To gain manhood, to risk life

This past week, the eighth known Eastern Cape Xhosa initiate passed away due to complications from ritual circumcision.

The circumcision rituals, known as Ulwaluko, are traditional within the Xhosa culture (and many other African cultures). The ceremonies signify the passage from boy to manhood.

Young Xhosa Abakwetha. © James Nachtwey, National Geographic

Part of the rituals includes living in “the bush” for a period of time. This signifies preparing the young man for adulthood.

Unfortunately tradition and modern science conflict here. Historically – just like the very first circumcision we know of, that of Moses of Genesis – the circumcision was performed by an elder, without medical knowledge of sterile working areas. This predisposes the initiate to multifarious infections.

In the course of the 2010 initiation seasons, 62 initiates died due to complications of circumcision. During the same season, 23 young men lost their genitals due to such complications.

And I ask myself: do these men feel like half-men or supermen?

The Department of Health drafted guidelines to effectuate a safer process in 2003. Underage boys must be given parental consent. All hopeful initiates must undergo a medical check-up. Initiation schools must be accredited by the department. These accredited schools will have a medical practitioner on-call for emergencies.

These guidelines, rather than dismissing customs and rites, bear the prospect of securing the continued use of culture and tradition by enabling them to co-exist (rather than compete) with modern life.

A significant culprit here is initiation schools that are not accredited – schools run by those alleging to be traditional healers, people in it for a “quick buck”. Such schools are not subject to the DOH’s regulations and are not supplied with sterile and necessary equipment. If discovered these schools are shut down and the individuals behind them are fined. But what do you do to a man that steals your manhood? Or to a man that kills your son?

Young initiates still die. The continued use of the so-called “illegal” initiation schools can be resultant of some factors. For one, initiation schools are not free. In a province where food is frequently financially unattainable, cheaper may be the “only” option.

On the contrary, circumcision is offered free of charge at state-funded hospitals. Whether this has perhaps not been marketed sufficiently may be the case.

Finally, attending a harsh and traditional “bush” experience may well become a matter of honor among the new Abakwetha.

Perhaps, in a country where thousands die of AIDS and violence, getting swept up at the death of a handful of young boys seems excessive. Such a point necessitates one to zoom in from the big picture and view individual puzzle pieces.

This is not my tradition, but it is a tradition I must respect as any other. We make alliances and start campaigns; both the DOH and the Council for Traditional Healers. Somehow the word must get out. Even when that is done, it is possible that the full impact is not heard by potential initiates. Then what do we do?

This is not my culture, but I am African and these are still my countrymen: my young brothers. Every harm that befalls them, affects me in some way. This I would wish to say to them: claiming your manhood by insubordinate means does not make you a hero. In fact, the Xhosa culture reveres the wisdom of the elders. These regulations have been made for protection, not to tame the man within you.

Each is a human life. Each may be a future politician or scientist (and yes, perhaps a villain). Each is a son or a brother, someone to someone.


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