Initiation a touchy topic in Mpumalanga

2013-05-23 22:17
Boys are seen taking food to an initiation school in Verena, Mpumalanga. (Picture: Sapa)

Boys are seen taking food to an initiation school in Verena, Mpumalanga. (Picture: Sapa)

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Kwamhlanga - In Mpumalanga's Nkangala district, where 30 initiates have lost their lives so far this winter, ritual circumcision, known locally as Ingoma, is a taboo subject.

After meeting the grief-stricken Motsepe family whose son, Collen Modisha, 16, died at an initiation school in Verena, a Sapa correspondent visited the local police station to find more cases and possibly arrange to visit an initiation school.

The police officers sternly warned "not to rush in where angels fear to tread".

"Have you been initiated? If not, you don't want to go there," advised one cop, who said he'd only accompany the journalist no closer than 500 metres to one initiation school and no further.

Unable to get in, the reporter tracked down a man who is prepared to speak openly about the ancient rite of passage.

Colbert Mashile is a national and international award-winning artist from Bushbuckridge who blames greed for the crisis at initiation schools across the country.

Mashile, who underwent traditional circumcision and initiation in 1984, has produced dark artworks inspired by the experience.

"At that time, not much money was paid to undergo the ritual. Initiates with certain illnesses were not allowed to undergo the custom," said Mashile.

"But now an owner allows them in because he wants money. These kids today are paying a lot of money."

Mashile said in the past, the custom applied to virgins only.

"You went there at a young age. I was 12 when I went to the school and we realised that your whole body is attached to the initiation.

"When you get there the first day you do the ritual and after that you remain to nurse the wound and someone from the family or elsewhere is introduced to help you," said Mashile.

"Today, boys wait until they are about 16 and older and have started having sex and then they want to do the ritual; they are rude to each other and don’t help each other while some have illnesses that make them vulnerable.

"They end up suffering after the cut."


Kgoshi Mathupha Mokoena, of the House of Traditional Leaders in Mpumalanga's capital, Mbombela, explains the relationship between tradition and the law.

He said it was traditional beliefs that prompted provincial Health MEC Candith Mashego-Dlamini to say that she could "not get involved" in the probe into the initiation deaths because she is a woman.

"MEC Dlamini was right; she is not allowed to enter Ingoma," said Mokoena.

"She did the right thing to send a number of her officials to assess the situation with us present. They report to her daily and violation of our tradition is avoided.

"It's the same with a female [initiation] school; no male is allowed to go there and those are the rules that must be upheld."

Uncircumcised policemen were not allowed to investigate the deaths either.

"No uninitiated person is allowed to enter Ingoma; not even a police officer. It doesn't matter whether you are a brigadier or major general; your firearm and handcuffs will be taken from you and handed to your superiors until you come out the day the Ingoma is finished," said Mokoena.

He said the only person who has a right to go to an initiation school without "qualification" is a medical doctor.

"The only person allowed is a medical doctor and a sangoma. Medical doctors are trusted because they sign agreements to uphold the secrets of the patients while the sangoma goes to check if the place is spiritually safe to perform the ritual."

Mokoena said preliminary investigations indicated the deaths were caused by negligence when initiates were left in the care of teenagers.

"There was tension between the kings in some areas, where the people who were supposed to look after the initiates were not sure if they would get paid," said Mokoena.

"So they left the initiates alone with other young kids who looked after them, and when sickness broke out, they didn't know what to do."


He said the House of Traditional Leaders had met all the departments involved to come up with a plan to ensure that no further deaths take place.

"We have never experienced such a number of deaths in Mpumalanga so, for now, we have come up with a plan that all initiates be screened for illnesses.

"They must have a doctor’s certificate as proof of clean health," said Mokoena.

"We will now make sure that even if a king has issued a certificate to a person to run an initiation school, we will ask the community if the person is fit and has a track record of running an initiation school."

In collaboration with the health department, the House of Traditional Leaders has also ensured that medical tents are situated in each of the initiation schools on the Highveld, where the initiation season is underway

Other parts of the province such as Bushbuckridge will only start the season over June and July.

Co-perative governance and traditional affairs spokesperson Simphiwe Kunene said the Highveld deaths came as the province was finalising the Ingoma bill to regulate initiation schools in the province.

"We are seriously shocked and are also sending condolences to the bereaved families... we have never experienced such a number of deaths at initiation schools."

Provincial health spokesperson Ronnie Masilela blamed the deaths on excessive bleeding and dehydration.

"Excessive bleeding and dehydration were found to be the results of most of the deaths," he said.

"We are not even sure if the people who were running the Ingoma were trained, as we trained traditional surgeons in April and we know that some traditional leaders didn't attend the training."

Too late

By Thursday afternoon, the death toll stood at 30, said Masilela.

He said the training was done in collaboration with the House of Traditional Leaders.

He said after training, only 38 certificates were issued.

"We are now surprised to have uncovered 134 initiation schools in the province."

Masilela agreed with Mokoena’s sentiments that initiates be screened before undergoing initiation.

"On Friday, we are meeting the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs and the House of Traditional Leadership of the province, including the Ingoma forum that includes doctors from our department, to make sure such things don't happen anymore."

Mpumalanga police spokesperson Colonel Leonard Hlathi said police had opened murder dockets and an inquest to investigate the deaths of initiates around KwaMhlanga, Siyabuswa, Verena, Kwaggafontein, Middelburg and Belfast.

But it's too little too late for the family of 16-year-old Collen Modisha Motsepe.

The Grade 7 pupil from Verena Combined School in Verena was one of the 29 initiates who died.

His grandmother, Betty Motsepe, 73, blamed the initiation school owner for her grandson's untimely death.

"My grandson left here very healthy and happy. He just wanted to become a man," said the grandmother, still crying.

She said the family paid R1 350, which was enough to cover a check-up at the local health facility.

She said the family has learnt that the owner of the school had left the initiates unattended.

"We blame the chief for this. He should have remained at least for a week or two looking after the children; instead he left them just after the ritual and went to his work," said Motsepe.

"We want the law to take its course, we can't lose Collen because of the negligence of the initiation school owner. How could he leave them with other young children to look after them?"

The late teenager's aunt Paulinah Motsepe said R1 000 of the money, which was meant for food, was returned to the family without anyone telling them that Collen was dead.

"One of the boys who were there when it happened told us that the owner just performed the ritual and left the boys suffering in pain," she said.

Read more on:    mbombela  |  health  |  culture

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