Breaking taboos

2013-01-27 10:00

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A new documentary on Xhosa circumcision features, for the first time, a young man talking on camera about losing his penis and a mother talking about the death of her son. Charl Blignaut reports

This year 40 000 Xhosa boys will go to the mountain to be circumcised in an ancient and secretive ritual called ukwaluka, which marks their transition to manhood.

Many will die or lose their manhood.

Says film maker Mayenzeke Baza: “In the past 10 years, even though the Traditional Circumcision Act was introduced, more than 500 boys have died in the Eastern Cape and hundreds more have lost their penises.

“Our proud history is casting a shadow of shame across our future. It’s time for us to talk about it.”

The 31-year-old from Port Elizabeth is attracting global attention for his feature-length documentary-in-progress, Ndiyindoda (I am a Man).

This month it became a recipient of the important Canadian Hot Docs Blue Ice development fund – and a ­

half-hour version of it aired on Al Jazeera’s People & Power investigative programme.

It has taken three years, but Baza finally has enough funding to complete his labour of love. But not everyone is going to be happy about it.

Although Baza himself underwent the initiation and although Ndiyindoda supports the continuation of the tradition, it includes voices advocating reform.

Baza interviews doctors calling for safer surgical procedures, the exposure of opportunistic circumcisors, and the availability of medicines such as pain pills and penicillin. He also records women’s views.

These previously silent voices provide shattering viewing. Themba Lloyd speaks gravely to the camera. A slight stammer enters his voice when he describes his initiation.

He says that the traditional nurse looking after him at the school bound his wounds with rope. “On the fourth day, I knew something wasn’t right. I couldn’t feel my penis. I couldn’t urinate because the rope was too tight.”

An infection led to a penectomy.

“Sometimes I have sexual feelings, but I know there is nothing I can do. I didn’t learn anything. What I learnt is that I lost my penis,” says a grave, gaunt Lloyd.

“His was one of about 50 cases I discovered,” says Baza.

“But Themba was the only one prepared to speak to me about the shame of losing his penis.”

Similarly, Andisiwe Msindwana is the first Xhosa mother to speak publicly about the death of her son.

Although she had taken him for medical checks before he left for initiation school, he died from hypothermia.

“Our children have become statistics,” she says, adding that she will not keep quiet until women’s voices are heard.

Her plea is given short shrift by traditionalist Monwabisi Baza. In the documentary, the provincial government official says: “In our custom, a lady who bears children at home, those are not her children. Those are the children of her father. Now they want to come in, in areas where they are not supposed to.”

Ndiyindoda also shows that botched initiation does not only affect the poor. One of Baza’s subjects is Sibusiso Gaca, a pupil at the prestigious Queen’s College.

Last year, tells the headmaster, the school lost a star rugby player to the mountain.

Gaca is nervous about his duty, but knows that a hospital circumcision will not do; it will subject him to intense peer bullying. The traditional method must be followed.

Although his father should take him to the school, he was raised by a single mother.

She too is not scared to speak her mind: “What frightens me the most is the secrecy. We give birth to these kids, and change their nappies and breast-feed them. Then for three weeks we are not to know what is happening to our child.”

Says Baza: “I found that the clash between modern medicine and traditional belief, the breakdown of families, the change in gender roles – all these things made the issue of initiation more complex than ever before.”

Born in rural Lady Frere, Baza lost his mother at 14 and his father at 20.

He studied and worked as an electrical engineer, but could not suppress his love for acting.

He decided to take the plunge and open Mandela Bay Productions.

By applying to documentary development funds around the world he has received training at top international schools. Now producers and festivals are backing his work.

He will film more initiates in June before completing Ndiyindoda, which will premiere in Canada in 2014.

“The whole idea is to create debate. I want to start a fund to help this guy have his penis reconstructed. I want people to come out about this thing. It’s crucial to me people talk openly and look for alternatives.”

Asked if he is nervous about a backlash from traditionalists, Baza snorts.

“Being a man,” he says, “is about taking a stand.”

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