'Circumcision is my calling'

2014-06-29 15:00

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When Mzingeli Nqayigana’s grandfather was a young man, he circumcised himself.

Then the old man, who was also named Mzingeli, became an ingcibi (traditional surgeon) and became responsible for hundreds of boys’ wellbeing.

He circumcised his grandson, too. Today, the younger Mzingeli (he’s 73) has been walking in his grandfather’s footsteps for more than 20 years.

During the 23 years he’s practised as an ingcibi in the village of Ngunjana outside Mthatha, none of the approximately 1?000 boys he’s circumcised has died on his watch. “I live for what I do. This is my life. For me it’s more than just a job; it’s a calling.” He lives these words.

Right at the gate where you enter the retired mine worker’s modest home, there’s a hut in which his initiates sleep. There are five boys here at the moment on the path to becoming men, according to the centuries-old Xhosa tradition.

Three of the initiates have been here for the past 10 days and the other two have been with Nqayigana for just a week.

It’s a cold winter morning when City Press visits the ingcibi at his home, which comprises two rondavels and a three-bedroom, modest flat where Nqayigana and his wife sleep. All the structures are painted light blue and his home is among the last in the village. This suits him well, as boys are not supposed to be exposed to society during their initiation. Opposite the hut where the initiates sleep are two kraals – one for sheep and goats, and one for his cattle.

There’s a chicken run, too. That’s his wife’s responsibility.

At 5am Nqayigana is already awake and checking on his initiates to find out how they slept and whether there are any problems. Ikhankatha (traditional nurse) Maswake Mthumanzi is on hand to talk about the boys’ health and healing.

But Nqayigana insists on checking the initiates’ wounds himself, being careful not to rely only on what Mthumanzi tells him. “In this way I am able to detect problems early and deal with them. Sometimes amakhankata would say there is no problem even if there is because they don’t what to look like failures. That is why we as ingcibi and parents should take the initiative,” says Nqayigana.

When he’s satisfied that the initiates are all right, have eaten and are comfortable, he gets on with his daily chores, like taking his livestock to the veld to graze. Then he jumps into his bakkie and heads into town to run errands and buy groceries for the initiates and his family.

In the ibhoma (the initiation hut), the five boys sit on top of the blankets that serve as makeshift mattresses. They are clad in identical red-and-white blankets. Light from the rising sun creeps into the hut, a relief from the darkness. The floor of the hut is covered with grass to make sure it’s warm, and the initiates help each other to apply white clay to their faces and bodies. They sing, swap jokes and share stories.

Mthumanzi is always close by. It’s his job to watch the initiates throughout the day in case there are problems. Cellphones have helped a great deal.

Mthumanzi says: “Initiates are not allowed to carry cellphones or to be in touch with the outside world for as long as they are here. Their primary focus is on getting well and to learn all they can about manhood. If there is a problem, I can call ingcibi on my cellphone and he can come and sort it out.”

His excellent reputation means that boys from villages around Mount Frere, Ntabankulu, Libode, Lusikisiki and Bhizana come each June and December to undergo their initiation with Nqayigana. He is infuriated by horror stories about initiation and has particularly harsh words for his counterparts in the province’s Pondoland region.

“When traditional surgeons and amakhankatha don’t draw the line, amabhoma [initiation schools] become playing grounds for drunk people and criminal elements.

“People from outside come into these amabhoma and mistreat these boys, kicking them in their private parts while they have wounds and assaulting them. They starve them to death and don’t give them water. They become dehydrated and die as result of these conditions,” he says.

Part of the problem, he believes, is that entire generations in Pondoland abandoned the tradition of circumcision and so parents don’t really understand what their children are going through. “Parents need to get involved and be worried about their children. You cannot sleep peacefully at night while your child is in the bush and you don’t know what is happening to them.”

Last month, the province’s Congress of Traditional Leaders introduced what it called “radical steps” to curb initiation-related deaths. It has urged boys who want to be circumcised to undergo medical screening first. The provincial government has also roped in male medical doctors to oversee ritual circumcisions.

This does not sit well with Nqayigana, though he admits the deaths mean government had no choice but to intervene.

“Doctors can assist in monitoring the boys’ health during the initiation period. If, for instance, an initiate has a certain illness that needs medical treatment, he can help there, but not interfere with the traditional part. It is these boys themselves who chose to come to us as traditional surgeons because they want to be real Xhosa men and not be treated as outcasts in society. So government, as much as they can intervene, should not dilute the traditional practice.”

Tradition is important to Nqayigana.

“There is nothing that makes me happier than to see these boys come out of my initiation school and become progressive members of the community.”

He’s also worked hard to ensure his skills aren’t lost to the village when he can no longer practise. “I have taught one of the men in the village. He is very good. But he is based in Cape Town, where he works. At times he would call me and ask for permission to circumcise people that side. I would tell him to go ahead because I know he is very good. When he is around in the village, I rest and hand over to him.”

And when his work is done and the boys who came to him are men, Nqayigana brews traditional beer and slaughters a sheep to thank his ancestors.

“This is a traditional practice and ancestors are the custodians of our traditions,” he says. He then goes to check on his boys once more.

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