African Male Initiation Rites Into Manhood – More Than INXEBA, The Wound

By Pinky Khoabane

Writing in Vernac News, Nelvis Qekema says the much talked-about movie Inxeba has many distortions about African Male Initiation Rites….But before we get there, let’s examine these rites and their purpose in African culture..

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Picture: Richard Bullock via www.africageographic.com

THE African male initiation rites into manhood have been shrouded in mystique, secrecy and are a subject of much speculation and misconceptions by Western scholars and those who have never participated in the ritual. In commercial media, these rites have been reduced to the act of circumcision and the deaths that emanate from it.

The African male initiation rites into manhood are more than just circumcision. Prof. Manu Ampim, a historian and primary (first-hand) researcher specialising in African and African American history says there are five major African initiation rites which are fundamental to human growth and development. “The process of initiation concerns undergoing a fundamental set of rites to start a new phase or beginning in life….

“The five rites are birth, adulthood, marriage, eldership, and ancestorship.

“The Rite of Adulthood is the second major initiation rite and it is nowadays the most popular among the set of rites. Most people today assume that “rites of passage” only refers to initiation into adulthood, and they are often not aware that adulthood rites are only one set of rites within a larger system of rites. Adulthood rites are usually done at the onset puberty age (around 12-13 years of age in many cultures) and they are to ensure the shaping of productive, community-oriented responsible adults. There is nothing automatic about youth being productive members of society, nor is there anything particularly difficult about transitioning from a child to an adult. This transition to adulthood is exceedingly difficult in Western societies because there are no systems of adulthood rites to systematically guide and direct the young person through this important stage in his or her life cycle.

“In Western culture adulthood is seen as a status achieved at the age of 18 or 21, or simply when the person graduates from high school. Unfortunately, in most cases there is no fundamental guidance or transformation from a child to an adult that is required or expected. This “leave it for chance” approach to adulthood development is the root of most teenage and youth “adult” confusion, chaos, and uncertainty. When the youth reach a certain age, somehow they are expected to magically transformed into an “adult,” even though they often receive very little guidance.

On the other hand, African societies systematically initiate boys and girls. They often take the young initiates out of the community, and away from the concerns of everyday life, to teach them all the ways of adulthood: including the rules and taboos of the society; moral instruction and social responsibility; and further clarification of his/her mission or calling in life”.

The film Inxeba, which opened at cinemas at the weekend, has been met with mixed reviews, some so strong as to prompt suspension of the screening at some cinemas.

Here is a review By Nelvis Qekema via vernacnews.co.za

After watching the Inxeba movie, my impression is that it has less to do about ulwaluko/koma (initiation), and more to do about homesexuality and the prejudices suffered by gay men “in the name of culture”. Initiation has been used by the writers of the movie as the context within which to explore these prejudices.

However, the title and the posters of the movie led me to believe the story was about ulwaluko. Unfortunately, both ulwaluko and homesexuality are done a disservice in this movie. Homesexuality is pushed to the background as a victim of ulwaluko. The focus is more on ulwaluko, which is also grossly misrepresented in the movie. In fact, an uninitiated boy may never want to undergo the custom after watching the movie. Also, other nations of the world may believe that Afrikans are barbaric and sadistic after watching the movie.

I propose to start with identifying some of the distortions on ulwaluko.

The movie gives an impression that abakhwetha (initiates) are tortured, beaten up and generally ill-treated on the mountain. This is not true. Amakhankatha (caregivers) actually give care and guidance about the new life abakhwetha are about to enter. That is why they are usually carefully chosen. They are educators and moulders of character – not destroyers of the body and soul of abakhwetha.

We are shown a scene where a number of boys are about to be operated upon by ingcibi (surgeon) on the mountain. There are two things that trouble me here. First is that all the boys are wearing brand new blankets. This is a distortion. Umkhwetha is never bought anything new, let alone a blanket. In fact, he disposes of all his meagre belongings as a sign to start a new life. At the mountain, he is left to his own devices to decide what he will wear. Usually, they are creative and sew themselves some stuff with old rags to cover the parts that matter. Though they usually walk around uncovered, in winter they may use old blankets they are given from home.

The movements of ingcibi’s hands when he was cutting left much to be desired. His movements were completely wrong – that is, if you know how the special cut is done. That cut is done in a particular way that requires some elaborate handling of ijwabu (foreskin). You don’t cut abitrarily as though you were cutting umbengo (braai meat). It is the speciality of that cut that makes us to be able to differentiate between a cut made on the mountain, and the one made in hospital.

In a number of scenes, elderly men can be seen overnight on the mountain around a big fire. This is unusual. Elderly men come to the mountain during the day for special inspections and quality control. One time, Vija (ikhankatha) assaults Kwanda (gay initiate) in full view of the seemingly approving elders who make no attempt to intervene. This is a gross distortion. No such abuse would be allowed on the mountain.

In the presence of the elders, and with the elders, abakhwetha are seen enjoying themselves with booze. It is a bash of sorts. They are drunk together with the elders with the fire burning. This is a gross distortion. The mountain is a spiritual place where those activities are strictly forbidden.

In another scene the elderly men are sitting around the fire during the day. Each umkhwetha is asked to stand before them and and tell them how they (abakhwetha) are going to conduct themselves now that they are “men”. That is a distortion. Abakhwetha are never regarded as “men” by our society. Accordingly, when ingcibi operates on them, he asks them to chant, “Ndiyindoda!” (I’m a man!). Note that ingcibi never says to umkhwetha, “Uyindoda!” (You’re a man!). That is because the elders still regard you as a boy. Even when umkhwetha has completed his term and service on the mountain, the elders will say, “Sibuyisa amakhwenkwe” (We’re bringing back the boys). Man-making is a long process for which umkhwetha must take full responsibility in terms of good conduct and prosperity. He still has to go through a number of stages of manhood; which include marrying, starting a family and livestock. That process would be slightly different with urbanisation and change of times.

In one scene amakhankatha smoke marijuana and ask the initiates to smoke it apparently because it works wonders in accelerating the healing of the wound. This is a gross distortion. Smoking marijuana is never prescribed by amakhankatha for any purpose on the mountain, let alone wound healing. It is true, though, that those who smoked it before initiation continue to smoke it on the mountain.

There is a scene where Xolani (gay ikhankatha) takes Kwanda (gay umkhwetha) to the river to wash his body. This is a distortion. Umkhwetha never washes unless the time for him to leave the mountain has come. You have to keep on applying ingceke (white substance, or calcium carbonate) at all times. It has the properties like antiperspirant and “deodorant” to keep you dry and smelling like other animals at all times. That makes you to be part of your habitat – and not a stranger to animals and other creatures.

At the early stages of the movie, Xolani can be heard correctly counselling Kwanda to remember that happenings at the mountain remain on the mountain. It is only towards the end that we get to know that Xolani (ikhankatha) may have meant that Kwanda (umkhwetha) should never divulge their secret sexual relationship on the mountain. The only homosexual relation that is known even by abakhwetha is the one between Xolani (ikhankatha) and Vija (ikhankatha). The two are peers who were friends who went to school together. They meet at the mountain as amakhankatha (caregivers). Xolani makes moves on Vija. Vija yields, though he seems to be doing it for the money that Xolani showers him with. Vija’s heart is not into this relationship, but he needs the money because he is a married man that has a family to take care of. They do their sexual encounters on the mountain, which amounts to the violation of the sacredness of the mountain. What makes it worse is that they are on the mountain as the guardians of abakhwetha. Vija is extremely abusive and beats up and strangulates Xolani during their sexual encounters on the mountain.

Kwanda makes moves on the reluctant Xolani. Kwanda play Vija against Xolani to make Xolani jealous so that he could do what Kwanda wants. Kwanda spotted Xolani and Vija having sex. The two ran away, while Kwanda was pursuing them. We only pick up at the end of the movie that Kwanda also slept with Vija. Kwanda is reported lost when the rest of abakhwetha are being ore pared to return home. Later, Xolani is spotted walking with Kwanda, and imploring him not to divide mountain secrets. Kwanda tries and recruits Xolani dump Vija and go with him to Johannesburg. Kwanda makes a mistake of his life when he warns Xolani not to think Vija had sex only with him (Xolani). At that stage, Xolani strikes Kwanda with a rock. Kwanda presumably falls down the cliff and dies.

While the movie begins with Xolani at the back of a truck going to work in Queenstown, it ends with him at the back of a truck to Johannesburg.

Not surprisingly, this movie is written by John Trengrove who is also the executive producer. Thando Mgqolozana and Malusi Bangu have added their captured ink to the story. The rest of the producers are white males and white females with one uninitiated black young male.

Expectedly, the actors and producers of the movie have received global accolades. Any project that either distorts or negatively stereotypes black life always gets massive funding and awards.

If anything, my experience with Inxeba is that blacks need to write their own stories. It is not going to help to keep some aspects of our lives forever secret. We should find a way of positively documenting them while treading carefully where we have to. Blacks need to make funds available for these projects. We can’t forever react to the deliberate distortions of our being by the white supremacist establishment.

Otherwise, all Inxeba does is to Wound the Wounded.

 

4 Comments on "African Male Initiation Rites Into Manhood – More Than INXEBA, The Wound"

  1. Idlozi liyabhekelwa!

  2. Another problem with us African we have adopted this so called laissez-faire mentality with all our rituals which cannot be correct. We have called this democracy!

    I don’t see how this has made our lives better or prosper.

  3. This really sums it all up:

    Any project that either distorts or negatively stereotypes black life always gets massive funding and awards.

  4. I wonder what Bra Nel,the great Tower has to say about someone like utata Govan Mbeki, who also questioned the relevance of this ritual, and horror of horrors, even let his kids take names from the wife’s tribe? Thabo?Moeletsi? I do think he has given a balanced critique explaining in detail what the actual ritual should be like. But truth is, as someone commented on his wall, like the buying of new blankets, many do not follow the sacrosanct way of the ancients anymore, with selfies being the order of the day.
    Further, after watching the movie, one can only say the only uncomfortable thing is that straight people are not used to watching gay intimate scenes.Therefore like the TV series Umthunzi Wentaba, which tried to explore the ritual and was canned after an outcry,the critics are hoping to do the same.
    By the way,if one goes to ulwaluko.co.za,there are even pictures of botched manhood available, along with a description of what happens to the initiates. So,this sudden outrage,is only because people don’t check the internet.

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