Traditional circumcision during manhood initiation rituals are currently underway across Mzansi. Thousands of Xhosa boys are spending weeks in remote seclusion for this secretive rite of passage. Some, however, don’t make it home alive, reports Vateka Halile.
The summer season of ulwaluko, an initiation ritual performed to transform Xhosa boys into men, are already making headlines. In the Eastern Cape alone at least 31 boys have died as a result with premier Oscar Mabuyane warning that it cannot continue.
Traditionally, the months of June and December sees thousands of initiates spend at least three weeks in a secluded bush where they are voluntarily circumcised and taught to be responsible men.
One of these initiates, Sicelo* from Kathu in the Northern Cape, tells Health For Mzansi that he agreed to the cultural practice. “I wanted to be a man,” he says. “I am fortunate to be from a family where we get to choose when we are ready to get circumcised and follow the tradition.”
*Sicelo was just 20 when he decided to take the leap. He travelled to a veld in Kimberley where the traditional circumcisions were being performed – worlds apart from the usual procedure in hospitals.
“I just knew something was wrong when my penis kept swelling and there was a yellow pus dripping from it. I had told my caregiver and he had neglected me,” he recalls. Breaking the silence isn’t an easy decision. For Xhosa people, ulwaluko is holy and secretive.
Initiates are circumcised by a traditional surgeon called a ngcibi and looked after by a trusted khankatha or caregiver.
The relationship between khankatha and initiate is one that is sacred. He is responsible for ensuring his initiate makes it out alive. However, after seven days of excruciating pain, Sicelo was rushed to the Robert Sobukwe Hospital in Kimberley.
An age-old practice
Back in the Eastern Cape, a Qonce (formerly King William’s Town) paramedic, Thembalabantu Ngcakani, tells Health For Mzansi that traditional circumcisions have been performed for many years before with a high rate of success.
When any complications arise in the community of Zone 6 in Zwelitsha, Ngcakani is called to assist.
Very few, if any, complications were experienced in the past, says Ngcakani. “Of most the complications I have witnessed, it will always be dehydration that leads to hospitalisation. In the first seven days after surgery the mkwetha (initiate) cannot drink water for seven days. The food that he eats is also without any salt.”
The role of healthy food
This week, the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa called on government to work with it to clamp down on bogus initiation schools that put young boys at risk.
Meanwhile, a general practitioner from Qumbu in the Eastern Cape, Dr Siyabulela Ngcebetsha, adds that he has worked with men who have suffered botched initiations for seven years. “Of late we have experienced an increasing number of complications in the custom ranging from botched circumcision, infection, dehydration, amputation, and death.”
He recalls a time when men who went to the bush were strong, mature, healthy men who grew up in villages and were not exposed to reckless lifestyles. “Growing up in those settings built their character and their ability to fend for themselves in the bush with regards to any complication that might arise,” he says.
There were also fewer diseases back then. “The food that was eaten was healthier than now resulting in stronger immunity and healthier bodies. To become a traditional surgeon was also a very elite title.”
To ensure survival of young initiates traditional leaders need to clamp down on the custom and put an end to the mushrooming of illegal initiation schools.
”We have people that have commercialised the custom and opportunists who will do anything to put food on the table. These are illegal ‘surgeons’. It is up to parents to also ensure that their children go to the right initiation schools.”
It is also up to parents to disclose any ailments that initiates might suffer from, says Sikelela Zokufa, a traditional practitioner and founder of the Somgwaza Institute in the Western Cape.
“Some boys’ parents conceal from the surgeons the fact that their children have some ailments, which is a huge deal once they send them to the initiation without their medicines.”
Should complications arise, surgeons must act quickly to save the lives of initiates with a medical doctor on stand-by. “[In my case,] I have Dr Bikitsha who is extremely helpful and understands the custom.”