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Tales of A divided City: Prepared for a life I cannot have

Date Released: Mon, 6 October 2014 09:17 +0200

Siyanda Centwa and Pedro Tabensky explore the implications of Ukwaluka (initiation).

Our world — the complex system of meanings that sustained us — has been delivered a mortal blow by the founders of Grahamstown, and nothing has come to replace it.

Systems of meaning grow slowly, like sculptural formations on surfaces relentlessly accosted by elemental forces. And if they are abruptly destroyed, then spiritual decay is inevitable.

We are the amaXhosa. Or, would it not be better to say, we were the amaXhosa?

I do not know who we are today. Some of our defining concepts remain, but they have been severed from the system of practices—our cultural abode—that gave them value, that rendered them intelligible as what they were.

Now the abode is gone, and the rituals are but ghosts of the past, a reminder of all that has been lost.

Where do we go from here? How can we move forward as a people?

I was luckier than most young amaXhosa men.

Our elders for the most part are no longer able to teach us dignity (isidima nesithozelo).

When I went to the mountain (entabeni) to prepare for manhood—to be taught the importance of dignity—I was guided by one of the few remaining old men that have a relatively deep understanding of the ways of the past. He taught me the rudiments of the language of manhood—isidoda—that is spoken only among men. And he taught me how to build a home and take responsibility for a family.

Isidoda is dying today.

We used to go to the mountain for at least half a year. Now, at most, we go for three or four weeks.

Once we were dispossessed of land—and everything came to an end—we had to provide by going to the mines or we had to attend

school, demanding that we cut the passage to manhood short.

In the mountain I learned about the difficulties of life or, better put, I was being prepared to be the patriarch of the farm that I was to acquire when I married. And the expectation was that I would be married shortly after returning from the mountain.

But what sort of preparation is this that readies me for a life that I cannot have?

In the mountain, brother, uncles and male neighbours come together to build shelters for initiates, known as first house (indlu yokuqala), a show of solidarity from the village that no longer is.

I had to endure the pain of circumcision, thirst, sleeplessness, extreme heat and cold.

I had to walk barefoot on thorny ground, so that I could acquire the moral strength to climb mountains and cross rivers, that is, to deal with the vicissitudes of life.

The entabeni is a harsh place.

These trials and lessons are all aimed at making me into a good head of the household--a household that is not to be, that cannot be.  

The Ukwaluka ritual was meant to be a transformative experience.

Today it is wrongly described as the circumcision ritual when in fact it was much more than this. It was an essential feature of ethical and political life in the sense that the young men returning from the mountains were ready to become leaders of society.

As already mentioned, Ukwaluka was aimed at making men of us, understood as ethical beings able to respond appropriately to their roles as fathers and husbands, surrounded by land that was ours to farm.

Now-a-days Ukwaluka has become little more than a celebration of the penis.

The penis has always been an object of veneration and respect for us, but it symbolised much more than sexual potency. Men were taken to be givers of life and dignified providers. There is even a song—Sende Liyasebenza. One verse goes like this:

Mandela is here because of the testicles' work…. (Mandela uphuma esendeni ….)

When men come back from the mountain today, nothing has changed in their lives. Contrary to traditional expectations, they are the same people we have always known. Their characters and understandings remain unchanged, because they were there for such a brief period of time and because the wisdom of old men is almost entirely lost.

Where do we go from here? Our culture was decimated. We have no place from which to build a meaningful future, for the ground upon which tomorrows are grown has been obliterated by colonial greed.

The most important aspect of the entire ritual is to return from the mountain a changed man, a man who is able to cope with the difficulties of life in a dignified manner, with care and respect.

Among the amaXhosa, ethical integrity is tied up entirely with gender identity.

This is especially the case with men.

I am ethical insofar as I am a man. The Ukwaluka ritual is where we learn to become what we most truly are taken to be, dignified and respectful patriarchs who are able to look after our families, something we can no longer do, for we live in shacks and we have nothing to offer, nothing upon which to grow a family.

One does not need to be a supporter of patriarchy to see that this form of gender politics is better than what we have today, patriarchy without isidima nesithozelo.

When we return from the mountain it is time for Umgidi. In the past this celebration was aimed at welcoming a new soon-to-become head of the household into the village, but today its main function is to invite initiates to ‘park their BMW [or Mercedes] in a garage’.

Even young women in the township often say that they wish they were the first to ride the BMW (or Mercedes Benz).

The dignified patriarch has given way to the cheese boy (izikhothane)—a seducer of women—or to the isishumane, who in this case is the man who remains permanently unmarried and hence who is a man—a moral being—in name only.

The possibility of being men has been robbed from us, and nothing has come to replace the loss.  

When our land was taken, nothing was left. And no other acceptable existential possibilities seem open to us.

Before the great tide of disposition we lived in a patriarchal world, but there was harmony. We knew our place in the world, both men and women. Today we live in a patriarchal system where men cannot be men.

This is an impossible situation for men and women.

It would be wrong to be overly nostalgic. We, amaXhosa men, must comprehend our situation, our shocking predicament, so that we can dream together of a better future.

But what existential possibilities are available to us from where we stand today?

Article by: Siyanda Centwa and Pedro Tabensky.
Article Source: Grocotts Mail

Source:Grocotts Mail