Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Amplifications: The author's own.

Read this:
*“Another five would-be initiates died in the Eastern Cape on the weekend, bringing the winter circumcision death toll to 36, the provincial health department said on Monday”.
And further on in the same article:

“…one youth was admitted to Canzibe Hospital at Ngqeleni on Sunday, and as he was admitted, his gangrenous penis fell off.
And wait! There’s more!
“…of the 36, six had suffered "spontaneous amputations" when their penises dropped off, and two lost parts of their penises.Three had been referred to Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital with grade-four gangrene and faced medical amputation”.

In one season, 36 young men are dead because of circumcision-related injuries. This is South Africa. If this had happened in some country village school in sleepy England, the entire country would have been calling for new laws, imprisonment for those doing the ‘surgery’, and the banning of all sweetened food. Ok, the last one was just a nod to the nanny state that is the UK, but you get the point.

Initiation amongst the Xhosa, for example:

*“The Initiation to Adulthood
In order to be accepted as adults by their community, young Xhosa men must go through initiation. Many aspects of Xhosa initiation are handed down and adapted following early interactions with the KhoiSan. Young boys from traditional families must go through the khwetha or circumcision school. Khwetha is regarded as an essential step into manhood. The youth's departure for the initiation lodge is a significant event and may be marked by the sacrifice of a goat. The lodge is usually located in a remote location near a stream and specially built for the purpose. Initiates are usually instructed by a 'father' and assisted by 'guardians.' There are many secret rites and ceremonies associated with initiation, and the process can last up to three months ' although in modern times, this is often shorter because many young men need to return to work. After a period of seclusion, young initiates smear their naked bodies with white clay and are covered in a single blanket or, in the old days, a sheepskin kaross. The white clay serves to conceal their identity and protect them from evil. Contact with women is forbidden, and apart from the staple foods brought to them by children, the boys fend for themselves ' usually by hunting. Before their circumcision, they must sit in the stream to cleanse themselves while confessing their misdeeds to the adults. After the ritual is completed, the new 'adults' wash the white clay from their bodies and the simple grass huts in which they lived are set alight in a ritual that symbolizes the burning of their past. In this way, they leave behind their childhood and are accepted as men. In the past, initiates were expected to wait approximately four years after their khwetha ceremonies before they were permitted to take a wife”.

I recently read of an addendum to the initiation- an initiate must not sleep with his own girlfriend afterwards, but the first time he ‘tests’ his penis, it must be with a woman in the community not held in respect (usually a prostitute). You can imagine how this exacerbates HIV in the community.
Now, I am not a Xhosa male. I am not ever going to go through that experience. I cannot comment on the cultural importance of it, but I can, and will, say that this loss of life is unacceptable. There are doctors willing to do the actual surgery, so that the circumcision taking place at the schools is largely ceremonial. There has been a massive drive to close illegal schools. In the past, young men were often forced to undergo initiation- kidnapped and taken away- this has also become less common.
Seriously, though, it makes me glad that although I hated the Western form of initiation (mocking, alcohol consumption until vomiting, towel-flicking in change-rooms, smoking behind bicycle sheds at school etc), I have never been in danger of something as physically and emotionally devastating as a ‘spontaneous amputation’.

What can be said? Well, voices of complaint issuing forth from the leafy suburbs of the cities are not going to impact society as much as the community leaders in rural areas putting an end to the life-threatening behaviour happening in these schools. Sure, cultural identity cannot be denied these young men, and, indeed, should be protected, but with the added benefit of other human rights. Access to healthcare,dignity, and the right to life.
I am not a pith-helmeted colonialist with ears closed to the wishes of the people, just a regular person who is utterly shocked at the statistics.

*The quoted parts belong to other people somewhere- follow the links...


  1. the horror of this is unimaginable to me - taking a boy and instead of making him a man, emasculating him in the worst possible way. the terrible things is that i don't know how we change this. yet it's unacceptable.

  2. Every year it shocks me. Every year I am astounded by the deliberate ignorance. Every year I wonder how people can continue to allow their chidren to be mutilated and harmed, despite what they themselves hear about these "schools" every year.

  3. @cybersass: I think the medical and trdtitional combo is the best way to go- proper surgery and then a ceremonial mock circumcision. A lot of the guys die from exposure- that is- sleeping outside, and not having correct post-operative procedures.
    @angel: Frightening, I would not allow my sons to go through that.

  4. It's equally as horrifying when you start reading up on female circumcision, which is far more gruesome [not that this is not, but if everything goes "ok" the kid still has a chance at a normal sex life. Female circumcision ... I just shudder to think about it. And yet it is still very common in parts of Africa, and the Middle East. I guess I'm thankful I was born into a culture where it's taboo.

  5. @TEBFKASMP: (Ex-Blogger??) Yup- I wouldn't say that one has more important than the other- they are equally distressing- but as a man, and this being my country, I was particularly revolted by this 'news'- not news, because it happens every year with sickening regularity. And it is part of a culture which demonises women and their role in society- to the point of condoning irresponsible sexual practices and rape. I'm not saying that initiation schools are rape schools, but rather that they could be a place where men are taught to respect women.

  6. Within the past year or two, a mohel (Jewish trained ceremonial circumciser of babies) was arrested for causing a baby he circumcised to get an infection. This was in NY, I believe.

    I had to sign extensive paperwork for my daughter to get her EAR pierced at a jewelry store last year. The form was like 2 pages long, no joke.

    Our society here is so litigious...it makes people either more careful OR less willing to take risks of any sort or...well perhaps a combo of both.

    That said, I think the illegal things American kids do as rites of passage are typically related to substance abuse - which take quite heavy death tolls of their own in terms of drunk drivers, etc.


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