Boys die to become men in traditional circumcision

2009-12-16 10:49

THE lucky ones survive with mutilated penises and shameful scars

for the rest of their lives, but that’s the high price boys in rural South

Africa pay to become men.

In the Eastern Cape province, the ethnic Xhosa boys graduate to

manhood through a sacrosanct ritual of circumcision.

But every year, the custom among the country’s second-largest

ethnic group sees young initiates die of complications from botched

circumcisions by ill-trained traditional surgeons.

Boys still flock to traditional initiation schools in the bush,

because the faster and less painful medical method can result in a lifetime of

rejection.

“When you are uncircumcised regardless of your age, society will

never regard you as a man, you will always be a boy. No one wants to live with

that,” said Athenkosi Mtirara, who is about to undergo the procedure.

Mtirara says he wanted to follow in the footsteps of all the men in

his family who have been through the ritual.

“In my family no one has ever died from a circumcision gone wrong.

My older brother has counselled me about things to avoid in order to have a

smooth operation,” said the 18-year-old.

After completing the circumcision rites, Mtirara will dispose of

all his old clothes, a symbol of beginning his new life as man.

But if he fails to complete the course or ends up in hospital, he

will live with the stigma of not being man enough.

As a general policy, South Africa is starting to encourage

circumcision for men, which has been shown to halve their risk of contracting

HIV – a major goal in the country with more Aids cases than any other.

Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini announced last week that he wanted to

revive the practice among South Africa’s biggest ethnic group to fight

HIV.

The challenge is how to reconcile traditional practices with modern

medicine and the law.

They hide in silence

Spokesperson for the Eastern Cape department of health Sizwe Kupelo

blames the deaths in the province on uncertified traditional surgeons,

particularly in rural areas “who have no idea how to cut the boys and take care

of them while they heal”.

“Boys are only sent to hospitals when it’s already too late. There

is also pressure to complete the process,” said Kupelo.

In June, a 16-year-old boy was admitted to hospital with a decaying

penis, after developing an infection which was ignored by his traditional

surgeon.

“The majority of the boys who have had their penises amputated

usually end up committing suicide. They can’t live with the shame,” said

Kupelo.

Traditional tools are used to cut the foreskin of the boys’

manhood, without anaesthetic or sterilising equipment.

The surgeons receive no particular training; it is an art passed

down within families from generation to generation.

After the skin has been cut, boys spend up to four weeks healing

while learning about social values and the responsibilities of being an

adult.

With limited access to food and water, health authorities say boys

often suffer dehydration and even bleed to death.

Eight years ago, South Africa passed a law which sets the legal age

for circumcision at 18, but boys eager to prove their manhood as young as 15

still seek the practice from bogus surgeons who are willing to flout the

law.

Fake surgeons normally charge a fee as little as R100 but a bottle

of brandy or a live chicken can be accepted as payment.

In his book, A Man Who Is Not a Man, which tackles the pain and

stigma that comes with botched circumcision, Thando Mgqolozana describes this

secretive ritual as a story of hurt and suffering.

“Some of the survivors get ostracised from their community because

they did not complete the rite of passage in the expected way.”

“They too, because of their supposed failure, hide in silence, as

though silence was a sanctuary,” said. Mgqolozana, who has gone through the

ritual himself.


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