ROCKLAND — Travel writer Paul Theroux’s day was not going well. He was stranded beside the road in southern Angola with his luggage and no food. But then he heard the drumming echoing out of a nearby village.

Theroux, a noted travel writer, found a man who spoke a bit of Italian and asked what he was hearing.

“He said ‘efundula,’ and I said, ‘efundula, what’s the story?’ Well, by degrees I began to understand that it was an initiation ceremony, a rite of passage,” Theroux said, speaking about rites of passage at The Strand theater for the 20th anniversary celebration of Trekkers, a nature-based extracurricular program for students.

The efundula ceremony, Theroux learned, recognized girls reaching marriageable age. The rite takes several days and the girls are marked out with plaited hair.

“The girls were skinny little girls. They were 13-, 14-years-old, just standing there, smiling, like little elves, but they’re ready for marriage,” Theroux said. “They had passed through the ceremony.”

Parts of the ceremony are secret. Theroux repeatedly noted that girls in each culture have rites of passage, but as a man he could not learn much about them.

“Now you might say, why wasn’t I in Cape Cod playing golf? Well, I wasn’t raised that way. I was raised to travel, to look, and to find things out,” Theroux said. “It’s an odd picture, I suppose, to see me with a bag and a coat over my arm in a small village in southern Angola, but I was curious to find out what was going on.”

He credits that curiosity with getting him out from under the tree and into the village, where he discovered an ancient tradition that had survived 500 years of Portuguese colonization.

Theroux, originally from Massachusetts, has travelled the world and published numerous books and articles, both fiction and non-fiction. He now lives in Maine and Hawaii.

“The rites of passage that I’m describing are ones that I’ve witnessed myself,” he said. “These are people that I’ve met, that I’ve spoken to, who could testify to what they’ve done. And it mattered greatly to them.”

As a teacher with the Peace Corps in Malawi, Theroux heard about rites of passage from the boys in his class.

“They had to learn the uses of various tools. Even though they were outdated, they had to learn how to shot an arrow with a bow. They had to use a knife. A hoe, an ax”¦ And they had to understand what it was like to be away from home,” he said.

Similarly, teenage boys on the Trobriand Islands, officially the Kiriwina Islands off Papua New Guinea, live in bachelor huts and learn skills important to their culture, like canoe building and gardening. The discipline there was “informal,” Theroux observed.

“I remember when I was there, I would be staying in a village and there’d be kids running around all night. They’d be running around building fires, swimming, just making noise,” Theroux said. “And I said to someone, what’s this all about? And he said, ‘We let them do what they want to do. You know, they’re 13 years old. What do you expect?'”

Among the Masai tribesmen, boys also are separated from the group for their initiation, Theroux said. He talked about going bird watching in Africa with a Masai guard who told him about their rite of passage.

“He told me how—and this was very animated—how they had killed their first lion. How they had stalked it, and then surrounded it, and then jabbed at it and danced. He said they would jab with the spear and then the lion would make a move for one and they would dance away,” Theroux said.

Finally one boy planted his spear and held his ground so that the lion leapt onto the point. This is the bravest way to face a lion among the Masai, he explained.

“I said, ‘What happened next?’ And he said, ‘We were dancing. We were happy. The lion was dead. Now we were men,'” Theroux said.

Theroux concluded with a list of things he thought every young person should be able to do on becoming an adult: how to start a fire, memorizing at least one poem, and knowing how to do laundry.

After Theroux’s presentation, three Trekkers alumni spoke about the program. The event ended with a live auction of buoys decorated by local artists.

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