S Africa cir­cum­ci­sion rit­ual: A dan­ger­ous route to man­hood

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

COF­FEE BAY, South Africa: Naked, cov­ered in white clay mud, and with his pe­nis wrapped in leaves, Abongile Maqegu, 20, sits in a hut in South Africa re­cov­er­ing from his cir­cum­ci­sion-a tra­di­tional rit­ual that can prove fa­tal. For Maqegu, it has been a gru­el­ing ini­ti­a­tion test that marks his ar­rival as an adult, and the pain is an es­sen­tial part of the ex­pe­ri­ence. “You must go through that pain to show that you are a man,” he said out­side the coastal vil­lage of Cof­fee Bay about 100 kilo­me­ters from Um­tata in East­ern Cape prov­ince.

“We don’t even think of (get­ting) a med­i­cal cir­cum­ci­sion be­cause it is the easy way out. We laugh at those who go to hos­pi­tals.” Maqegu is one of thou­sands of youths from the Xhosa eth­nic group at­tend­ing this year’s an­nual win­ter ini­ti­a­tion schools across East­ern Cape prov­ince. Af­ter his fore­skin is cut off by a tribal el­der us­ing a knife, he is kept in the small thatched ron­davel hut with two other ini­ti­ates for up to four weeks, with a “bush doc­tor” present at all times mon­i­tor­ing their wounds.

The ini­ti­ates are al­lowed no con­tact with women, and spend their time play­ing cards, ap­ply­ing mud and stok­ing the smoky fire to try to keep warm. “If you go to hos­pi­tal you are weak, you are not a man. Your wound must not be treated with Be­ta­dine (dis­in­fec­tant),” Maqegu said. “There is spe­cial tra­di­tional medicine for that and it heals fast.”

He re­vealed tree leaves tied like a ban­dage around his gen­i­tals, which are also cov­ered in a tra­di­tional heal­ing oint­ment and held to one side by string. The rit­ual is revered and guarded by the Xhosa peo­ple, but the un­hy­gienic con­di­tions-and abuse by some ini­ti­a­tion schools-ex­acts a heavy toll. At least 11 youths have al­ready died dur­ing this south­ern hemi­sphere win­ter in East­ern Cape, ac­cord­ing to provin­cial of­fi­cials, while the gov­ern­ment says sev­eral hun­dred have died na­tion­wide in ini­ti­a­tion schools since 1995.

Of­ten the cause is in­fec­tion from a botched cir­cum­ci­sion, which can lead to pe­nis am­pu­ta­tion surgery. Cir­cum­ci­sion has also been demon­strated to be a pow­er­ful weapon in the fight against HIV, by help­ing to pro­tect men from the AIDS virus. But spe­cial­ists-meet­ing in Paris from Sun­day for a four­day fo­rum on HIV/AIDS-re­main wor­ried about botched op­er­a­tions and poor hy­giene. Other risks in­clude de­hy­dra­tion or mal­treat­ment by ini­ti­a­tion lead­ers, who con­duct the se­cre­tive cir­cum­ci­sion rit­u­als deep in the moun­tains.

Rec­og­nized as a man

In an­other grass-thatched hut, 200 me­ters away, sit­ting on a reed mat, is 20-year-old Fezikhaya Tse­lane, who has just re­turned from his cir­cum­ci­sion rites in the re­mote bush. As he nurses the sore wound, his bush doc­tor sits close by, sur­rounded by dirty pots, plates and empty beer bot­tles strewn over the floor. “I have been wait­ing for this day. All my brothers have gone through this process,” Tse­lane said, en­tirely cov­ered in white mud, which is meant to ward off evil spir­its as well as pre­serve body warmth.

“In our Xhosa cul­ture, if you don’t go through tra­di­tional cir­cum­ci­sion you are not rec­og­nized as a man. “Now I can marry, have my own house and kids and not de­pend on my par­ents.” Mx­olisi Di­maza, chair­man of the East­ern Cape provin­cial health com­mit­tee, said author­i­ties were de­ter­mined to curb in­juries and deaths in the ini­ti­a­tion schools.

“This year a con­sid­er­able amount of re­sources were made avail­able so that we do not ex­pe­ri­ence many more deaths,” he said af­ter his re­cent field visit to sev­eral ini­ti­a­tion sites. “How­ever, there are still prob­lem ar­eas where we have il­le­gal ini­ti­a­tion schools. These are where the school it­self is not reg­is­tered and the ini­ti­ates are of­ten be­low 18 years old.”— AFP

COF­FEE BAY, South Africa: This file photo shows tra­di­tional Xhosa ini­ti­ates Fezikhaya Tse­lane, 20 years old, and Khany­isile Mapope, left, 18 years old, sit­ting down cov­ered with blan­kets dur­ing a tra­di­tional ini­ti­a­tion process, in a ru­ral hut in the Cof­fee Bay area in Um­tata, South Africa.— AFP

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