Every single initiation season the media writes about complications accompanying the ritual of Traditional Circumcision and Initiation into Manhood. The magnitude of these complications is horrific, from 1995 till today 945 boys have lost their lives in the mountains and hills of the Eastern Cape. Many others were mutilated or even lost their manhood.
Male genital mutilation
The seasonal deaths and mutilations have become predictable. During the previous winter season 38 boys died in abominable conditions, and 28 boys died during the summer season (despite the 'death-free initiation plans'). The current seasonal death toll stands at a grim 26. These deaths were totally avoidable. Why do we sustain a ritual that slaughters boys in their prime and leaves many others physically and mentally scarred?
The ritual was traditionally intended as educational institution to prepare boys for the responsibilities of manhood. Nowadays excessive emphasis is placed on the circumcision and physical ordeal, with much of the educational aspect being diminished.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that the test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children. Or in the words of Nelson Mandela: "there can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children..."
The incompetence and indifference of the traditional leaders is astounding. These self-proclaimed custodians of the ritual pinpoint minor problems seemingly outside their sphere of influence: such as illegal initiation schools, bogus traditional practitioners, and initiates with pre-existing medical conditions. They are quick to play the blame game and fail to address real issues or come up with substantial solutions.
Their vigorous opposition to 'modern methods' is incomprehensible seeing the catastrophic consequences of the crude traditional methods. More especially because traditional methods that were effective in safeguarding the health of initiates have been abandoned without evoking any resistance: such as frequent washing of instruments and hands, use of grass instead of plastic for the construction of the hut, and the use of animal skin as bandages. Regrettably, many of the traditional cultural elements have also disappeared.
During one of the meetings with local traditional leaders it was suggested that their wages would be docked if they fail to take greater responsibility for initiation schools in their areas. They responded immediately with loud protest, yet when a few minutes later an amputee shared his personal experiences they could not be bothered to listen.
Reasons for publication
Winter 2012. Groups of young boys with white faces were brought out of a secret dark world into glaring hospital lights. Sunken eyes from dehydration, flaky skin from malnourishment, bagged eyes from sleep deprivation. Frequently you would smell the rotting when they were walking past. I spend many hours cleaning their wounds, struggling to insert urinary catheters in their botched penises, battling to explain 17-year-olds that they had lost their manhood.
Together with a former traditional attendant we developed an outreach program. We visited initiation schools, attended numerous meetings with various stakeholders, ran awareness campaigns in communities and schools, organized trainings for traditional practitioners, wrote a training manual, established community forums, etcetera.
Winter 2013. Our hospital was overflowing with initiates once again. A total of 68 were admitted and eight lost their manhood. I felt I had no other choice then to lift the veil of secrecy. Shortly afterwards I received a notification of possible suspension for speaking to the media and for "compiling an unlawful book displaying private parts" that had "brought the Department of Health into disrepute" (the training manual - see downloads).
After much deliberation and another few months of fruitless discussions with traditional leaders I decided to prepare this website, to inform prospective initiates and the broader community about the dark secrets of the ritual. While it is regrettable that the disclosure of graphic details can no longer be avoided it is my hope that this will effect change at last.
I pray for the community to rise up and urge their traditional leaders to take radical steps. Circumcision should never lead to death or mutilation. Initiation schools have to be centralized and the crude traditional circumcision methods have to be replaced by circumcision performed by qualified medical practitioners. Only this will put an immediate end to the predictable and avoidable initiation deaths and mutilations.
The complications will continue for as long as traditional leaders are looking away. More and more boys will choose medical circumcision over the ritual, which will deprive them from what could have been a beautiful and valuable cultural experience.
It should be kept in mind that initiation is a wonderful opportunity to disseminate specific messages at such a crucial point in the life of an adolescent boy. It has an immense potential in addressing societal problems, and I look forward to the contribution it can have in building our society. May God be with all of us.
Are you man enough to stand up?
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