If you were walking in the depths of the Cedarberg Mountains a few weeks back, you might have come across a group of people sitting under a tree, discussing the events of the day. It has been quite a day; many hours have been spent rock climbing and abseiling.
At the time one could sense the tension, the doubt and the fear amongst the participants. Equally present was the sense of accomplishment, joy, mastery and support amongst the group as this difficult feat was accomplished.
The smell of the evening meal drifts across to where the group is sitting.
The pace of the discussion slows down as if to settle into the tempo of the setting sun. Ken, one of the Educo staff members, points to the mountains and with a voice that reflects the variety of countries in which he has lived, draws the group’s attention to the changing hues in the mountains lying behind us. Johnny, sitting on a log opposite him, points to a leather pouch hanging around Ken’s neck and asks: “What is that?” “it’s my Pa waw ka,” replies Ken.
“A what?” asks Sammy, his eyes showing equal amounts of fascination and confusion.
“A Pa waw ka,” repeats Ken, “it comes from the Shawnee Indians.”
Darkness descends on the camp as Ken tells us of the Story of Tecumseh, the great Shawnee Chief, the pa waw ka and the rites of passage which each Shawnee youth had to complete; about diving into an icy river over a two-month period; the walk from the village to the river and back, at a pace which was “slow and with dignity”; and the search, on the final dive down to the river bed, to retrieve a power-piece, which symbolised the ‘fire in the belly’ — the inner strength that had been cultivated through these rites of passage. Once acquired, it would serve as a reminder in the difficult times that might follow.
Ken draws the story to a close and for some minutes them is a period of reverent silence as the young people relive this story in their minds. Finally Johnny asks: “Ken, how can we get a Pa waw ka?”
“By earning it,” Ken replies.
A month has passed and the students participating on the first part of the programme have returned and are now well into the second and final part of the course. In this time they have learnt numerous wilderness skills and have supported each other when things got tough. They have been angry with one another, and resolved their anger. There has been laughter, and there have been tears. A sense of community has supported the students through the challenges that the wilderness has provided. “Slowly and with dignity” has become the motto of the group.
The youngsters constantly refer to the story of Tecumseh. ‘Are we going to earn our Pa waw ka?”, the most frequent question asked after,’ When are we going to eat?” The story has become a symbol for their experience.
The youngsters know the story — who Tecumseh’s brother was, his stepfather, the name of the great river into which he dived, and the fact that his powerpiece was a rare crystal.
We return from a two-day hike. A storm has been moving in. Every member of the group is soaked, but before we can get dry, tents need to be pitched. This is our last night together. In the late afternoon the boys gather in the small kitchen area and are shown how to make the pa waw ka’s (leather pouches). There is excitement amidst the concentration. The pa waw kas need to soak overnight and will be ready for the final ceremony in the morning. The students have done well, we have hiked in miserable weather, yet the spirit in the group is high. There is fire in the belly.
The storm hits us at about 11:30 that night, some two hours after we have all climbed into our tents. The tents are flattened by the gale-force wind. All of us move into the tiny kitchen. Even though some of the guys are a bit grumpy, space is shared. Israel swops his place with Sammy who is afraid he might fall off the table which has now become a bed. Clinton comes back outside to offer assistance to the staff, who are busy saving the tents. Through the night rain and wind force their way into the small building.
Morning, wet and grey, greets us. There is work to be done and the students get to it — tents packed, pots cleaned, order slowly taking form amidst the debris of the previous night’s storm. “When are we going to get our Pa waw ka’s?”, I am asked, over and over again. When the time is right the group begins the walk to the river. “I’m not going to swim,” says a voice filled with anxiety.
I hear Sammy’s laugh. “We must walk ‘slowly and with digidy”.
We reach the river and sit in a circle on a sandbank. The weather has cleared slightly; blue sky can be seen through the clouds. The group’s excitement and noise quietens of its own accord. They are not too sure of what is going to happen, but they know this is the moment they’ve been working towards. This is the occasion. Ken, who carries the spirit of the Shawnee nation both in his blood and in his soul, talks to the young people that surround him: “You are fine men, and I call you men because you have behaved in a way that reflects the best qualities of men in this time we have spent together”
Each boy is gifted with a small crystal, a gift from us with a message of the strengths we have seen shine in his personality during the time we have spent together.
And beside us there is the river. Ken turns to the group: “You have truly earned your Pa waw ka. If you so desire, I invite you to do as Tecumseh did, and meet the river.”
And I remember this — Johnny standing, stripping to his shorts, and (maybe not slowly but certainly with dignity) running to the pool and diving into its depths with the grace of an athlete. I remember as Johnny emerges, his clenched fist raised in triumph, the huge smile and the bellow of victory. And I remember the words spoken: “This is a day in my life that I will never forget.”