Tribal Tripos

After looking at exams in other cultures, AMY BENSON thinks maybe we don’t have it that bad

aborigine anthropology apache Australian Bullet venom Exams lions maasai native american rites of passage Satere-Mawe

Exams: a pain in the arse, but we have to do them; they’re a rite of passage. After carefully (or not so carefully) curating our knowledge, we jump through the hoops society has laid out for us. And hopefully, on the other side of them, we get a nice shiny degree as proof of our competence in adult life.

However, for people in other cultures around the world, there are different ways of proving your worth as an adult. If you think exams are a pain, you should really try comparing your lot to theirs…

Ready for the world

1)    If you’re a Satere-Mawe boy living in the Brazilian Amazon, the test to pass into manhood involves sticking your hand in a glove full of bullet ants. Bullet ant venom contains poneratoxin, which causes paralysis, convulsions and pain for over 24 hours.

What’s more, Satere-Mawe boys must do this test several times over months, or even years, before being accepted as a worthy adult. Oh, and they’re not supposed to make a sound when they have their hand in this oven mitt of pain either. Makes your Caesarean initiations seem like a walk in the park, right?

In this video a Satere-Mawe says of the rite, “If you live your life without suffering anything, or without any kind of effort, it won’t be worth anything to you”. Now how’s that for exam advice?

2)    Some young aboriginal boys go on a learning journey called ‘walkabout’. This is a deeply spiritual expedition, undertaken alone, traversing sacred song-lines in the Australian outback. The boy will travel and fend for himself for up to 6 months in the bush (traditionally, walkabouts lasted several years – as long as grad school).

By exercising survival skills and visiting different communities on his travels, a boy will learn endurance, self-awareness and respect for others. When he returns home, he’s transformed from a carefree child into a person of responsibility. It’s basically the equivalent of ‘getting a degree’, but the classroom is a blazing hot desert with snakes and dingoes.

Interestingly, according to the well-known aboriginal painter Tex Skuthorpe, women are believed to mature into responsible adults at a much younger age, so they don’t need to travel widely to learn (ha, I’ll leave being dingo chow to the boys).

3)    The Native American Apache ‘Sunrise Ceremony’ is a gruelling test to transform a girl into a woman. How? Over the span of four days, with little food or sleep, young Apache girls perform hours of songs, prayers, dances, and sprinting in four sacred directions.

After all this, the Sunrise Ceremony culminates in an all-night non-stop dance which will further test the girl’s endurance and strength of character.

It all sounds a bit like May Week, but this rite of passage is actually meant to teach the girls the importance of working hard, meeting the demands of others, exercising their power for others’ benefit, and presenting themselves in a dignified and pleasant manner, even when suffering or exhausted.

Lions beware

There are plenty more examples, from hunting lions (a traditional Maasai benchmark of bravery and personal achievement) to murdering slaves (the Krypteia in ancient Sparta, where boys had to kill helots as part of their military education, or agoge). So next time you sit an exam, just be thankful you’re not being graded based on a body count. Or being asked to kill a 250kg carnivore with a spear.

But are these tests really a good comparison for our Western examination system? It certainly bears thinking on.

When it comes down to it, education is a process of socialisation, of learning how to cope in whatever society you live. It’s about becoming a good citizen, a well-rounded person, a useful member of the community.

This is the same for any sort of education, whether it be fending for yourself in the outback or getting through Cambridge alive. Our Western exams are rites of passage designed for us to prove (and improve) ourselves to our society, just like these other rites of passage.

When fighting a lion or sprinting for days, the initiates endure it because they know what they will become when they come out the other end. It is an opportunity to prove their worth to the community, your one chance to shine. After months of work and dedication are you going to ace it and become a (wo)man, or fail at the last hurdle and remain a child forever?

Anthropology eh, perhaps the only subject where you can deconstruct an exam before you’ve even sat it.