A traditional initiation rite in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province has left 23 Xhosa teenagers dead. Provincial premier Oscar Mabuyane has called for those responsible to be charged with murder.
The dead succumbed to dehydration or sepsis from circumcision at the start of the ceremony, which lasts between two and six months.
Almost a thousand young men have died from the initiation rite since 1995, with at least twice that number forced to undergo penile amputation.
It was hoped the Customary Initiation Act of 2021 might reduce the number of dead and injured. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu was among those demanding official intervention.
The summer initiation season still has a month to run.
The winter season in June and July was cut short this year because of the Covid, with 19 initiates dying during the process.
Transition to manhood
Initiation prepares young men for the transition to manhood through cultural teaching. There is also initiation for women that begins after their first menstrual period.
The process, known as Ulwaluko, is enthusiastically embraced by the Xhosa people, although it occurs throughout South Africa.
The circumcision is performed by a traditional surgeon known as incibi. The initiate is expected to show no pain and cry out “I am a man” when the process is completed.
He undergoes a month of solitary healing before being sequestered in a hut with a group of others. They are taught values, principles, hardships, respect and accountability within cultural tradition.
The late Nelson Mandela wrote in some detail about his initiation in his autobiography A Long Walk To Freedom.
Having completed initiation a man is called Umkhwetha. The hut (bhoma) that he and fellow initiates occupied is burned along with their boyhood clothing
An uninitiated man is called Inkwenkwe and may not attend tribal councils and other adult events.
A film entitled The Wound, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017, portrays the hardships of homosexuals who did not undergo initiation.
Initiates are strongly discouraged from talking about happens during the process, applying the maxim that what happens in the bush, stays in the bush.
Parents, too, are reluctant to give evidence, which allows inexperienced or dangerous incibi surgeons to continue the practice.