Doing the rite thing

2010-07-15 00:00

THE social malcontents who brought the ancient sacred rite ulwaluko into disrepute by posing as iingcibi and amakhankatha, resulting in the deaths and genital mutilation of boys, have cast the custom in an undesirable light.

This rite of passage of boys into manhood is a cultural practice which has its own unique ways, places, seasons, methods, rules and regulations, which, when not followed, can and do have disastrous consequences. It has its own purposes and objectives, such as the moulding of boys into men who will become protectors and defenders of the weak and vulnerable, providers for their families and leaders of their communities and nations. It is an endurance “race” whose other purpose is to instil discipline and forbearance to withstand pain and endure hardship.

The debate which has followed the recent spate of deaths and mutilation of initiates in Mpondoland generated a lot of heat, with some nonpractitioners of the custom calling for its discontinuation. Others have called for the actual circumcision to be modernised through the use of hospitals and the involvement of trained doctors. Its defenders have correctly pointed out that where the rules are followed, no such harm visits the boys even if the prcoedure is performed in the culturally designated places.

What has been missing in the debate — at least the one to which I have been exposed — is a discussion of the efficacy of the custom, i.e. its ability to get the desired results. This was brought home tellingly to me by one Johannesburg-based commentator, an anarchist of sorts. He is one of those who call for its abolition. He said that if the purpose is to mould men of purpose and integrity, defenders of the vulnerable, community builders and leaders, why is it that the home of this rite of passage, the Eastern Cape, is so notorious for theft and corruption in the public service, the abuse of women and children, manifesting itself in the rape of elderly women and babies, and public squabbles for political leadership positions. Could it be, he asked, that these offenders had missed the cut?

I was stymied and could give no plausible answers in this regard because, indeed, his remarks were spot-on — these characters who give our nation a bad name have in all probability undergone the practice. I was, however, given an answer afterwards in yet another radio interview in which I had been called upon to participate.

The question had been whether it would be permissible for initiates to watch the Soccer World Cup Tournament in their lodges while undergoing the rite of passage. While mercifully the majority of callers objected to the idea, there were some who felt it was quite proper for them not to miss the “greatest” show on earth, supporting the proposal for television sets to be brought into the lodges. One of the supporters went on to inform me and radio listeners that he himself, together with others, had been listening to the radio while he was in the initiation lodge and they grew to become men of some stature in their community. Clearly, these people were not given the kind of training and tutorials they were supposed to get while in the bush if they were in a position to enjoy music and radio shows.

It does appear to me that many of the people involved in this rite of passage have very little idea of what is supposed to take place in the lodges. The young men come out full of arrogance instead of humility. They come out full of a sense of superiority over their older female relatives, including their mothers. They come out lazy and with an expectation to be served rather than being industrious and eager to serve not only their families but the broader community.

Before the intrusion of Western education into the lives of Africans the period required for the initiation was between three to six months and it was during the winter season. This is a cold season, conducive to the quick healing of the wound. The fields would have been harvested, allowing for the livestock to roam freely, requiring no herding against the destruction of the crops. There was plenty of produce to be used in the preparation of the beer and other dishes for the attendant festivities.

The men were free to take an active part in the training and nursing of the initiates. The work was not out-sourced to amakhankatha and untrained persons. The fathers were directly involved. Importantly, it was common for boys of a kingdom to await the coming of age of the son or sons of a traditional leader before they would be permitted to undergo the custom. The process was centrally controlled and managed. Besides, the initiates would constitute the regiment of the prince with whom they went to the bushes. They would be his comrades with whom an everlasting covenant of loyalty and comradeship would have been concluded.

This period of six months away from home afforded those involved enough time to train the young men on what it meant to be a man. It was not a crash course such as it has been forced nowadays to be. The aim was to mould men in the true sense of the word — not weaklings who could not be relied upon in times of stress and hardship, in times of war; not thieves who steal from the public purse.

Women were able to carry out their own tasks. Contrary to the belief of some, the construction of amabhoma (the initiation lodges) has always been their responsibility. Besides the preparation of the meals and beer, they give moral support to the men and boys involved. The younger sisters, who are considered to be still celibate, carry the food to emabhomeni.

Amakrwala (the graduates), for a specified period of time, are expected to show the humility of the kind instilled in newly married brides (omakoti). They did not look elders in the eye. They put on clothes suitable for the performance of manual work. They had to cart fire wood, mend stock kraals and fences. They had to ensure that the animals were properly looked after. While in the past they wore izishuba (traditional male skirts), in later years they put on overalls. The Scottish jackets, tweeds and caps are a recent invention, which tends to deter amakrwala from performing the manual tasks I have referred to. This attire gives them the misleading superiority complex I have detected.

The heightened interest in the custom, even in communities which have for some time abandoned the practice, demands that we go back to basics. This is an African custom and, as I understand it, this is the era of African democracy and freedom. Government-driven programmes, such as the education system, should be tailored to suit the needs of Africans. To this end we continue to call on government to extend the winter school holidays and reduce the others, in order to ensure that the requirements of the rite of passage, ulwaluko, are met. As the Soccer World Cup Tournament has demonstrated, this is quite possible. Timidity on the part of Africans when it comes to the promotion of their interests as a people continues to be their downfall.

His Majesty King Ndlovuyezwe Ndamase has issued a decree calling on all families in Western Mpondoland to submit the names of candidates for initiation to all the kingdom’s senior traditional leaders six months before they go into the bush. This will afford His Majesty and his traditional leaders the opportunity to satisfy themselves that the boys are fit and healthy to undergo the ritual, that suitably qualified iingcibi and amakhankatha are identified, that the animals required to connect with the spirits of the ancestors are available, that the traditional healers who must fortify amabhoma against evil spirits have been identified and that the grass for thatch is protected and conserved.

We are all guaranteed to succeed if other kings follow the Mpondo example, with government giving its unequivocal support.

• Nkosi Phathekile Holomisa of the Hegebe clan is president of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa).

 

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