Xhosa men must defend our rituals

The writer says Xhosa men should be the custodians of their rituals.

The writer says Xhosa men should be the custodians of their rituals.

Published Jun 14, 2013


Zemk’iinkomo magwala ndini! This is a Xhosa phrase used to sound the alarm and call for men to act and protect the “nation” (iSizwe) in times of crisis.

It translates as: “The cattle are being taken away, you cowards!”

Cows are a valued asset in traditional Xhosa society and when they are being taken away by another clan, men feel that their manhood is being undermined. To be called cowards for failing to protect community assets is an insult to traditional Xhosa constructions of masculinity.

I was reminded of this phrase when I recently logged on to a website of a South African newspaper and saw a link to a questionnaire titled “Share your initiation experience”.

The link invites traditionally circumcised men to complete a questionnaire whereby they share their experiences of the ritual, including medical problems that they may have experienced.

Contact details of journalists are provided at the bottom of a questionnaire for men to contact them for further interviews.

To get to the link you click on a picture of a Xhosa initiate covered in a white-and-red striped blanket, his face smeared with ikota, a whitish substance normally used to hide the identity of Xhosa initiates.

I was angry at the newspaper for undermining my tradition like this; for asking me as a traditionally initiated man to share my secrets with outsiders.

In Xhosa culture the experience of traditional initiation cannot be shared with anyone who has not undertaken the ritual.

Uninitiated Xhosa boys, medically circumcised men, women and outsiders are not allowed access to information about certain aspects of the ritual.

I have been angry with the media and academic reporting on Xhosa initiation rituals for a while. Recently I watched with disapproval as Al Jazeera, an international news channel, aired a horrific documentary about deaths and complications occurring in Xhosa initiation rituals in the Eastern Cape.

The documentary was produced by a Xhosa man, Mayenzeke Baza.

International viewers reacted with disgust on the Al Jazeera website, calling for the ritual to be banned and labelling it as typical of “backward” African customs.

I was angry when Thando Mgqoloza, another Xhosa man, published a book called A Man Who is Not a Man, sharing the most secret aspects of the ritual. I have been angry with several academics who wrote negative portrayals of Xhosa initiation rituals and published them in international journals. At times I have questioned the manhood status of these men; “real” Xhosa men should not publicise our ritual.

But upon deep reflection on these events, instead of being angry at newspaper commentators, film-makers and authors, I should be angry at myself and other Xhosa men. We are responsible for the negative portrayal of our tradition.

Xhosa men, particularly the educated elite, have distanced themselves from details of the ritual. They have left its key aspects to charlatans, drunks and opportunists who have no interest in safeguarding the lives of initiates. They are simply there for material gains associated with the ritual. How many of us visit amabhoma (so-called initiation huts) to check on the progress of initiates?

This was the secret to success of the ritual and it ensured early detection of problems. Every initiated Xhosa man is entitled to visit amabhoma and intervene if there are problems, whether or not he is related to the initiate. This role has been left entirely to amakhankatha, most of whom deal with several initiates and are not always sober.

Some prominent Xhosa men – including well-known media commentators – have called for a ban on traditional initiation rituals because of deaths and complications in the bush; and some organisations have been calling for its replacement with medical circumcision.

Their concerns are justifiable, but I beg to differ. There is nothing inherently deadly about Xhosa initiation rituals, as evidenced by many centuries of successful execution of the ritual.

In my village, near Willowvale, there are no known deaths because boys are circumcised by a well-known ngcibi and looked after by a trusted khankatha. Moreover, community men are fully involved in the ritual, from beginning to end.

Initiation rituals are not meant to kill; rather they build character based on shared experiences of being in the bush. Initiated men are not better than other men from non-circumcising societies. But the ritual grounds them in their respective traditions and moulds their behaviour in culturally appropriate ways. It instils codes of conduct necessary to be socially responsible citizens.

I have witnessed several cases of violent boys and criminals who have been totally transformed by the ritual and are leading decent lives. Yet whenever I read about the ritual in newspapers I only encounter negative stories about deaths, abuse and pains of losing “manhood”.

In a follow-up interview about his documentary, with Redi Tlhabi on Al Jazeera, Mayenzeke Baza said he will not be taking his son to the bush if the current state of affairs is not changed.

The question is: who is responsible for changing it? Is it not us, Xhosa men, the proud recipients of the ritual?

* Dr Sakhumzi Mfecane lectures in anthropology at the University of the Western Cape.

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

The Star

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