Inga* cries out in pain. His foreskin is swollen and makes it difficult for him to urinate. His mother tries to console him to no avail. His pain can be relieved by circumcision; but it is not as simple as it appears. His uncles do not want him to be medically circumcised as this will contravene his cultural practice. Being a Xhosa boy, he must wait till he is of age until he can be circumcised as a rite of passage to manhood.
His mother says the past few weeks have been rough for both her and her son. To her, getting her son circumcised seemed the logical solution to his dilemma. However, she is also weary of the implications of having her son go through this procedure. Her son could be abused by his peers for not having been circumcised the traditional way. Does she allow him relief through circumcision or does she allow the men in her family to deal with this the traditional way?
She has had to navigate around her son’s pain from a distance because as woman she is not allowed to get involved in such matters. Her face is a mixture of emotions as she tells me that she is happy that her son is receiving treatment. Her worry is that she has been made to feel like a spectator in resolving her son’s situation. Sharing her experience she says, “I had to let the men take over and see to my son’s health. As a woman I have no part to play since men see to these matters.”
When questioned about what she thought best for her son she tells me that “I did not care whether my son was treated traditionally or medically, it hurt me to see him in so much pain. I had concerns about him should he have been treated medically.” When sked about these concerns she goes on to say that she “feared for him because some men who have been medically circumcised in her community had been ostracized or victimized.”
There are many other youngsters out there like Inga. Some fall prey to victimization because they have been circumcised medically. These youngsters are deemed not man enough by their peers and certain pockets of society because of their choice to go through circumcision the medical route.
To get an understanding of this victimization I spoke to Bizo Bomela, a graduate of the traditional initiation school. He confirms that “those who choose medical circumcision are viewed as an outcast in the Xhosa community because the ancestors do not take those individuals as men because they have not been traditionally introduced to the clan.” He goes on to say that the Xhosa culture acknowledges the rights to freedom of choice of an individual, but men who choose medical circumcision over traditional circumcision must understand the consequences that come with their choices.
His views are confirmed by Chief Nosizwe Maxwele, 53, one of few female traditional leaders in Zimbane, Mthatha. She took over the chieftaincy when her husband passed on. She goes on to say that her role is minimal in the circumcision of young men, more so because she is a woman. Her major role in this regard is to ensure that the young men go through the registered initiation schools. When I questioned her about medical circumcision she states that as a leader of people she is not against young men who choose to get circumcised medically. She confirms that those initiates who have opted for the medical route are regarded as lesser men in the community.
I then questioned her on manhood and whether it is something that has changed over the years. She told me that nowadays some initiates deem themselves as men and assert their manhood by adopting habits such as smoking and drinking. These are things that have shifted over the years and have an influence on how initiates carry out their manhood.
To further understand notions of manhood as espoused through initiation schools I had a chat with Koko Zaka, a young Xhosa man who has gone through initiation school. He tells me that traditional circumcision is still relevant today. He says "it is a tradition that prepares boys to be responsible men". His own experience was described as a positive experience in which he learnt “to listen and play by the rules to survive and succeed in life." Bizo Bomela adds to this by telling me that “respect for women, the elders and peers is one of the vital values that I learnt at initiation school.” He went on to state that looking after each other while away from home taught him the importance of ubuntu and love.
It is evident that cultural traditions are intertwined with notions of manhood. Similarly, manhood does not exist in isolation; it is also shaped and influenced by womanhood. Chief Maxwele shared with me some of her experiences as a woman who is a traditional leader, and has been for six years running. One of her challenges was to overcome opposing forces to her leadership. Given the traditional setting, many men, including those close to her, were against the idea of having a woman lead them. She says that over time the community has warmed up to her as its leader.
She says the shift in attitudes has come as a result of broader society beginning to accept women in leadership roles. Her leadership style has also contributed to this shift in the sense that she partakes in the day to day rituals of her community and being in tune with what people want. She is a leader who lives with people and leads amongst them. She goes on to say that women still have a long way to go because discrimination against them is still evident today. Being a traditional authority she tells me that she has headmen who report to her and amongst these is one woman who plays the very same role. While the male ‘headmen’ get paid for their services the woman does not get paid.
It is interesting to note these developments because they speak to greater issues of transformation in society. Equality amongst men and women is something that is enshrined in the constitution of the land yet hard to come by in everyday situations. Given the fact that culture and tradition evolve over time, shouldn’t the roles played by men and women also be scrutinized? Is it not time that we started educating our communities such that they welcome those who are medically circumcised?