Becoming a woman: The secret right of passage
In a village nestled between Limpopo and Mpumalanga, girls as young as seven embark on a six-week secret rite of passage to prepare them for their journey into womanhood.
It is so shrouded in secrecy that mothers are barred from the proceedings if they have not undergone the ritual themselves.
As dawn breaks on a chilly winter morning in Moteti village near Dennilton, 147 barefooted initiates, covered in blankets, leave huts where they had been sleeping to a nearby house.
It's here that they prepare for the celebration marking the end of their initiation.
Hundreds, including Refilwe Mathebula, whose niece was among the initates, had gathered for the celebration. The initiation is predominantly for young Pedi women from the Mapulana ethnic group.
Shortly after entering the house, the girls emerged dressed in woollen aprons soaked in red ochre and oil. Cow skins covered them from behind, with many wearing skirts fitted with brightly coloured handkerchiefs and jewellery woven from grass. Attached to their white T-shirts are mirrors, glimmering in the sun.
Some had their bodies covered in red ochre and carried brightly coloured blankets representing their tribes, with pink and yellow feathers pinned to their hair.
The bright colours and a circular mark burnt into their cheeks symbolise their transition into womanhood.
Mathebula is proud of her niece.
For decades the Mashigo family had hosted one of the initiation camps.
Initiates travel across the country to undergo their rite of passage.
Mathebula, explaining the branding, said the mark is made with a metallic police whistle which is heated up.
"The mark symbolises that you were part of the Mashigo initiation school," said Mathebula.
The secrecy around the initiation is to lure people into it, she said.
"It is a strategy. We want girls to be curious and wonder what we do. We are improving our culture as we don't want it to die out. Revealing everything wouldn't make it as attractive."
Aletta Rantlha, whose daughter was among the initiates, said she had at first feared for her child. But women in her husband's family had gone through the initiation for years.
As a non-initiated woman, Rantlha was allowed to stay in the yard - where the initiation school is run - for two weeks. She could see her daughter at the weekend.
But she was barred from entering the enclosed huts where the girls sleep.
Some question how young girls, who have yet to reach puberty, can grasp the womanhood lessons taught at the school. A 22-year-old, who was initiated when she was nine, said everything she learnt from the initiation came together as she grew older.
"Lessons of motherhood and womanhood, which at the time meant little, made sense later. We were taught things in riddles. The older I got, I attached meaning to those things," said the woman, who asked not to be named.
She said what she learnt had helped her when she came across certain situations that tested her as a mother.
"Spiritual battles, things beyond you and your control, as a woman, you handle it."
For many, female initiation conjures images of mutilation.
"Initiation schools are different. It's all about the mind. There is nothing that is done to the body.
"We teach them to take care of a household and we teach them morals. It is about traditional dancing and singing," said Emelda Mashigo-Mzangwa, the granddaughter of Caiphus Mashigo who founded the school in the 1960s.
"They say there is a difference between a woman who has undergone the process and one who hasn't. I went when I was 12," Mashigo-Mzangwa said.
She quashed ideas about genital mutilation.
"It's not about the 'pulling' [of the labia]. That didn't happen to me. There are incidents where [some] are pulled.but these are the sensitive details I can't go into. Some people are born [with a stretched labia] while others may want it done for a bit of 'vavavoom'."
Mashigo-Mzangwa said: "We grew up being told that it is a secret practice so we have kept it that way. It is just the way it is."
She said witchcraft played a role in fatalities at other initiation schools.
"Enemies have attempted to bewitch the initiates [here] but the elders are always able to pick it up and protect them," she said.
The school has not had a fatality.
“We avoid food poisoning because you never know when enemies may try to settle scores through the children so we handle the pots ourselves. We no longer allow outsiders, even family members, to give the girls food while they are in there,” Mashigo-Mzangwa said.
Thousands of women have been initiated at the Mashigo homestead over the years.
Jane Mashigo has seen hundreds of young women pass through the school started by her late husband Caiphus.
She said if a young woman refused to be initiated it could have repercussions for the family.
“In some instances, if a woman marries into a family that believes in the process and she dies before she undertakes it, someone from that family may need to go through the initiation in place of the deceased in order for her to connect with the family’s ancestors,” she said.
Acting chief Chaki Mathebe, who oversees initiation in the Moteti community, explained why the cultural initiation practice prevails.
“When you grow up, at some point, you have to be prepared for adulthood. This will show in how one presents themselves, their behavior and the respect. This is a guide for them on how to conduct themselves with maturity,” he said.
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