The changing face of initiation

2015-07-16 21:08
A group of initiates at a initiation school in Libode, outside Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. A number of initiates have been reported dead and many hospitalised during the initiation season.Photo:Leon Sadiki/Citypress

A group of initiates at a initiation school in Libode, outside Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. A number of initiates have been reported dead and many hospitalised during the initiation season.Photo:Leon Sadiki/Citypress

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Mbombela - Some initiation schools in Mpumalanga are undergoing drastic 21st century changes that are making traditional authorities a little nervous.

Single mother Siphiwe Nyathi, 36, laughed when her second-born son told her that he was going to play electronic games at a traditional circumcision school in the Bushbuckridge area.

She felt her son, only nine years old, had fallen for the old psychological tactic elders used years ago to lure young boys to the bush, where they get circumcised and taught about their ancestors' traditional ways.

"I was taken aback when I learnt that this time around our boys can actually take their video games with them and have a great time camping in the bush for several weeks. Just a year ago something like this was unheard of," said the mom, who is a journalist based in Mbombela.

As a journalist from Acornhoek, Nyathi has been exposed to all the urban legends that anyone who is not skilled in critical thinking and the professional art of unearthing facts in the face of fiction can ever dream of.

She has written about everything from Tokoloshes attacking people in their sleep, to ghosts chasing drunken men who brave the streets in the heart of the night after spending hours at their favourite tavern or shebeen.

"So, when my boy was preparing for his trip up the mountain, I was thinking of how he had been fooled into believing all the nice stories about boys receiving sweets from airplanes at initiation schools.

"This used to be a trick that worked, but left many boys shocked when they got to their respective traditional schools.

"However, his uncles... actually demanded that I get my boy his toys and electronic gadgets that he would need in the bush.

"They also wanted two blankets, a sponge, waterproof boots, over and above the video games. I still can't believe that traditional schools have become so modern," said Nyathi.

Nyathi admitted that she initially did not like the sound of her boy going to the mountain.

"I have two sons. The first one is eleven and the second one nine years old.

"The elder brother, who is based in Nkomazi, said he would not undergo any traditional circumcision, but would go to a public hospital to get a medical cut.

"I told the two of them that it was their choice and I can't tell them what to do. I wonder what the elder one would say after hearing about the way these schools are being modernised," she said.

Change was inevitable

Surprise Thabane, a moditi (initiation school chaperone) who graduated from a traditional school in 1987, confirmed and welcomed the changes at the mountain.

"No one could stop things from changing. As it is said, the only constant thing is change.

"I believe it's probably for the better, given the kind of boys we are raising today.

"Back in the day, badika (initiates) used to get circumcised without any medical doctor monitoring their healing progress. Today, it's different, and the boys I have seen are loving every moment they spend on the mountain, unlike back in the day where boys couldn't wait to go home," he said.

Thabane said the two boys under his care wore boots and slept on comfortable sponges.

"We used to walk barefooted to fetch water for the entire period we were there.

"The first time I visited my nephews after their cut I was surprised to find them playing and laughing. During our time, we would either be hard at work or sleeping because of the pain we felt.

"I guess as times change, we need to also adapt or risk watching our traditional ways go extinct," said Thabane.

In the past, the tradition did not allow mothers to be informed if something happened to their children during the initiation process.

A mother would stay at home and wait for the day the graduates returned from their schools.

If she lost her son during his initiation process, she would see people coming to her gate and smashing a calabash as a sign that her son would never return from the mountain.

Nyathi is relieved that some of the stricter laws have been relaxed.

"I am happy because I get constant updates on my boy's well-being. Back in the day no one was allowed to speak to 'outsiders', especially women, about their boys.

"I don't think I would cope not knowing how he is doing out there. We are really grateful that there have been positive changes in the way initiation is carried out.

"I believe that with the presence of doctors out there, our children are safe," she said.

Reluctant resistance to change

Mpumalanga Traditional House of Leaders (HTL) chairperson Kgoshi Mathupa Mokoena doesn't like the idea of electronic games at initiation schools.

"Firstly, let me say that it is the first time that such [a thing] happens. In my opinion, equalling our traditional practices to some winter school camp is not allowed, but that doesn't mean the person is going to be charged or have the school closed," said Mokoena.

Mokoena's opposition to the idea, mainly of video games being allowed at some schools, had to do with economics.

"Parents are already struggling to pay the fees to take their children to the mountain.

"Now, what happens when some boys can't have access to these gadgets because their parents can't afford to buy them?

"We all know that some parents can't buy video games and water boots while their children are still at home. This is not a crime but I think it is being used as a ploy to attract more boys to some of these schools," he said.

He said the sanctity of the practice was still protected because only people who had undergone initiation wee allowed at the mountain.

"This includes the teams of professionals who are working with us as part of the Ingoma Forum. We are talking police officers, nurses and doctors.

"Only those who underwent initiation are allowed to work with us.

"Just to clarify this matter, we are not banning professionals from helping out, but they also have to follow the rules and regulations. That's why they need to have graduated first.

"That is why we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with all the stakeholders that only graduates are allowed in there to protect our culture," said Mokoena.

Asked what penalty an uninitiated professional would pay for entering an initiation school, Mokoena warned that such a professional would only come out once they had graduated.

"Our word is, once a person who is not a graduate - either a police officer, a nurse or a doctor - gets in there, such a person will be helped by having their work uniform removed.

"If it's a police officer, their gun will be stored in a safe place or his bosses will be called and informed that their officer has joined the initiation. The bosses will have to come and fetch the initiate's work clothes for safe keeping," said Mokoena.

Safety the highest priority

According to Mokoena, the HTL was more concerned with how safe the initiates were during their "passage into manhood".

He said only one initiate had been reported dead this year and that the death was not related to initiation, but criminality.

"There has been a criminal incident in KwaMhlanga where a group of drunkards went to an initiation school and kidnapped the initiate. They assaulted the boy until he was unconscious and he eventually succumbed to his injuries.

"When we conducted an investigation we found that these people were having a dispute with the boy's family outside the initiation school and decided to do the unthinkable.

"These criminals continue to taint our culture, but we are convinced that the police are doing their best to ensure justice is served for the family that lost their boy from the violent act," said Mokoena.

Mokoena added that HTL was working with the provincial departments of health, social development, co-operative governance and traditional affairs department, and community safety, security and liaison.

"Working together with these departments has led to four illegal schools being shut down.

"We have also seen initiates being immunised against certain illnesses that might otherwise put their health at risk when they undergo rituals. We would therefore like to thank our parents and departments that have been working closely with us," said Mokoena.

Meanwhile, the families of 29 initiates who died in 2013 are still waiting for justice to be served. So are seven more families who lost their boys in 2014.

The provincial police have since sent the cases to the Director of Public Prosecutions for a decision to prosecute.

Police spokespersons Brigadier Selvy Mohlala and Colonel Leonard Hlathi were not available for comment on the initiation cases.

Read more on:    mbombela  |  initiation

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