Boys to Men: AmaNdebele youths return home after ritual marred by deaths

26 June 2017 - 19:24 By Sipho Mabena And Naledi Shange

Abel Mahlangu and several other initiates descended the mountains on Monday morning, marking an end to their initiation process. Subscribe to TimesLIVE here: https://www.youtube.com/user/TimesLive

With only four deaths out of more than 30‚000 AmaNdebele initiates in Mpumalanga‚ Ingoma Forum‚ a group of medical practitioners tasked with curbing the deaths‚ is proud of the 2017 initiation season‚ the AmaSenya regiment.

The 2013 season‚ the AmaDugu regiment of Ndzundza-Mabhoko Traditional Council‚ was a bloodbath‚ with at least 31 boys in quest of manhood returning home in body bags.

These deaths were blamed on preventable complications‚ such as excessive bleeding and exposure to extreme cold conditions.

The forum‚ a Mpumalanga department of health panel made up of medical professionals who have undergone the sacred ritual shrouded in secrecy‚ was born from this tragedy.

Its task is to ensure zero deaths in the ritual widely practiced by the predominantly Ndebele and Pedi people of Mpumalanga.

Chairperson of the Forum‚ Musa Thugwana‚ said though they were thrilled by the low death rate‚ their ultimate goal was to "ensure no one dies".

He said this could be achieved by ensuring medical check-ups before the initiates head for their two-month seclusion in the mountains for the sacred rite of passage‚ saying this was heavily reliant on the co-operation of parents.

“We are thankful that the initiation season is over‚ albeit with four deaths. The low death rate is attributed to the cooperation that we had with parents. Especially the need for prior medical check-ups so that we know what health condition each initiate has. I am sure that this regiment (AmaSenya) did so well because of the cooperation we had with parents‚” he said.

Betty Mahlangu‚ 52‚ in the former KwaNdebele homeland suburb of KwaMhlanga‚ about 70 kilometres north east of Pretoria‚ is just relieved her 24-year-old son is back.

She first saw her son‚ Senzo‚ on Monday. The last time she saw him was two months ago when he left for the mountains‚ as a boy.

“Now he is a man and I am happy. The men have looked after our children very well‚ they look good and strong‚” she said.

Her son has completed the apprentice programme to complete his national Diploma in Industrial Engineering at the Tshwane University of Technology.

“He had already completed his practical when he left for the mountains to be a man. Now all that is remaining is for him to graduate (with his Diploma)‚” she said.

The rite of passage in the Ndebele culture is a secret ritual that is never discussed with an outsider‚ which prevented this reporter from interviewing Senzo and his fellow initiates‚ one of them a practicing lawyer.

“We have been instructed not to say anything‚ unless it is approved by our elder‚” Senzo said.

On Tuesday Senzo will be showered with gifts from his parents‚ siblings‚ friends and relatives.

In EMalahleni (Witbank)‚ Isaac Mahlangu could not contain his pride and joy as his son‚ 20-year-old Abel returned home after 62 days at a nearby initiation school in Witbank‚ Mpumalanga.

"He can now choose to officially have a girlfriend. He can make his own choices in terms of the friends he wants to keep‚” said his father.

Had he chosen not to go‚ he would have never really been regarded as a man by the Ndebele clan.

When we arrived at the Mahlangu homestead earlier on Monday‚ the yard was a hive of activity.

A white flag hung from a corner of the make-shift hut built at the Mahlangu home.

Blood from a recently slain cow oozed down the driveway.

Abel’s father took the gall bladder from the carcass and headed to the nearby thatched hut built outside his home where his son and some of his friends sang in celebration following their return.

Affirming that his son was now a man‚ he poured the contents of the gall bladder over his son’s hands and feet before being aided in wrapping the now empty bladder around his son’s wrist.

“That was to show that he has completed the process‚” said his proud father.

Meanwhile‚ the six boys in the hut‚ built without a roof‚ sang loudly in celebration‚ fuelling the festive mood which lingered in the air.

Their bare bodies and bald heads glistened in the sunlight as they danced and sang.

Colourful strings bound together around their waists as a covering shook from side to side as they raised their canes and spears and bellowed traditional songs.

The women sang in jubilation‚ sipping on homebrewed beer.

“It took quite a while to get here‚” said Abel’s mother‚ explaining that they had spent the entire week baking for this occasion.

Festivities were to continue at the Mahlangu household until Tuesday where Abel would then accompany his friends to their homes and repeat the same process that he had done.

“He will be getting a bed‚ new clothes and whatever else we decide to give him‚ perhaps also a laptop‚” said his father.

According to customary practice‚ Abel is meant to do away with all the clothes that he wore before his initiation process began and start wearing new clothes‚ symbolising that he is now a grown man.

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