Mthetho Tshemese tells of the quiet desperation of initiates who have lost their penises.
Themba* is a 17-year-old car guard from Mthatha who also helps customers carry their groceries to the taxi ranks. Dark in complexion with piercing red eyes, he wears a somewhat wry smile that disappears almost immediately when he speaks.
He is a young man of few words, yet when you talk to him you get a sense that there is a lot more in his mind that he wishes to say, but words escape him. In June 2012, Themba, like many boys in the Eastern Cape, underwent Ulwaluko (initiation) and looked forward to being a man, with all the social benefits that come with the status of being an indoda.
He is proud of his newfound status as a man and dreams of becoming a car mechanic, even though he dropped out of school in Grade 9 in 2012.
From his car-guarding services he earns, on a good day, about R50 and reports that he spends R30 on dagga, mandrax and alcohol because “ininzi into endiyicingayo xa ndingaqhunywanga” (there is so much that I think about when I am not high).
Among the things that Themba thinks about is his upcoming reconstructive surgery. His penis fell off in 2012 after becoming gangrenous during the winter initiation season. When I first met him in August 2012 he was virtually mute and asked me one question “Bhuti, izakuphinda ikhule incanca yam (Will my penis grow back)?”
The Eastern Cape Department of Health has played a key role in ensuring that young boys in the province are safe during their initiation into manhood.
While recognising that initiation is a family and community matter that falls under the leadership and custodianship of the House of Traditional Leadership, the Department of Health finds itself stretched into admitting to hospital hundreds of young men with varying degrees of injury from initiation.
Some of the injuries are linked to shoddy wound management and neglect by amakhankatha (traditional nurses), while others have been inflicted in severe beatings and the psychological abuse young men endure at the hands of those who are supposed to teach them about what it means to be a man.
The Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders, and all role-players in initiation, are opposed to the abuse and neglect of initiates.
The Application of Health Standards in Traditional Circumcision Act (Eastern Cape) was promulgated in 2001.
The following are some of the intentions of the act:
In terms of the act, a boy needs to be 18 years old or at least 16 if his parents specifically request initiation for him. He may not be circumcised without the permission or knowledge of his parents or guardian.
Also, the traditional nurse is expected to stay at the initiation school all the time for the first eight days of the initiation process and, after that, must visit the initiates at least once a day until the end of the initiation.
More to the point, traditional nurses are prohibited from exposing the initiates to any harmful situation or danger and must report any sign of illness among the initiates to the medical officer as soon as possible.
Furthermore, the Department of Health, together with the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders and the Department of Local Government and Traditional Affairs, have collaborated in producing an integrated action plan that gives expression to the act while ensuring that communities, through Iimbizos (dialogues) in identified hotspot areas, take full responsibility for ensuring that injuries and deaths are prevented.
Notwithstanding all these efforts by the Eastern Cape government, young men continue to be injured, lose their penises, or die during every initiation season.
Unlike Themba, Siphelo*, 51, from East London, planned his initiation thoroughly and was 25 years old when he decided to go. He had a job and had saved for the initiation because he was planning to marry his sweetheart.
Tradition would not allow him to get married as he was considered a boy.
Siphelo recounts his excitement before his initiation and reports that his main focus was not on the initiation itself, but on the life he would have with his girlfriend when they eventually got married.
Tearfully, he recalls how his ikhankatha (traditional nurse) was negligent and would leave him unattended for long periods.
Even the men who came to visit him did not see anything untoward, although his penis was becoming gangrenous.
When his situation worsened he had to be rushed to hospital.
His penis had darkened, and started falling off because of the lack of blood circulation.
With all the name-calling and shame that often comes with initiates going to hospital, Siphelo proudly considers himself a “real” man.
“Ndayimela into yam e Jango plus zange ndiye eHozzi ngoku kwaku blind ixesha elide
(I stood my ground and endured the pain and refused to go to the hospital immediately even though things were tough for some time).”
When he got to the hospital there was little that the medical team could do for him and his penis had to be amputated.
He harbours resentment towards his traditional nurse as he feels he could have done a better job in looking after him.
Also, he thinks the doctors should not have removed his penis and often wonders if it would have healed completely had they treated it instead.
I was introduced to Siphelo in June 2011 by his friend who had heard a radio talk show in which I was a participant discussing Ulwaluko.
His friend’s main concern was that: “Lomjita unkintsha kakhulu and uyafeba uthanda amamedi plus umosha nemali (This guy drinks too much, likes women and is wasteful with money).”
Every month on pay day Siphelo is said to hop from one shebeen to the next and enjoys buying alcohol to entertain his unemployed friends.
With a boyish smile he proudly tells me that he likes entertaining women, but denies his friend’s accusation that he likes women, saying: “Ndinaye umain-main wam and ndiyamncanywa naye undincanywa blind. But nam njengendoda ndiyazidlalisa ndizivise kamandi (I have a steady girlfriend and we love each other, but as a man I must entertain myself and have fun).”
The fun Siphelo refers to entails his taking one of the ladies he entertains in the shebeens to his shack. Once he is back at his shack he will make sure that there are a few drinks, food and good music. He then creates a comfortable atmosphere, which ends up with kissing and touching (he reports that he does the touching). When the woman wants to touch him, he refuses and/or makes an excuse.
“Eish, mfowethu, iyandiphambanisa kanjani leway because ndinazo iinkanuko qha into eshotayo yi-samething (My brother, this really makes me mad because I have sexual urges, but what is missing is the penis),” he says, pointing to his crotch.
I ask if he has any recollection of his penis, how it looked and its shape and size, and with a broad smile he retorts: “Hayi jonga, ndandiphathisiwe and yayigroot manyani imnyama (I was well endowed for real and it was dark).”
A long silence follows his remark as if we both are trying to make sense of his talking about his penis in the past tense.
I find myself thinking about the inappropriateness of our conversation in that, culturally, Siphelo is “ranked” higher than I am. Throughout our conversation I address him as “Mkhuluwa”, “Grootman”, or “Bhuti” as a sign of respect. For this reason, there is neither a cultural nor a traditional provision for me to ask him about his initiation, let alone talk about his absent big, dark “samething” (penis).
There is consensus among tribal groups in the Eastern Cape that the removal of the foreskin does not make one a man and such a view is endorsed by the House of Traditional Leaders.
It is estimated that since 2000 about 500 initiates have died in the Eastern Cape and that about 250 have lost their penises.
Those who don’t die but end up in hospital have to deal with the stigma of not being considered “real” men by their communities and of shaming their families.
While Themba is preparing himself for a “new” penis, Siphelo has resigned himself to keeping the memories of his big, dark penis in his mind.
“Mna mfowethu sendifuna nje ingcosi my brother so that xa ndicishile ndishiye something emva neemali zam zifunyanwe nguye (All I want, my brother, is to have a child so that when I die they can have my estate and carry my name).”
Since meeting Themba and Siphelo and other young men who have lost their penises, I wonder about their amputated dreams, and the amputated spirits of their families and their loved ones.
As I try to make sense of all this tragedy I ask myself: Kode kuben ini (How long will this go on)?