The good wife?

2014-09-19 06:45

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Talking to Venda friends at varsity, Kudzai Mazvarirwofa finds them conflicted about traditional initiation practices involving genital alteration

"The family have accused me of trying to embarrass them,” says Atamisa*. “I’ve been told I will be a bad wife because I am too headstrong."

Ludo* nods in agreement. “Sometimes I dread going to the village. Some of the girls call us trees, just growing without discipline.”

The two friends, students at Wits University, say they have been in conflict with their families for choosing to go to university rather than attend a “compulsory” initiation school in Venda.

A bit like in the vhaVenda novel and film, Elelwani, they find themselves forced to choose between education and culture. Atamisa tells me her aunt accused her of not being a virgin.

Ludo quietly says she’s reluctant to go to the initiation school because she doesn’t want to be “violated” with possible “genital alteration”.

Venda elder Lucy Muvhango says initiation schools occur in June and last between seven and 14 days. They are taught by older women, the gogos, as is the case in similar schools in ethnic groups across the country.

Most initiation schools involve virginity tests to determine if a girl’s hymen has been broken.

If a girl is found to be “whole”, the old women ululate. But if she is “damaged”, they sound their disapproval loudly.

This is followed by teachings on behaviour in male company, reproductive health, sexuality and how to run a household.

Muvhango says initiates have to avoid certain foods during initiation since these are believed to arouse them. They eat traditional foods like umngqusho (samp) and sweet potatoes to “strengthen her endurance and core”.

She says different forms of genital alteration are practised in different schools.

“There is a practice where females are supposed to tug on the inner labia repeatedly until it stretches to a certain length and there is another where they have to squeeze and slice the clitoris in the middle.

“This ensures that the penis does not slip out during sex and that the intercourse lasts longer.”

She stresses that not all initiation schools practise genital alteration.

After initiation, the girls return to their families for a graduation ceremony, after which they are seen as “ripe” and traditionally ready for marriage.

Atamisa and Ludo will have to face a fallout with their families and it hangs over their heads.

However, not all women feel the practice is bad.

Tendani Makwarera, a Venda woman who has attended an initiation school, said the classes help a girl understand how to behave in a marriage.

“I had to go when I was 16 and it was compulsory. They told me that if I didn’t go, then I won’t know how to handle my man.”

She explained that she actually enjoyed the process.

“When I look at the woman of today, they don’t have a long heart [endurance], which is why there are more divorces.” As the only woman in the family, she appreciated the lessons because she had no one else to teach her.

She did agree that, initially, she was afraid of the older women who taught them since these women were said to do “funny things to you”.

Professor Robert Thornton teaches a course on sex, culture and society at Wits, which covers female genital modification and mutilation (FGM).

“Why FGM raises so many questions is because it somehow opposes the popular, scientific culture that says sex is somehow natural rather than cultural,” he says. “In reality, we do have to learn how to do sex. We have to learn how to fulfil those roles, which is done one way or another; either formally by the gogos and the rituals or fumbling about in the dark.”

But according to the World Health Organisation, FGM can leave lasting physical damage and “is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women”.

*?Names have been changed to protect identities

*?This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Wits Vuvuzela.

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