by Andrea Court, South Africa
It is very difficult to try and explain to someone who has not lived in Africa and experienced the African people and their various cultures in close proximity, as to how deeply their lives are vested in their traditions and cultures. Many of these traditions often appear quite contrary or strange to the non-African.
The traditional homeland of the Xhosa nation of Africa is situated in the Eastern Cape, a beautiful, lush coastal region of South Africa where I grew up. The Xhosa have lived in the area for thousands of years, of course with urbanization and migration work the Xhosa people are currently more widely spread throughout the country, but this land remains their homeland and it is still populated almost exclusively by many thousands of Xhosa people in rural communities and towns. Most Xhosa return to the area, where many of their families still live; for holidays, special events and for traditional celebrations.
One such event would be the ritual circumcision of boys which is rarely, if ever, performed in urban communities far from their homeland. I will not go into detail about the ritual as whole, most specifically because it is steeped in secrecy and the initiation rites are passed from father to son; even Xhosa women are largely excluded from this ceremony. It involves many weeks of preparation, isolation and celebration.
Circumcision takes place when a boy is roughly eighteen years old; it is a rite of passage, a boys’ journey to manhood. The actual circumcision is done close to the end of this period and the amakwetha, or circumcised man, stays in remote isolation until he is healed; when he emerges and returns to his community his transformation from boy to man is complete. This is a very big deal in a patriarchal society, a proud moment for both the boy and his family. It carries with it the respect and status which he has been primed, as boy, to aspire to. Let me assure you too, it is a process that is not for the squeamish or faint hearted.
The circumcision itself is done without the aid of anesthetic, either local or general, no surgical instruments or equipment whatsoever is used in this operation; a scary prospect for any self respecting, hot blooded male. Now, that in mind, add to it a rural setting: no electricity, no sanitation, no doctors, no clinics, no hospitals, no running water and no sympathy either.
The appointed surgeon is most likely to be a traditional healer or elder from the tribe, someone who is not trained in any manner relating remotely to what Western medicine understands, except that he is a healer to his people. The traditional instrument in undertaking this operation would have been a spear, but all too often these days it is a piece of broken glass (often from a beer bottle) not always particularly sharp nor clean, no antiseptic will be used and the ‘operating theatre’ is the dusty interior of a mud hut.
Once cut they paint themselves from head to toe in white ochre and they are now called amakwetha. They will go into the bush, either alone or in small groups, and live in isolation in stick and thatch huts built specifically for this purpose until they are healed, only their mothers may take them food during this time, they cannot be seen by, or associate in way with, women until the process is complete.
I recall many times as a child when we travelled to visit relative’s farms in outlying areas that I would see the ghostly figures of amakwetha almost invisible in the long sun burned winter grass watching the car drive past. They seemed not to move, some on haunches others standing, as still as statues. It was all very mysterious to me and the explanations to my questions offered little to quell a curious mind.
I honestly could not tell you how many, if any, young men died as a result of circumcision back then, we certainly never heard of any, but then we also never heard anything the government did not want us to hear.
Currently this ritual is becoming a life and death procedure. All too often it results in death; or worse, castration; partial or full and even HIV infection. This year alone in June, 40 boys have lost their lives (yesterday before editing that number was 33 so I have no idea what it will be at the time of publication). The horrors are real and they are happening in increasing numbers every single year, they bring with it suicides and murder not to mention the utter devastation of mothers and fathers losing their sons; a nation losing their young men, not to war, not to a greater good but to sheer carelessness and more importantly to shame.
These boys are too ashamed to bring themselves out of the required isolation to seek help, some do, others do not, those that do hide their faces so that they cannot be recognised, those who do not die horrific and painful deaths while their cut penis rots away and their bodies succumb to infection. Media reporters will often say the ‘lucky ones’ are in hospital, but when a boy would rather commit suicide than live with the shame of castration or fear of humiliation, I am inclined to think the lucky ones may be those who have died.
There is no question to the Xhosa that the circumcision cannot be done surgically in a hospital or clinic because it is not the way of their culture and it will bring into question their century’s old tradition. It will mean being ostracized and/or utterly humiliated they will not be recognised or accepted in their community as men.
The government could legislate that it is illegal; they could even police remote areas at this time of the year to try and enforce such legislation, but know that it will never stop. This deeply meaningful and spiritual tradition that defines the Xhosa man will continue against all odds as not doing it would be shameful and far greater burden to bear. Until a way to enforce hygienic methods can be found and a compromise reached, the young men of the Xhosa nation will continue to risk their lives on their journey to manhood and many who sit among us today as sons and scholars will never reach their potential or attain their dreams as a direct result of this.
For further information you can read: http://www.cirp.org/library/death/
You can view some pictures here: http://www.photographersdirect.com/stockimages/a/amakweta.asp