South African Initiation Rite Leads To Deaths

By John Carpay

Every single initiation season the media writes about complications accompanying the ritual: death, mutilation, physical abuse and torture. The magnitude of these complications is horrific: from 1995 till now 825 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. This summer 43 boys have died in abominable conditions. Forty-three totally avoidable deaths! Why do we sustain a ritual that slaughters boys in the prime of their age and physically and mentally scars many others for life?

The ritual was traditionally intended as educational institution to prepare boys for the responsibilities of manhood. Nowadays excessive emphasis is placed on the circumcision itself and on physical ordeal, with much of the educational aspect being diminished. It fills me with deep sadness that it has become a ritual of 'male genital mutilation' that promotes male superiority.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children. Nelson Mandela used similar words: “there can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children...”

Traditional leadership
The incompetence and indifference of the traditional leaders is shocking. These self-proclaimed custodians of the ritual call for one 'urgent meeting' after the other. They fail to act: the only noticeable changes in their seasonal reports are the dates that differ. And because of their lack of involvement the ritual is managed by youngsters which, ironically, accelerates the erosion of traditional authority.

They place emphasis on minor problems seemingly outside their sphere of influence; such as illegal initiation schools, bogus traditional practitioners, and pre-existing medical conditions. They are quick to play the blame game and fail to address real issues.

They complain about being attacked when problems are exposed. Members of the House of Traditional Leaders demanded that I should delete my clinical photographs. When I asked them to contribute to the training manual they simply refused, branding it as 'pervert'. Meanwhile they fail to come up with solutions and no progress is made.

In Pondoland both Royal Houses were interested to integrate safe circumcision into the ritual, which would be performed by medical practitioners. These plans were thwarted by a few local traditional chiefs, who were backed up by the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders and by a delegate of Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi.

Their vigorous opposition to 'modern' or 'western methods' is remarkable seeing the catastrophic consequences of the crude traditional methods. More especially because certain 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, the use of leaves instead of plastic for the construction of the initiation school, and the use of animal skin as bandages. Regrettably, many of the traditional cultural elements have also disappeared.

In a traditional leadership meeting at one of the Royal Places in Pondoland it was suggested that their wages would be docked if they failed to take greater responsibility for initiation schools in their areas. They responded immediately with loud protest. When a little later an amputee shared his personal experiences, they could not be bothered to listen and left one after one.

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, trying to insert urinary catheters in their botched penis, 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, did awareness campaigns in communities and schools, organized trainings, wrote a training manual, established community forums in each location around my hospital, etcetera.

Despite all our efforts, the winter season of 2013 was catastrophic. A total of 68 initiates were admitted in my wards, 8 of them being 'amputees'. I felt I had no other choice then to lift the veil of secrecy and speak to the media.

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'. A fortnight later baby Ikho died in my hospital due to an oxygen stockout for which I filed an incident report. I was suspended the very next day.

After another few months of working with traditional leaders I came to realize that they are unlikely to make a positive change with respect to the ritual. After much deliberation 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 is needed 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. The crude traditional circumcision methods have to be replaced by circumcision performed by qualified medical practitioners, especially in Pondoland. 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 young 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?