Guest Column

What's the fuss about Inxeba?

2018-02-18 00:01
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As a Xhosa woman, I have never said the word ijwabu (foreskin) in my entire life. I suppose I permanently connected it with the sacred culture of our people, ukwaluka. Neither did I ever apply my thoughts to how foreskins could possibly be consecrated. My suspicion is that it must be one of those things which I knew by design were truly none of my concern.

I’ve always been conflicted, torn between Christianity and culture. Yet the intelligence of African people has always been what it means for me to be an African. Our acumen stretches further back than many people care to think – hundreds of thousands of years. As Africans, we had an understanding of living, an intellectual capacity to handle our affairs and complex bilateral relations. We had structure and an order of doing things that brought selfless leadership and the servants they needed.

Way before a white man came to invade our land, we knew how to create our own medicinal remedies and long before we were informed that circumcision could help minimise the chances of being infected with HIV/Aids and help with other health issues, we were already practising what we call ukwaluka (circumcision). We needed no medical practitioner to advise us through the process of healing.

With Africans, it is an important event in the life of any male, his family and community when he attends initiation school. Going to this school was not solely about circumcising boys but also to teach them how to become better men. This African tradition taught parents that a boy needs proper schooling before he can be placed in any position of leadership in the community or at home.

Wise men and other grey-haired men often visited the initiates in the mountain to teach them about issues of responsibility, among other things. The initiates learnt how to hunt, which also included a lesson of sharing, sacrifice and doing something for those other than themselves. When they managed to kill an animal, they never ate it alone but shared with their entire community of initiates.

Initiation school taught boys bravery. They moved from sleeping in the comfort of their mothers’ homes, protected by fathers, family and neighbours, to sleeping in the middle of the bush in a plastic house that is far from secure. They were exposed to all kinds of creatures, and not being far from the river also meant their environment was not favourable. This taught initiates how to protect themselves.

The initiation school taught young African boys how to connect with nature, as it is the nature of Africans to know how to make their own medical remedies. If a boy fell sick at the initiation school, no medicines were sent from their homes but, with the assistance of wise men and their surgeon, they always managed to cure themselves.

Our seniors perfectly calculated this practice, how it should be done and when it should take place. Circumcision of African boys was done strictly in June. Elders were aware that the human body required less water in winter, which helped the boys to heal fast, as they did not need to let the water out often.

The surgeon (ingcibi) and the teacher (ikhankatha) were very important during the initiation ceremony, with the surgeon regarded by society as a highly cultured man of divine standards.

Until a few days ago, I had never wondered why such a beautiful inventiveness by old men to groom young boys into better men had to be a secret ¬– until the outcry and meltdown of Xhosa men prior to the release of Inxeba, the movie. They were up in arms, angry and hurling insults at the rest of us for supporting misrepresentation and the exposure of their sacred culture, supposedly contained in the movie.

Xhosa men got exceptionally vulnerable and vicious, which made them incapable of any potential engagement on why they did not want the movie to be screened. There were disruptions in some provinces, resulting in the cancellation of the movie. The debate was then centred on culture instead of what the movie was about, a love story between two men. Xhosa men were resolute, even before seeing the movie, that it broke down their mountain secrecy.

When I finally watched the movie, I fell in love with the exceptional and beautifully executed film. I thought to myself that Xhosa men, including those in their representative organisation, Contralesa, needed to check themselves and ask themselves questions about the toxicity and hate that they have spread over the past few days. They must ask themselves if they are homophobic and hiding behind culture or if they are ignorant of the happenings and homosexuality at the mountain.

What got them all worked up? Perhaps the secret has never been the removal of the foreskin. Neither was any lesson on behaviour and conduct. Possibly the secret is that men fall in love at the initiation school and how dare that be revealed for all to know. Perhaps the secret is that gay people are sexually violated there by those who are placed to protect them. Perhaps the outrage is that gay people finally got to stand up for themselves, which confirms that the gay community has been silenced in these hyperactive masculine spaces.

- Gcilishe is an activist and columnist

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