NOTE: This article is the first in 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.
Kwanele Samuel cannot wait to become a man.
The 18-year-old grade 10 pupil is excited to finish his exams this month so he can leave home and undergo ulwaluko, or the traditional rite of passage for a Xhosa man.
Samuel, from Mdlankomo village outside Libode, will be one of thousands of young men making their way to the bush for the Eastern Cape’s summer initiation season.
My peers are all men. After initiation I will be allowed to sit inside the kraal with other men during a traditional ceremony. I will be able to socialise freely with my friendsKwanele Samuel
Even though his family has planned very carefully for his initiation and Samuel has done everything by the book, the rite of passage remains fraught with danger. Although most initiates survive, many die.
Eastern Cape co-operative governance and traditional affairs spokesperson Mamnkeli Ngam says more than 1,100 initiates died and 461 underwent penile amputations between 2006 and 2018. In the past five years, more than 500 boys have died at initiation schools.
More initiates die during the summer initiation season in December than during the winter season because of the dehydration that the heat causes. Initiates are often discouraged from drinking water after surgery so that they urinate less. In addition, the Mpondoland area in which Samuel lives has the highest death toll because the tradition is relatively new to the area, only being practised there since the early 1970s, traditional experts say.
The initiates who have male relatives to visit them daily at their initiation schools have the greatest chance of survival. However, Samuel is an orphan raised by his aunt, Nokhanyiso Mjali, who works in Tsolo, about 50km away, and who is able to come home only on weekends. Her husband also works away from home.
But so strong is Samuel's desire to become a man that his family has, since the beginning of the year, been accumulating the clothes, alcohol and food they need for his umgidi, or homecoming ceremony.
“I wanted to be a man last year already. My aunt asked me to wait so she can prepare properly. I didn’t want to disappoint her and I waited,” he said, adding that most of his friends have already been circumcised - last year and in June.
“My peers are all men. After initiation I will be allowed to sit inside the kraal with other men during a traditional ceremony. I will be able to socialise freely with my friends.”
If he survives initiation school, which he will enter on November 23, he will be able to do just that.
Asked if he was not afraid of dying since many initiation-related deaths occur in the Mpondoland area, Samuel said: “I am afraid, but I want to be a man and I'm going to come back alive.”
When he was five years old, Samuel's mother Zoliswa, who lived and worked as a domestic worker in Durban, died leaving him and his younger brother. His father died a year later.
I am afraid, but I want to be a man and I'm going to come back aliveKwanele Samuel
Mjali, a nurse, said her nephew approached her last year with his request to go for circumcision.
“I loved his respect. He didn’t do what other boys do and approach illegal traditional surgeons. He waited for us as family to be ready. I told him I wanted to show him love, the same way that his mother did,” Mjali said.
In a 2017 report, the Commission for the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities found that 32% of initiates had not received permission from their local chiefs to undergo the rite, and a quarter had not been medically screened. In addition, 18% of them were not medically fit, 5% were underage and 3% did not have permission from their parents.
Mjali and her family have managed to save the R1,500 they need to pay the traditional surgeon and initiation school, and for his umgidi on December 22.
“Family members have promised to donate sheep and I have bought most of the alcohol that will be needed for umgidi,” Mjali said.
I have even asked the doctors where I work to prescribe more medication for other boys who will be going to his initiation school. I am leaving nothing to chance. I have seen too many horror storiesNokhanyiso Mjali
So far, Samuel has followed the rules according to the Customary Male Initiation Practice Act and has received permission from his local chief Inkosi Jongitaba Ndamase and his aunt to undergo the traditional rite.
He has also been for the required medical examination to ensure he is fit enough to undergo the rite that lasts three to five weeks.
Mjali, though, is leaving nothing to chance and has done everything she is culturally allowed to do as a woman to keep her nephew safe, including buying disposable gloves for Samuel's traditional surgeon.
“I have even asked the doctors where I work to prescribe more medication for other boys who will be going to his initiation school. I am leaving nothing to chance. I have seen too many horror stories,” she says.
“For the past two months I have been checking for any sign of sexually transmitted diseases. Every week I check his blood pressure, check for diabetes and ensure that he drinks his multi-vitamins.”
Ndamase told the Sunday Times that while all boys needed to be 18 years or older and needed to consult their parents and undergo medical examinations before undergoing customary male initiation, many did not.
“We found that many parents were allowing children to go to initiation schools even though they were underage. We found that many parents would, for example, use other people’s IDs to get their children into initiation school. Some even use illegal initiation schools,” Ndamase said.
Although he has followed the rules, Samuel’s rite of passage remains a risky obligation. He dreams of one day becoming a lawyer.
“In two years' time when I finish my matric, I want to study towards a law degree,” he said.
What happens next? Do Kwanele Samuel’s male relatives check up on him regularly at the initiation school, or do they stay away, believing that everything is going according to plan?
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