Every year young boys die in the process of “becoming men”, ulwaluko. Recently Mpumalanga made news when 27 boys died at an initiation camp. When such stories are reported I’m reminded of the imigidi I have attended, celebrating the return of ikrwala (a new man). Growing up, the deaths of amakrwala (the “new men”) were viewed with shame and if anything went wrong people would speak in hushed voices about ihlazo — the shame a family would face if the ritual went awry or ended the life of a son.
Dying at an initiation camp has become an issue of national importance. And rightfully so. The ANC issued a statement announcing a “parliamentary debate on deaths of initiates” and it was reported that the president was outraged.
In the name of culture any suggestion that has been put forward to avoid fatalities has been ignored. The ritual is a private and public moment. Any changes made means the tradition is being disrupted or tampered with (often by outsiders) and thus less authentic and in danger of incurring the “wrath of the ancestors”. This has consequences for the legitimacy of the ritual. By making the deaths of these young men a national issue means black boys’ bodies are on display. If young boys do not survive a ritual that is a stamp of approval for their manhood, what does this mean for them as individuals as well as members of larger communities? More importantly what does this mean for black masculinity? It is under threat because the very ritual that seeks to establish manhood ends in death.
An alternative is that the department of health intervenes to ensure healthier operations while recognising the importance of the ritual but traditionalists feel this will complicate things further. Practitioners in clinics are often female nurses and women have not been allowed to be part of this ritual. It seems logical that this should be a sexual health issue rather than a cultural issue. Recognising the problem within this paradigm does not necessarily mean the cultural importance of ulwaluko has to be renounced. By ignoring the health aspect of the ritual ulwaluko may lose the cultural currency it holds as it becomes firmly associated with death.
Cultural practices have changed over the decades. The anxiety of involving the department of health seems unwarranted. Communities have to reckon with the reality that more harm than good is being done. The “wrath of the ancestors” is a reality for many and this highlights the irrationality of the ritual. But when we ask questions about the rationality of continuing a ritual in spite of the calamities reported, we open up a “colonial discourse” that seeks to delegitimise “African culture”. What we fail to remember is that rituals fall away all the time. The female coming-of-age ritual among Xhosa people, intonjane fell away many decades ago (well I have only been to one thus far in my life). The Zulu practice of umemulo is popular (though male circumcision fell away). In the case of intonjane and umemulo, a medical procedure is not required, unlike male circumcision.
Yet by questioning the practice every year “African culture” (whatever that means) is under threat. And more importantly, black men’s legitimacy in their communities is considered to be threatened. The irony of course is that many men are circumcised much later in life and go to the hospital without the added cultural baggage that affects some Xhosa and Sotho men. This is not a new conversation. Thando Mgqolozana’s book A man who is not a man highlights the complexities of ulwaluko. And by making this an issue of national importance the ANC seeks to recognise that a private ritual has implications for the public existence of young boys-men. (I must say I wondered about the ANC’s concern. Imagine the ANC issued a statement every time the rape of a woman or lesbian was reported?)
I teach (Xhosa) teenage boys and have witnessed the excitement they share at the prospect of ulwaluko . Death doesn’t seem to enter their minds as a possibility. If I dare suggest they go to the clinic rather they would make worm’s meat of me.