration and changing economic policies see children born without a sense of place of belonging. And with the shelving of old practices, no premeditated, newer, healthier practices are designed to take the place of the one optional rite of passage: coming of age.

I remember the many birthday parties I attended as a child, and Uncle Peterside, a dashing young man who didn’t look more than 30 years of age, who would come bustling in with his own children at each one of ours. I remember reading how Former military head of state, Yakubu Gowon, who was already a Lieutenant Colonel and Chief of Staff to Aguiyi-Ironsi, became Commander in Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces at the age of 31 after a coup. And I remember that my mother got married at twenty-eight, which I would be turning by year’s end.

The transition from a child who couldn’t bring boys home to a woman who is supposed to be married is jarring, to say the least. But it seems one grows at 10x their rate during wedding preparations and multiple interactions with long-unseen family members all too willing to pass information the one time that family comes together, like the coming of age and marriage rites of passage were all rolled hastily into one, for the woman at least.

For many others, the acquisition of money now takes the place of the rite of passage. And with studies stating that more millennials live with their parents and have less wealth than their parents at their age, there is no shortage of adults who quite haven’t come of age yet. There is no one to give you your first bow, take you into the forest and teach you how to hunt because there are faster ways and the animals are probably dead from eating all the plastic. The ideas of marriage are changing too, and with overpopulation and its resulting strain on resources, fattening rooms don’t see a lot of women yearning to widen their pelvises. But like all battles, a new beginning arises. The focus of actualisation shifts from familial living to individual accomplishments through varying scales of success. Where secrets were passed down within families, a rush of constant information streams online, breaking down previously-held barriers and prejudice. Maybe this is a coming of age practice in its own right, staring down all coming of age practises born in times with too little knowledge to form an encompassing view of life and forcing it to evolve. But I only hope we do so soon enough. For a people facing certain death in turbulent circumstances, Westeros at least has Jon Snow — and fire-breathing dragons, the Cinematic Universe has the heroic Avengers, we only have ourselves.

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Adaku Nwakanma

Adaku Nwakanma

I write about digital product design.