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The Kindest Cut - Unbundling Mapulana Initiation

06 June 2014, 16:11


In a few weeks’ time thousands of Mapulana children will depart for the mountains to fetch their manhood, which is hidden between those scathing rocks of Thabakgolo and the cold waters of Ngwarele.  On the first week of August, like their kinsmen have done down centuries they will return from their bush initiation with their manhood, a medal they don’t wear on their sleeves but their hearts – like nobility. That is why it was astounding to hear South Africa’s Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, who spent a sizeable time of his early doctoral days in Mapulaneng’s Bushbuckridge region as a trainee at Mapulaneng Hospital telling SAFM that when he was here there were wards exclusively reserved for botched initiations.

As a Mopulana man I felt duty-bound to make it categorically  clear that it is far from the truth. I can debate the minister at any platform and get him to retract. There’s no single family in Bushbuckridge that has ever had their son go to the mountain only to be met by a calabash filled with cooking oil on graduation day. For the uninitiated (no pun intended) the only way the mother of the initiate finds out that their son has ‘died’ in the mountains is on graduation day when instead of receiving the new man a calabash filled with cooking oil is smashed at the gate. That’s when the crying should begin even though the father might have known it from the beginning and took part in the bush burial. People might die of diseases, not a mutilated penis.

So, without fear of contradiction I can say that the good Minister has his facts mixed up. He might be referring to incidents in Jane Furse, which is not Bushbuckridge where Mapulana natives have kept their initiation to the highest scientific standard over centuries. Quite frankly, apart from an incident in the 1980s where initiates were struck by lightning in either Matibidi or Mphato resulting in tens of deaths, there has never been a reported botched circumcision. And while dignifying Minister Motsoaledi’s lipsus lingae with a response I will equally justify my protest.

Let us unpack the difference between Mapulana and other tribe's circumcision, not initiation.

Here such news is met with skeptism and failure of comprehension. This community has been initiating its offspring for generations but they still have to report their first casualty at the hands of school minders, who I should mention all have the power as a birth right. Apparently it is safe to assume that initiates used to die back in the days as a result of diseases and other unforeseen circumstances like as a result of power struggles that happen between school minders. It is on record in this community that every person who can run an initiation school can evoke the power of lightning and thunder to send a message to his rival. That might be the reason for the Mphato/Matibidi incident I mentioned in earlier paragraphs. It is done for the purpose of discrediting the competition and the initiates are mere (to use George Bush’s language) collateral damage in such a contest. 

Thus, when rain clouds gather in winter and thunder beckons, there is a strong possibility that some of the older residents here can pinpoint the human source of the rain, the thunderstorm and the reasons behind the winter rain. We are able to make both rain and thunder without referring to the periodic table. So, believe me and put your Thomas attitude aside. Interesting, a school minder can equally use herbs to bring a stop to a marauding storm. Where Mapulana initiates stay is immune to torrents even if rain poured in buckets.

It is equally safe to say that the community here is very conscious of their culture and age-old traditions. Our ways of living and dying are in sync. They protect it like vultures. Interesting enough, contrary to what Dr Motsoaledi had the world believe, their initiates never die at the school even though they go through the same procedure as everyone else from the Eastern Cape to KwaNdebele. The only difference being that school minders and initiates in Bushbuckridge are camera-shy. They don't allow cameras or the press into the initiation school premises. Believe me you’ve never seen one in your newspaper or TV. Never.

To Mapulana boys around this area as well being a man involves undergoing cultural rituals which involve initiation. The one difference with the way it is done here is that recently most parents opt to send their sons to medical doctors for the circumcision a year before their initiation. They have come to accept that initiation is not wholly about circumcision but cultural etiquette, morality, responsibility and the readiness to be a man, in all respects. 

All that training about astronomy, battle-readiness, home maintenance, resistance against elements and mental strength does not require circumcision to be the central activity. Actually it was introduced among Mapulana as a response to a sexually transmitted disease called ‘lejovela’, whereby the foreskin got tight and made it difficult to pass piss; resulting in infection due to accumulation of dirt.

But as they will tell you, even those who go to the bush after leaving their foreskins at hospitals do not escape the cut, though it is plainly ceremonial. The boys who went to the hospital first and those who lost their foreskins at the bush do come back the same, and most notably behave the same because they have been initiated the same, which is really what is important. In this age of US National Security Agency snooping the encrypted language of the initiation school is what sets apart boys from men. There's no way you will pick anything if the code hasn't been hammered into your head in those harsh bush conditions.

Reports of initiate deaths and mutilations are received with surprise by the culturally conscious community of Bushbuckridge because for them if only culture evolved with the changing times, there wouldn't be any reason for the initiates to die or lose their penises. Clearly if an initiate accidentally loses his penis, as explained in Thando Mgqolozan’s book A Man who is not a Man because of a careless bush surgeon that says a lot about the commercialization of the school whereby people without skills have infiltrated the institution for personal enrichment. Interestingly here there are amaShangaan and maSwati who don’t do it; even though they equally have cultural baggage they fail to carry in the 21st century.

If initiates are mutilated because culture vultures in the Eastern Cape insist on using a spear to circumcise the boys instead of something that replaced a spear (not a gun) then culture is not to blame but misled practitioners of such a culture need to account for misrepresenting it. My friends in the Eastern Cape are adamant it’s the Ciskei side that botches the practise not the other side of the Kei River.

Understandably, Abraham in the Bible used a piece of stone to cut the foreskin of Isaac because arguably (I stand to be corrected) he lived in the Stone Age. The Jews of today do not use stones like their great grandfather but what civilization provided with its evolution. So are the bush surgeons in Bushbuckridge. They realized a time ago that their culture was valuable to be made a scapegoat of money-hungry individuals and primitive approaches. Using archaic tools is not cast in stone as a knife has become the new culture. Let’s understand culture not to mean holding on to a blunt knife but to mean something that has been done in a certain way for some time.

Simply put, the only way to stop the annual deaths is for the Eastern Cape government to come up with legislation that clearly outlaws a spear as a tool of circumcision. For all that is known it will never be as sharp as a scalpel or an Okapi knife. BaPedi in Limpopo and AmaNdebele in Mpumalanga should either stop the practise, adhere to new guidelines or come and be initiated by Mapulana.

This thing of uninitiated maSwati and amaShangaan men in the Mpumalanga legislature trying to legislate on a practise they have no clue of should be brought to a halt. They have no right to even discuss it. And the issue of newspapers running around initiation schools with cameras must be regulated by law. Initiation school premises should be classified as National Key Points which’s pictures cannot be taken nor published.

In 2014 the practise of initiation faces a real challenge, swim or drown. Interesting enough the culture vultures of Bushbuckridge made that decision in the 1980s. Bushbuckridge is a welcome relief in the whole cultural confusion and it can only serve all ethnic groups in South African if the House of Traditional Leaders can initiate (no pun intended) a fact-finding mission to Bushbuckridge and learn from a nation which has preserved the practise for centuries, with a clean slate nogal. If a boy has to be initiated inorder to be considered a man, at least that journey has to be safe to be taken.

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