Xhosa boy's sit in a field as they undergo traditional Xhosa male circumcision ceremony into manhood near the home of former South African president Nelson Mandela in Qunu, South Africa, Sunday, June 30, 2013. Nelson Mandela, 94, remains in critical condition Sunday in a Pretoria hospital. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

African culture and its practices are dynamic but it is a myth to suggest that women have traditionally been excluded from decision-making processes, writes Nomboniso Gasa.

The knock on my parents’ window was faint, quick and insistent. I knew these nightly visits very well. I also knew there was a difference between those who knocked on the front door and those who came to the window. I jumped out of bed without turning the light on. I wanted to see what was going on.

“Yhiza, ixakanisekile (Come, it is in distress),” was all the man said. My mother’s response was an instruction: “Go to the kitchen door and boil a large pot of water.”

The silent procession of three left the house quietly and we headed to a kraal. From a distance, we heard the cow whimpering and was agitated and so were others. The light from the torch was faint. My mother had instructed that it be covered with a piece of muslin so as not to startle the animals. Without hesitation, she stepped into the kraal and went straight to the animal in distress.

She separated it from the others and calmed it down.

She got her latex-gloved hands inside the heavily pregnant cow. The calf was in breach. Her arms deep inside the stomach, she tried to turn the calf. The cow, although still in pain, relaxed. The calf was turned around. Then my mother spoon-fed it the foul-smelling warm mixture. I asked, “What is that for?” It is herbal broth to ease the situation, my mother replied.

Shortly after, the cow pushed and the little, slimy calf was born. It hobbled on its bandy legs and lay on the ground. As we scrubbed our hands and arms outside, the mother was cleaning her calf.

I share this story because in the public debate, customs, rites, cultural practices and African cultures are presented as static and inflexible. They are depicted as mainly conducted by men or the roles are viewed as irreversible. This removes the rich, complex and layered cultural experience many of us have lived and know.

This inability or refusal to understand the fluidity of culture is at the core of a stagnant approach on ulwaluko (initiation). I am intrigued by the hardened positions and the claims of exclusion of women. It is as if acknowledging women’s roles and the flexibility of customs and rites minimises the importance of such practices.

I grew up hearing women declare: “Yho lowo, soze asondele kowam umntwana! That man will not come any closer to my child.” Women discuss and plan with their husbands the initiation of their sons. Having observed the reputation of a particular ingcibi (circumciser) they agree.

In some clans, women cut grass for the making of amabhoma (initiation lodges). It is a joyous day publicly celebrated. Once this is done, they ask questions about whether it is tightly woven. This is partly the reason why, in my youth, I never heard of initiates dying of hypothermia in my youth.

Only in the late 1980s, a new phenomenon developed. Boys were whisked away to places to “specialist” ingcibi (circumcision experts) and left there. Often they came back after the first seven days. What began as a search for the best man to handle a young man’s delicate transition gradually became a booming business. Boys became numbers. Those who performed circumcision started competing and pushing numbers to make money.

I reflect on initiation seasons of my youth. I recall villages abuzz with preparations and pregnant with expectation. As young men went up and down announcing their readiness to go to the mountains, they also announced the name of their preferred circumciser.

This was a liminal stage of sorts. Ukukhonya was an intense period of mental preparation accompanied by some dietary adjustments. As they began their journey towards manhood, of which initiation was but a beginning, a coterie of relatives and mates were around them. These people would tend to their needs.

Women could be in the background and influence things, while fathers and other male relatives were there to play the leading role. The men went to see young initiates, inspected their living conditions and ensured they were healing well.

Much of this has changed, since culture is dynamic. The problem is that it is changing for the worse. The full cost of this is not yet known.

The alarming numbers of deaths and penile amputations are but a part of an institution and practice that has gone horribly wrong. Greed, commercialisation, and the abuse and neglect of initiates by those who are supposed to look after them are a big part of the problem.

Even this, I believe, is not the whole problem.

We have yet to take full stock of the damage caused by the changes we are seeing in this practice. It may well be that the most destructive aspects are those we do not speak of. What are young men taught during the initiation period? Who shapes their thinking about manhood? How are these teachings integrated in their consciousness? What is their impact on society, especially on women?

Is it possible to conceive of a conversation on initiation which is not charged with essentialist notions of manhood? Is it possible to have an approach that puts people in the centre, especially young men and women upon whom the damaging notions of masculinity play out? Who pays the price for the psychological and physical wounding of these young men? We need to look closely at the notion of masculinity that young men are taught before and after initiation.

In many communities, people fear for the lives of initiates. They also fear the violence wrought by initiates on communities, especially on young women. These are our sons who refer to their genitalia as Maserati, Mercedes-Benz and BMW. They come back and “test drive” their cars on women, often without consent.

This is interplay on the practice that is spoken of only in whispers. Ukukhupha ifutha (to get rid of fat) or ukosula (to wipe yourself clean). It is young women, mostly girls, whose bodies are used as rags or dumping grounds. In many instances this is rape. These are girls who are marked for life as being not good enough for marriage.

If we want to effect change, we need to make a careful assessment of “manhood” itself. We also need to act boldly. Women must step up and lead the national conversation on initiation. Yes, many will tell us that this is the domain of men. That is not true. Culture is fluid and it is a myth that women are absent in the initiation process. The story I shared shows this dynamism and change. It happens in many families.

We have to engage with the processes that define and inculcate values of manhood.

In that conversation we have to examine even those cultural practices and beliefs that limit our imagination of a different kind of masculinity.

That includes not only processes of initiation, but also the inflexible representations of cultural practices and manhood itself. It would not be the first time women took such bold action.

They did so in the 1950s when they told the ANC leadership: “If these men don’t wear the pants, let us wear them and teach the Boers.” The crises of our times and context call us to act now.

* Nomboniso Gasa is an analyst on gender, politics and cultural issues. She is a senior research associate with the Centre for Law and Society at UCT.

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

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