Written by SIT Study Abroad alum, Julia Katz. Julia participated in the SIT Study Abroad program Ghana: Social Transformation and Cultural Expression. Upon returning to the US, Julia started an after-school program based on a rite of passage ritual that she researched in her Independent Study Project. Julia uses art as a way to empower adolescent girls in the rite of coming of age.
I remember watching the women sing, dance, and cheer while their daughters walked from the house. The initiates were adorned with pounds of beads and wore white cloth around their waists to symbolize victory. Some faces looked nervous; all were proud and serious as they walked to the shrine. They had become Krobo women.
During my semester with SIT, I chose to live in the Krobo hills to do a month-long field study of the Dipo ritual. I spent my days with Queen Mothers, teachers, and young girls, observing the elder women teaching the young girls how to prepare traditional meals, perform dances, care for their bodies and control their sexuality, among other important lessons on Krobo womanhood.
I have always believed strongly in the power of art to teach and empower youth. I was drawn to the role of art in the rites of passage. In Dipo, initiates learn that they are connected to a bigger picture of life and society. Participants learn that they have control over their future, health, and community. The ritual has built-in risk prevention by creating protective factors to counter the girls’ vulnerability to AIDS and teenage pregnancy. It teaches girls not only about the hardships and responsibilities that come with womanhood, but also about the magic and power that all women embody, as protectors, leaders, and creators.
Reflecting on how many American girls are never taught this, I was excited and intrigued by the potential of this tradition to be adapted into a powerful experience for youth in America. Returning home, I watched my younger sister as she prepared for her Bat Mitzvah. More and more I began to realize the value, significance and even necessity of ritual for coming of age.
For my senior thesis, I developed a pilot program of the Art of Growing Up and administered it at an after school center in the Spring of 2005. I now implement the program in partnership with the Arts & Spirituality Center, in Philadelphia. The Art of Growing Up seeks to create a positive and life-affirming rite of passage for urban, adolescent girls (ages 10-14) using a range of art forms inspired from around the world, such as mask making and dancing inspired by African traditions, and poetry writing, inspired by Apache traditions.
Growing up is hard for everyone. I want to make it a little easier for the girls that I teach by giving them support, love, inspiration, and tools to figure out who they are and show it with pride. I also teach to learn. Working with young women to make art and create change inspires my own art to no end. To me art and ritual are both about finding and creating meaning. Recognizing my own connection to all women and making room for ritual and celebration in daily life has helped me in my own continuous coming-of- age. Beginning with my time in Ghana, multicultural art and traditions have inspired me to teach for social justice, and to build community, so that my students might do the same.