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Initiates with white clay on their faces, covered in red and white blankets, during an initiation ritual. (Leon Sadiki, City Press)
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What has changed is that the commodification of this culture became organised through government structures and traditional leadership which lacks foresight and is still hung too much on the power of patriarchy, writes Wandile Fana
The tragedy of Xhosa culture lies purely in its elucidation of its own ideals. The distortion of this culture by Western influence has left nothing but a fragmented society trying to piece together its inheritance.
The missing link in our culture is the scientific or philosophical reason in understanding why we do what we do. British philosopher Bertrand Russel once said: "The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason."
Young boys go the bush because their fathers or brothers took the same rite of passage to manhood. This is a norm, it's part of a ritual of many in Xhosa culture.
But what is our interpretation in explaining why boys need to go to the bush?
Everyone has their own misconception.
Even the ones that are part of it have misplaced notions about ukwaluka.
Some see it as part of the phallic indoctrination of the male species; others just conform to the religious propaganda of "it’s my culture".
Others understand the physical aspect, such as "cleanliness".
In some cases, like many in our communities, the practice has been commodified.
Its moral or cultural value has been lost, its significance seems to be fading away.
Ukwaluka is under so much threat that it could be something of the past like the fate of many other practices in Xhosa culture.
We are left with a situation of reviewing this long practice and critique the whole process deep to its bone. This would not be the case if we really understood why ukwaluka has to be done.
Let me share with you the secret of ukwaluka.
To understand it first one needs to understand African spirituality.
African people believe that a man is born innocent. It is inherently the things of this world that makes him or her what they become. A man is not born a rapist or killer, it is the influence within society that makes him becomes such.
So equally understandable when he dies he returns to his innocence. That is, we can then call him or her "isinyanya" irrespective of what kind of life he lived while alive.
This implies that social formations shape communities and thus characters.
Africans did not see themselves as separate from nature but as part of it.
So the concept of kwaluka is based upon nature's way of giving life. It is correct to say ukwaluka is re-birth.
This practice can be related to a woman giving birth or any species giving birth for that matter.
Birth on its own creates innocence.
The innocence can be related to a baby in the womb. The womb is a metaphor for darkness. This symbol for darkness can be compared to Plato's theory of the cave.
Plato describes darkness as symbolising naivety, innocence and simplicity. In the darkness, you are content because that is the only thing you know. This makes a person become whole again. You feel part of the earth and less alienated from nature. It arouses a sense of being.
Ukwaluka is the same. It is going back to the darkness, the innocence. It is the purification of the soul. Even the bhoma is shaped like an ovule (isibeleko) and its small opening the opening is like a vagina.
You rely solely on others to survive. You are naked inside that bhoma like the way you were in your maternal womb. Materialism and egocentrism mean nothing to you. You solely rely on nature to survive no better than any species. What you knew as a boy is not what really is. Your mental framework is immediately altered. You view the world differently.
The pain associated with this practice is also synonymous with that of a woman in labour.
Such pain can take you to a moment of reckoning. When you come out of the womb, there is rejoicing. The journey in itself is a process of enlightenment. It prepares a young adolescent to be a better and more reasonable person in this complex world.
The new child has arrived in the world.
When I came out of the bush I felt as though I was looking at the world through my mother's eyes.
She spoke at my mgidi the celebration of my advancement to manhood, telling how she gave birth to me, the responsibility of being a man and the expectations of the community.
I cried (most men cry when their mothers speak) and said to myself, "Does this woman know where I am from. Can she comprehend what I have gone through?"
I was wrong because I should have said, "I know what you went through mother when you gave birth to me because today I gave birth to myself".
Giving birth to yourself means you need to play this game of life responsibly and for yourself (the main priority) and once you do that naturally everything falls into place.
Your family benefit, community and everybody else. So such a ritual cannot be banned because it teaches us who we are supposed to be as Xhosa men. We are supposed to care, respect, protect, be wise and be leaders in our communities.
The problem lies in its commodification because now we have forgotten what this ritual is about.
Its natural value lost. Now our focus is on the physical aspects of it and not the spiritual. Even the ones that we conceive to be helping are sometimes there for financial benefits.
Now every kwaluka season the budget has shot up to over R20 million a season, yet there seems to be no change in the fatalities of initiates.
What has changed is that the commodification of this culture became organised through government structures and traditional leadership which lacks foresight and is still hung too much on the power of patriarchy.
The changes is the fact the money has exchanged hands from the ordinary man to organised vetting. There only to curb such fatalities is one.
Chief Ngangomhlaba Matanzima, former chairman of Contralesa in the Eastern Cape narrates that in their heydays (40 years back) people stayed for about three to six months in the bush learning how to farm and plough.
"You were taught how to farm looking after livestock as if it was your own child or nurturing a seed. It was also a process whereby you learnt about the gifts of nature, such herbs and the stars."
So this statement brings us to one conclusion: Cultural leaders need to review this practice so that it can be practised like it was originally intended and not to allow modernity to dictate our cultural practices.
Matriculants can take a gap year and fully experience African spirituality which is a process that alone will not just curb the immortality rate but will prepare a generation of better men who will understand what it really takes to be a man.
The government with our cultural leaders can develop such institutions for every region based upon the agreed system and tradition of circumcision, also including the training of professional surgeons and well trained makhankathas.
This should include a stringent monitoring process that will uphold the cultural and hygiene values that will make the passage a success and will guarantee no initiate deaths.
Our culture is the only thing that identifies us as Africans. At all costs we must hold onto it and constantly strive to perfect it.
**Article dedicated to Yongama 'Guru' Mfenyane who passed away in the bush while I was his khankatha. And many others who lost their lives unnecessary.
- Wandile Fana is a Tshatshu Prince. He is a publisher and journalist by profession and serves on the Press Council Board as an adjudicator. He also serves on the Board of Association of Independent Publishers. He writes in his personal capacity.
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