Growing Pains: We don’t want a nation of dead boys

2014-07-31 06:45

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Years ago as an 18-year-old “boy” studying in Cape Town, I often found myself in the company of a group of Xhosa men who were all the same age as me.

Hanging out with them was great fun – until the jibes and rib-jabbing began. I wasn’t even supposed to be speaking to them – I wasn’t a man.

Twice I felt so ostracised that I nearly took up the eldest one’s offer to “take me in” to initiation school.

Somehow, that never quite happened. Now, hearing so many stories of young boys who undertake this voyage without the knowledge and support of their families, I am thankful I waited.

Initiation practices need to become less dangerous to the boys who participate. Picture: Leon Sadiki/City Press

Anything can go wrong, and it seems that in different parts of our country, it often does.

Things were less eventful when I finally went, along with some of my cousins who were the same age.

Except for one incident the evening before we were to return to the known world in our new duds.

The chap looking after us had taken to having a drink most every evening. In fact, many of the men who popped in to impart their wisdom seemed to have slurred speech. Maybe it was just me, delirious.

In any event, that evening he came and sat with us, his charges, to ramble on about a number of important concepts. It was then that a relative with whom he’d been drinking crept up behind him with a mischievous grin on his face.

Quick as a flash, the man whipped his leg up and smashed it into the poor chap’s face. This was the man from whom we were to learn to become men. His face contorted and he crumpled on to the pile of blankets where we were lying. He’d been knocked out. A trickle of blood appeared in the corner of his wide open mouth.

Perhaps this incident was meant to be a cautionary tale.

At first we thought he might be dead, because his neck snapped back and the back of his head thudded into a wall behind him.

We were still young boys, so after the initial shock we thought the whole thing quite funny. It was even funnier the next day, when the man woke with a swollen face and couldn’t remember what happened – and he and his assailant went drinking again.

It wasn’t so funny when I reflected on it a couple of weeks ago.

My family, as I recall, went to great lengths to organise our initiation school properly. If this chap was the best they could come up with, I shudder to think of what families with fewer options available to them have to contend with.

In interviewing an elder for an impending book project, I was intrigued to hear that the men who presided over initiation schools were once among the most respected people in the community.

The logic was that as the youngsters shed their boyhood, they should seek to emulate the best in their society.

But today, that isn’t the case. The people running our initiation schools are not necessarily the best – often, they’re downright charlatans. And we as a people, who still practise these customs, are less and less empowered in selecting good schoolmasters.

One reason for this is that we have allowed this really important part of our culture to remain completely informal.

Which makes no sense. This country wants to introduce laws to empower traditional leaders. We have made strides in formalising other traditional aspects of culture, such as marriage and land tenure.

The coming-of-age of our men and women is arguably much more important than their later union, so why haven’t we tackled this yet?

It’s time to intervene.

We should develop a core curriculum and programme for initiation schools based on the finest teachings and methodologies our customs have to offer.

And we should infuse these with proven new ideas because the world has also changed a great deal.

We need to certify the people running these schools and involve adequate health practitioners to ensure kids don’t die needlessly.

We should also start building permanent fixed structures where these schools should be held.

They need not be fancy buildings, but they’d better be safe.

Toughed-up or not, dead boys are not the sort of men we want to build a nation.

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