Every year, thousands of youths leave their parents to spend weeks in the care of traditional leaders at an initiation school where they are circumcised, a rite of passage commonly referred to as “ulwaluko” or “going to the mountain”. Picture : Cindy Waxa
After watching the Inxeba movie (The Wound), my impression is that it has less to do with ulwaluko/koma (initiation), and more to do with homosexuality and the prejudices generally suffered by gay men. Initiation has been used by the writers of the movie as the context within which to explore these prejudices. It is interesting that they chose an aspect of African culture already under siege by all sorts of ill-informed Eurocentric presumed superiority complex.

The title and the posters of the movie give the misleading impression that it is about ulwaluko. Many African nations practise ulwaluko as a spiritual rite of passage to manhood. Inxeba purports to portray the version practised by isiXhosa-speaking people. Unfortunately, both ulwaluko and homosexuality are done a disservice in this movie. Homosexuality is pushed to the background as a victim of ulwaluko.

That is a gross misrepresentation of the prejudices and human rights violations that gay men have suffered throughout the world, including in Europe. With the international acclaim and platforms the movie has gained, it misrepresents African culture or aspects thereof as being primarily homophobic.

Other nations more deserving of being labelled homophobic will watch the painted barbarism of Africans from a position of innocence and superiority.

Abakhwetha relaxing during their initiation next to Kubomvu village, near Mthatha. Picture: Cindy Waxa/ANA

The sterile dialogues betray the promise that you might learn something either about ulwaluko or homosexuality. There is almost zero educational content about both.

If anything, the movie is characterised by a sustained vulgarity and a grotesque caricature of ulwaluko, which merely confirm the negative stereotypes entrenched by global white supremacy over time about Africans and their culture.

Most of the songs in the movie tend to have a sexual tone, a subject taboo to a spiritual place like the mountain. Sexual arousal is an enemy to umkhwetha (an initiate) because it tends to delay or reverse the process of healing. Abakhwetha (initiates) are even trained how to quickly contain and reverse sexual arousal. Amakhankatha (caregivers) give care and guidance about the new life abakhwetha are about to enter. They are usually carefully chosen, are educators and moulders of character - not destroyers of the body and soul of abakhwetha as portrayed in the movie.

We are shown a scene where boys are about to be operated upon by an ingcibi (surgeon). At least two things trouble me. First, all the boys are wearing new blankets. This is a distortion. An initiate is never bought anything new, let alone a blanket. In fact, he disposes of all his meagre belongings as a sign of preparing to start a new life.

At the mountain, he is left to his own devices to decide what he will wear. Usually, boys are creative and sew themselves some stuff with old rags to cover the parts that matter. Though they usually walk around uncovered, in winter they may use old blankets they are given from home. The only new clothes that are bought are the ones they will wear after graduating into the first stage of manhood known as ubukrwala (novice).

Initiates walk on a field in Qunu, in the Eastern Cape. File picture: Siegfried Modola/Reuters

The movements of the ingcibi’s hands when he was cutting left much to be desired. His movements were completely wrong, if you know how the special cut is done. You don’t cut arbitrarily as though you were cutting umbengo (braai meat).

It is the speciality of that cut that enables us to differentiate between a cut made on the mountain and the one made in hospital.

Another distortion is a scene where the elderly men are sitting around the fire and each umkhwetha is asked to stand before them and tell them how they (abakhwetha) are going to conduct themselves now that they are “men”.

Abakhwetha are never regarded as “men” by our communities. Accordingly, when an ingcibi operates on umkhwetha, he asks him to chant, “Ndiyindoda!” (I’m a man!). Note that ingcibi never says to umkhwetha, “Uyindoda!” (You’re a man!).

Even when he has completed his term and service on the mountain, the elders will say, “Sibuyisa amakhwenkwe” (We’re bringing back the boys).

Man-making is a long process for which umkhwetha must take responsibility in terms of good conduct and prosperity. He will have to go through a number of stages of manhood, which include marrying, starting a family and getting livestock.

That process would be slightly different with urbanisation. There is a scene where Xolani (gay ikhankatha) takes Kwanda (gay umkhwetha) to the river to wash his body.

This is a distortion. Umkhwetha never washes unless the time to leave the mountain has come.

He has to keep applying ingceke (a white substance, calcium carbonate) at all times. It has antiperspirant and deodorant properties to keep you dry and smelling like other animals. That makes you part of your habitat.

At the early stages of the movie, Xolani can be heard correctly counselling Kwanda to remember that happenings at the mountain remain on the mountain. It is only towards the end that we get to know that Xolani (ikhankatha) may have meant that Kwanda (umkhwetha) should never divulge their secret sexual relationship at the mountain.

The only homosexual relationship that is known even by abakhwetha is the one between Xolani (ikhankatha) and Vija (ikhankatha). The two are friends who went to school together. They meet as amakhankatha (caregivers). Xolani makes moves on Vija.

Vija yields, though he seems to be doing it for the money Xolani showers him with. Vija’s heart is not in this relationship, but he needs the money because he is a married man who has a family to take care of.

This desperation seems to suggest Vija may be married to a hopelessly dependent “housewife”.

The two do their sexual encounters, which amount to the violation of the sacredness of the mountain. What makes it worse is that they are there as the guardians of abakhwetha.

Vija is extremely abusive and beats up and strangles Xolani during their sexual encounters. It is surprising that the elders would not have disciplined amakhankatha for such a grave violation.

Your attention is once more drawn to sex as a taboo at the mountain for two reasons: sacredness of the mountain and the reversal of healing.

Besides, Xolani, as a caregiver and guardian, would have violated the ethics of his spiritual and character-moulding assignment. He would therefore be liable for serious punishment, which is not considered in the movie.

White supremacy rears its ugly head when abakhwetha and amakhankatha take a stroll looking for waterfalls. They stumble on a white farmer about to open the gate of his farm. All of them stand slavishly away from the master while Xolani goes to engage the farmer about directions. While the engagement is taking place, Vija and abakhwetha steal a goat from the farmer’s truck.

The caricature of blacks as have-nots and livestock thieves had to come out.

Would the storyline have suffered without this racist portrayal of blacks?

Did the writers care to probe how the white man came to “own” livestock when his forebears came to Africa with nothing but opted to steal the livestock of the Africans?

While the movie begins with Xolani at the back of a truck going to work in “Queenstown”, it ends with him on the back of a truck to “Johannesburg” to struggle for a living.

That is how whiteness views blackness. Not surprisingly, this movie is written by a white man, John Trengove, who is also the executive producer.

Thando Mgqolozana and Malusi Bengu have added their endorsing ink to the caricature of African life.

The rest of the many producers are white men and women with one uninitiated young black man. Not surprisingly, the actors and producers of the movie have received global accolades.

Any project that either distorts or negatively stereotypes black life always gets massive funding and awards. If anything, my experience of Inxeba is that blacks need to write their own stories.

It’s not going to help to keep some aspects of our lives secret and unwritten for ever. We should find a way of positively documenting them while treading carefully where we have to.

Blacks need to make funds available for these projects. We can’t react for ever to the deliberate distortions of our being by the global white supremacist establishment.

Otherwise, all The Wound does is to wound the wounded.

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

The Sunday Independent