10 November 2019 - 00:03

NOTE: This article is part of a nine-part sequential narrative series on initiation practices in SA. Answer the question at the end of the article to continue with the narrative or view the full series at The Perilous Path To Manhood.

Women celebrate as the village boys return as men.
Relief Women celebrate as the village boys return as men.
Image: xxx

Hundreds of cattle and sheep are set to be slaughtered in the next two months to feed initiates, their families and friends at feasts held to celebrate their homecoming from initiation schools.

According to tradition, initiates’ families invite friends and extended family to share traditional food and drink, while well-wishers give the young man gifts of clothes and other items for his new life.

Nowadays, traditional initiation lasts between three and five weeks to conform to school holidays. But Mbulelo Khutu, a traditional expert, says boys used to stay in the bush for up to six months undergoing the ritual. Khutu says after recuperating and learning about what it means to be a man, the initiate is ready to return home if his ikhankatha (traditional nurse) feels he has recovered.

It is an exciting time for the boy who has now become a man
Mbulelo Khutu

Kwanele Samuel’s welcoming ceremony, called umgidi, is one of the great spectacles of Xhosa culture. Throughout the night before his return, Samuel will play a number of games, called iceya, with his fellow initiates while waiting for the men of his family to fetch him. In the early hours on the morning of his return, Samuel will be chased to the river to wash off the white clay (ingceke) he smeared himself with during the previous month. Samuel will then be ushered back to his hut (iboma), and a man chosen by the family will cover his entire body in butter before he is robed in a new blanket. The hut he stayed in during his initiation period will be set on fire.

Young men being welcomed home at the end of their initiation.
From boys to men Young men being welcomed home at the end of their initiation.
Image: Lulamile Feni

Samuel will then be escorted back home, where a kraal will have been erected for him. Once in the kraal‚ Samuel and other men will break into a celebratory song announcing his return to the rest of the villagers. They will sing and dance throughout the night.

For the umgidi, the village women will dress in traditional attire, with strings of beads and orange and white traditional dresses called imibhaco. They will shower the new man, or ikrwala, with gifts.

Khutu says as soon as Samuel arrives home he will receive words of wisdom from the old men of the village, and then be seated on an ukhukho (mat) in a kraal where the men will visit him and talk about his journey ahead. He will then be placed in a room and given time to talk to those who gave him gifts to set up his future. He is also given time to reflect on what he has learnt.

"It is an exciting time for the boy who has now become a man,” Khutu says.

The day after umgidi, the new man will wear the clothes worn by amakrwala: a formal hat, jacket, shirt, trousers and shoes, usually in brown, beige or khaki.

But for the families of those young men who do not return, it is a time of sorrow.

What happens to the families of those who do not survive?


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