Xhosa initiation ceremony under the knife
The Xhosa are a cultural group that is indigenous to South Africa. It is built on and emphasises traditional practices and customs that Xhosas have inherited from their forefathers. In the Xhosa culture, each person has an integral role to play. Examples include the Elder of the clan (usually assigned to someone because of their lineage, and who makes all the important decisions), the advisor (advises the Elder in the making of decisions) the sangoma (a traditional healer, acts as the conduit between people and their ancestors) etc. From birth, individuals undergo various practices and rituals in order to recognise their growth and to prepare them for their assigned role within the community.One such ritual or rite of passage is Xhosa circumcision. This is where Xhosa males, usually between the ages of 18 and 23, embark on a journey where they are circumcised in order to be recognised as ‘men’ within the community. According to tradition, an uncircumcised male is not eligible for marriage, cannot inherit his father’s or family’s wealth and cannot officiate or take part in any rituals. This journey is not only about the surgical procedure, but also a lengthy and elaborate series of rituals in preparation for manhood.
The process of initiation begins when the head of the family, in many cases the father, and Elders as well as other older family members arrange a meeting to discuss the boy in question’s departure from home to begin initiation. They discuss whether or not the boy is emotionally and mentally ready to become an initiate and also the date and place where the initiation will take place. In most cases, the boys are sent to initiation schools in towns where their elders grew up or from where their roots stem.
After everything is discussed and agreed upon, the boy will be informed and asked whether or not he is ready. He is also given an option of postponing the initiation on presentation of a valid reason. The initiates often feel compelled to go to avoid disappointing the family. Arrangements are then made for joyous occasion.
On the day of the initiate’s departure, the family gets together and slaughters a cow or a goat (depending on the tribe) and the initiate is dressed in his ncawe (traditional blanket). Alcohol and food is shared among family and friends to celebrate the boy and the milestone in his life. After the celebration, the boy is escorted by his father, together with the elders and older relatives, to the initiation school where the rituals will take place.
On the day of the initiation, a group of nervous young men stand around waiting for the next instruction from their elders. They are all naked, awaiting their turn with the blade. A trained surgeon circumcises the initiates and no anaesthetics are used as it is a sign of bravery and manhood. It is believed that ‘a man must suffer in silence’.
After the circumcision, the boys are expected to go and bury their foreskins to symbolically ‘burying their youth’.If a boy decides not to take part in circumcision, he is frowned upon by his family and the community. In the Xhosa culture, the head of the family is respected and obeyed. When the new indoda’ (men) arrive back home, they are expected to behave in a certain manner: one with integrity as they are now seen as constructive examples of the community and their family. Not everyone agrees.
“Today, circumcision has become nothing more than a means to an end, a financial means. The picture in the Eastern Cape is starkly different and frightening. The rite of passage to manhood often marks an end of life for a desperate initiate. The proliferation of initiation schools does not appear to be driven by cultural but rather monetary consideration,” wrote Sentlentse Diakanyo for the Mail and Guardian.
Statistics over the past five years
According to the BBC and police officials, botched circumcision have led to the deaths of 240 boys – some as young as 13 years of age in the last five years.
Despite the many deaths and all the rumours of abuse, no arrests have been made because communities and initiates refuse to come forward with information. The whole process that they go through is very private and they do not speak about what happens at the initiation school.
In 2007, the Eastern Cape spokesman for the Department of Health said that 66 initiates died of circumcision-related infections and many more were fighting for their manhood. It is now 2013 and still little has changed. According to statistics, 39 deaths were reported in the Pondoland region with the same diagnosis: botched circumcision. Most of these deaths were because of under-qualified medical surgeons posing as traditional medical surgeons.
The debate around traditional circumcision versus medical circumcision (medical circumcision is the full removal of the penis’ foreskin. It is performed at a medical facility by a qualified medical professional) is one that seems to draw no conclusive ultimate outcome. The death rate for the practice has been high over the years and, according to popular belief, this has been attributed to government interference through the regular visits and medical injections done on initiates on their initiate camps, as far as traditionalists are concerned.
Prior to 1994, it is believed that the dignity of the ritual was still intact and respected as South Africa received less coverage of this practice from the media. Did that mean that the Apartheid regime respected the tradition less then compared to how prevalent it is in the media now?
In March 2007, a controversial mini-series dealing with Xhosa circumcision and initiation rites debuted on SABC. Titled Umthunzi Wentaba (Mountain shadow), the series was taken off air after complaints by traditional leaders that the rites are secret and not to be revealed to non-initiates and women.
Post 1994, we became a democratic society where rights are enshrined and laws are put in place to protect citizens’ cultures and traditions. Government interference meant infringing on these rights, which was perceived as a lack of respect for tradition. Nonetheless, a plague of deaths seems to surround initiates post-apartheid despite those rights and the situation has deteriorated.
Inherited from its ancestors who pass it on to future generations, the practice has thrived and had been well-respected and dignified. Now it seems to have become diluted from its concentrated source and stripped naked of its dignity by the media and related people.
It is under much scrutiny with the advent of medical circumcision in black communities. The constant comparison between the two (traditional vs medical) has gained strong momentum ever since. The option of going medical is viewed ‘safe and sterile’ while not insulting the traditional practice, but the rough conditions initiates experience has led to reported cases of dehydration and infections.
Tamar Cloete, Avina Cloete, Odwa Shumi