Initiate deaths elephant in room of Xhosa custom

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Why do we sustain a ritual that slaughters boys in their prime or physically and mentally scars many others for life?" This is the question asked by Dr Dingeman Rijken (DD, 11 January 2013). It's a question that the Xhosa nation can no longer avoid.

It is also a question that is easy enough to answer. The custom of initiation is one of the foundations of Xhosa life, which means the custom is connected to every facet of existence. If one wants to marry, belong to or enter into any other social contract, Xhosa males of a certain age must have undergone this process.

The custom is recognised by men, women and children. The whole society adds weight and value, and with that ultimately pressure for all concerned. What is not as easy to answer, however, is why so many boys are dying. I will not rehash obvious reasons here. Any casual reader of the news would have encountered the many arguments.

Presently though, it seems, the authorities are bent on hunting criminal elements who abduct boys as young as 12 for financial remuneration. But reading the available literature will lead one to the appreciation that this is no simple matter. Yet - and this is the great difficulty - we are searching for simple answers.

One of the things the good doctor would do well to realise in his quest is that while many boys die (and I do not say that callously), many return home. Therefore, asking why a tradition continues because it is not perfect is misguided. It is also misguided because many of the people who question its existence do not question its significance. Our questions should consider the people involved.

The great shame in the spotlight being shone on Xhosa circumcision is the treatment of a nation like children. The call seems to be "you should stop that". This is a prescriptive approach that has an ill-effect. It is opposed to progress, and change. What the doctor has demonstrated is that while he might care about medicine he cares little about understanding a people.

What we have not figured out, what we need to figure out, is the reason some people undergo the practice without the expertise to make it a success. I suspect this is a social issue. Another lamentable element of the story is the reaction by our custodians of culture. Many are quick to defend, rather than to take an opportunity to address a wrong.

A great deal of the custom pays respect to secrecy of the process. Only those who have undergone the custom know about it. That respect is not taken away by the publication of a botched circumcision. Such cases, especially those resulting from procedures carried out by people unqualified to do so, is beyond the realm of culture.

Here I speak of criminality and health, social ills, moral degeneration etc. and such issues certainly deserve publication or dissemination - if the aim is justice. What the doctor has alerted people from within the culture to is that there is a greater call from the outside world for information.

They are not after specifics; they want to know how the culture is dealing with the problem. If we ask what problem, then clearly we are comfortable with an elephant in the room. A more realistic rationale will understand that culture has failed to effectively communicate with the outside world. We have not detailed an explanation as to the cause of the deaths, and boys have been dying for years.

The culture itself has also not instituted strategies to deal with the deaths. It has remained largely silent, and I repeat, boys have been dying for years. This latest controversy presents another chance for the culture to communicate. The sadness is that it has failed to do so. History will judge harshly the failure to answer the question posed by the doctor beyond only that it is "an embarrassment".

People without answer, answer so subjectively. People without an answer will also fail the next season of boys, being prepared rather to gamble with their lives. Mvuzo Ponono is a Xhosa man and a master's student at Rhodes University

Picture Caption: GETTING IT RIGHT: Initiates from Mgwenyane near Libode which has a history of being free of fatalities Picture by: LULAMILE FENI

By: Mvuzo Ponono

Article Source: DAILY DISPATCH