Initiates pose as they walk on a field in Qunu, in the Eastern Cape. There’s an insatiable fascination with Xhosa initiation rituals, particularly from the white gaze, say the writers. Picture: Reuters
Where Xhosa people have asked that this one thing be left alone, William Trengrove decided “No. I want this", write Lwando Xaso and Zukiswa Pikoli.

John Trengove’s film The Wound has been getting a lot of attention and traction based on the background against which he tells his story, the Xhosa rite of passage for young men. There’s an insatiable fascination with Xhosa initiation rituals, particularly from the white gaze.

The film would not be creating the buzz it has been if Trengove did not use Xhosa culture to bait and lure movie-goers.

Racial oppression was designed to shame and dismantle the identity of an entire race, thought of as inferior until that identity assimilated into the more acceptable and dominant race.

Apartheid spread the idea of black inferiority, leading to generations of disenfranchised and lost people wandering around as misfit carbon copies of their colonial masters. 

The fact that we have managed to preserve our culture and have the audacity to take pride in our traditions is a victory.

The next frontier has been the systematic attempt at ownership of every ounce of our culture, commodifying and selling it off as represented by this film.

Writing an article about Trengrove’s movie was a hard decision because we would hate to be seen as legitimising his work.

It is not okay to subjectively delve into traditions and practices you are not a part of under the guise of sparking debate and engagement.

It is not your place because you are not speaking as a member of that society.

The purpose of this article is not to engage the content of his movie. As Xhosa women, who have grown up in families that enthusiastically practise our cultural rituals, we know and understand the sacrosanct nature of initiation. It is preserved by a secrecy that most Xhosa people abide by.

Our oppressive history has led many cultures to be even more guarded. They practise their beliefs in private so they won’t be further corrupted or lost.

Our culture is a source of pride and not the bastardisation that some white people continue to try to make it out to be.

We see this as a thinly veiled attempt to further reject who we are, unless we agree to concede to being tempered and framed within the dominant white narrative. We are therefore duty bound to dismiss the legitimacy of our existence according to white permission and palatability with the contempt that this deserves.

It behoves us to state emphatically that we are a reflective and self-critical people, we do not need the invisible hand of paternal guidance that is a function of imperialism.

That we are under constant scrutiny and attack because of this practice, often times under the guise of addressing the issue of the deaths that happen during initiation, is a red herring.

In and among the criticism it is assumed that we are not acting to stem the deaths of these young men.

As with any other culture we are vulnerable to cultural malpractice. However it is mischievous to think that we would sustain a practice at the cost of young lives.

Telling our stories through a white lens ensures the dominance and centrality of whiteness.

We don’t know Trengrove or his reasons for making the movie and showing it to a foreign audience. What we do know is that he made a movie on Xhosa initiation that is off limits to him. 

We are tired of rationalising or justifying our way of being to white people. We do not have to plead the sacredness of Xhosa rites of passage rituals to him or persuade him in any other way than to say “No”.

We do not always feel Xhosa, it’s not something like blackness that we are alive to every moment of our existence.

We just are. But we feel most black and Xhosa in moments like this when our stories are splattered carelessly against a stark white background to be gawked at and picked apart in judgement. 

Black struggle is often acknowledged but black pain is not.

The hurt that we experience by violations like this is often trivialised in order to also trivialise the role white people have played in creating black struggle and suffering. 

It is these violations that have made us adamant and almost militant in protecting our ancestors and their traditions which served the last layers of dignity and identity that they fought to the death to protect.

Last September, US author and journalist Lionel Shriver delivered the keynote address for the Brisbane writers festival. Her address explored what fiction writers are “allowed” to write, given they will never truly know another person’s experience. 

What stories is Trengrove “allowed” to tell given that he will never be either black or Xhosa. 

Not every crime writer was a criminal, Shriver said, nor was every author who wrote on sexual assault a rapist.

“Fiction, by its very nature,” she said, “is fake.” Shriver was addressing the growing sensitivity in respect of identity and cultural appropriation.

Essentially she was advocating for the right to exploit the stories of “others”, simply because it is useful for one’s story.

Shriver began her address by relaying a story which occurred on a university campus where two students threw a tequila-themed birthday party for a friend.

The hosts provided attendees with miniature sombreros. 

When photos of the party circulated on social media, campus-wide outrage ensued.

Administrators sent multiple emails to the culprits, threatening an investigation into an “act of ethnic stereotyping”. 

With much condescension Shriver states that “in sum, the party-favour hats constituted - wait for it - cultural appropriation.

I am a little at a loss to explain what’s so insulting about a sombrero - a practical piece of headgear for a hot climate that keeps out the sun with a wide brim.”

In her critique of Shriver’s arrogance,  social advocate Yassim Abel Magied, states that “cultural appropriation is a “thing”, because of our histories.

The history of colonisation, where everything was taken from a people, the world over.

Land, wealth, dignity and now identity is to be taken as well?

In making light of the need to hold onto any vestige of identity, Shriver disregards not only history but also current reality.

The reality is that people from marginalised groups do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight and often patriarchal.

In demanding that the right to identity should be given up, Shriver epitomised the kind of attitude that led to the normalisation of imperialist, colonial rule:

“I want this, and therefore I shall take it.”

That the appropriation was brokered by a Xhosa man does not legitimise the invasion and sheer audacity of Trengove’s undertaking.

It is unfortunate that Thando Mgqolozana endorsed the cheapening of our people by being a key part of the project.

He sanctioned our exploitation by providing access to insight of Xhosa culture reserved only for members.

We don’t know whether he realises his complicity and therein lies the insidious nature of appropriation.

It furthers itself by capturing an unwitting member within the society who will assist in aiding the objective, often times in the promise of reward and societal elevation.

And in a country like South Africa, where white people have taken the best part of the meat, where Xhosa people have asked that this one thing be left alone, untouched by destructive white curiosity, Trengrove decided “No. I want this, I shall take it, package it and profit from it”. 

That this film has been peddled to the international community and pegged as the impetus to cross-cultural dialogue is disingenuous.

Trengrove had no right to make this movie, never mind that Xhosa people were used as a conduit to tell this story, he should have had the ability to morally regulate himself.

He had no business making this movie.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent