Severance Pain. (Circumcision Ceremony)

By Van Wyk, Gary | Geographical, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Severance Pain. (Circumcision Ceremony)


Van Wyk, Gary, Geographical


SINCE TIME IMMEMORIAL, ADOLESCENT MEN OF THE XHOSA TRIBE IN SOUTH Africa's Eastern Cape province have crossed the divide from boy to man by means of a circumcision ceremony. During the ritual, which can last up to four weeks, the initiates not only undergo a painful operation but are also taught the responsibilities of manhood. Today initiates pay to go to `circumcision school', where ancient customs prevail. The operation is carried out without anaesthetic--often with razor blades--and botched operations by dubiously qualified `surgeons' sometimes prove fatal. The boys, aged from their mid-teens to early 20s, enter the schools with a mixture of trepidation, resolve and pride, knowing that if they emerge alive from the initiation trials they will be transformed into real men in the eyes of Xhosa society and--perhaps more importantly--their ancestors

RIGHT

In Xhosa society, traditions are passed down orally by way of a `praise singer'. This is Zolani Mkiva, Nelson Mandela's praise singer, in full cry wearing one of his performance costumes. Praise singers play a major role in educating boys during the annual circumcision ceremony

RIGHT

The worst is over first. After arrival the youths are sent to isolated huts to await the surgeon. As the surgeon performs the amputation he cries, "You are a man," and throws the foreskin to the ground. The initiate picks it up and replies, "I am a man." The wounds are traditionally bound in leaves and medicinal mud, but some schools now use antiseptic dressings. While their skin heals, the men are cocooned in white blankets and paint their bodies with chalky clay to signify their transitional state

The Xhosa tribe is the second largest tribe in South Africa, making up nearly a quarter of the country's population. President Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela are members of the Xhosa tribe--whose people are steeped in history, custom and dignity

LEFT

Over the next two to four weeks initiates learn the oral histories of their people and how to behave as men. Humility is drummed into them; they are frequently berated and `tanned' to make them supple and strong. They attend lectures delivered in song by poets and praise singers--such as Zolani Mkiva--and take part in ritual stick fighting

ABOVE

The boys live in isolation, avoiding all social contact. After several weeks of privation, the initiate huts and all of their contents are ritually incinerated. Never looking back, the naked men run to the nearest water for a ritual cleansing that erases childhood

LEFT

Over the next two to four weeks initiates learn the oral histories of their people and how to behave as men. Humility is drummed into them; they are frequently berated and `tanned' to make them supple and strong. …

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