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The Xhosa Circumcision Ritual

Deaths from ritual circumcision in the Eastern Cape have been in the news recently. Township blogger Nozuko P gives an overview of the practice.

Boys’ Initiation – a Xhosa Tradition

The reason I’m writing about this is because everybody is reading about Xhosa initiations which go wrong. In the month of June, that is what’s in the news. In my culture, June is the begining of the year – not January like in Christianity. That’s why most people who follow Xhosa culture don’t celebrate the 1st of January as the begining of the year – for us it starts in June with the full moon.

It is important for a Xhosa boy to go through initiation at a certain stage of his life. I wont dwell on certain details, though, because I’m a female – and as a female you don’t know everything. In fact, there are things that women absolutely must not know about.

Initiation is characterised by three stages: preparation of the seculsion, the seclusion, and the initiate’s coming-out as a man. Initiation is our way of marking the transition of a male from the status of a child to that of an adult.

When the boy is ready (usually between the age of 13 and 16), he will tell the eldest “father figure” in the family that he wants to go for initiation. Then this man calls a meeting, at which the date for the ceremony is decided, and preparations begun. The family will choose both a surgeon and the ikhankatha – the one who will supervise the initiate. After that, the ritual proceedings start, with umngcamo, which is described as a sacrifice believed to convey blessings.

A white goat is slaughtered, and the initiate is given the roasted intsonyama, a strip of meat cut from the right foreleg. The head of the initiate is shaved by his elder brothers, and his hair is burnt. The reasons for this is that, according to tradition, human hair must be prevented from being used in nest-building by birds like the ingqangqolo, the Cape Wagtail (Motacilla capensis). Human hair should be also be buried or burnt because of the fear of its being used by sorcerers – a person whose hair is used by either birds or sorcerers will go mad.

Next, a sacred necklace is made and put around the initiate’s neck. A traditional inititation dance is held, with dancing and singing all night. During this time, the young girls who socialize with the boys also shave their heads, thus informing the public that they will now have relationships with initiated men.

A period of seclusion is part-and-parcel of the rite of initiation. The initiate stays in an initiation hut, which is called ithonto, and which is built by exclusively of sticks and grass, the men setting up the frame and the women doing the thatching. In seclusion, there are several restrictions imposed upon the initiate: it is a time of ritual purification, characterised by prescribed diets (like a “bread and water” diet), sexual taboos (initiates must not see or interact with women in any way), and prescribed behaviours (initiates must not walk unpainted with white ochre, and get little sleep, because they must not let the fire go out at night).

An important feature of initiation schools is the formal teachings initiates learn during seclusion. These are designed to prepare the initiate for many of his adult roles – including marital and sexual. At this stage, the initiate is not called by his name, he is called umkhwetha. His mother, meanwhile, has also entered into a new stage, and is called izibazane. Life in seclusion serves as a means of inculcating discipline. Punishment will be inflicted on an initiate who disregards his duty of painting himself with white ochre. And initiates can’t just disappear – they must ask permision of their supervisors, and say where they are going, and, upon return, submit to a close examination by the ikhankatha.

The circumcision happens toward the end of the initiate’s seclusion. (See for instance Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, Chapter 4, for a description.) An important ritual which takes place around the same time is called ukojiswa. For the first eight to ten days of the seclusion, he has been subjected to food privations. After this period of restriction ukojiswa is performed to introduce him to the eating of meat. An animal is slaughtered and pieces of serrated meat are roasted on a special fire, made from a tree called umthathi, or Sneezewood. It is after this ritual that the initiate is free once again to do everything, but this time as a man. He may eat any food and they will set a date for his coming home.