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Culture, Reality

What is a Man?

by Unathi Kondile / Images by Andre du Plessis / 27.06.2012

Translated from the original isiXhosa by Pumla Dineo Gqola.

“Manhood lies in conduct rather than age” – BB Mkonto

Tetse, a lad of 20, lived with his mother near Matatiele. Every year he would broach this question to her, “O’lady, when will it be my turn to attend initiation school?”. This question was echoed each December and July.

Last year, the youngster decided to enter traditional manhood initiation without parental permission. He joined a group of boys whose school in the Matatiele hills would fall under Tat’ uJwarha’s supervision. Jwarha was a man now famous for the meandering walk of the intoxicated. A skillful traditional surgeon in bygone days, alcohol abuse had long erased his talent.

The long and short of my tale is that Tetse did not graduate from initiation school. Rumour has it he died from dehydration and an unnamed ailment. In 2011, he was among the 25 other initiates who died.

As I write this, July is again upon us, and as is the case in many years, youngsters are itching and acting out in anticipation of their turn to be turned initiate. Not all of them will graduate to manhood. Some will be news headline fodder, and as readers we will be cautioned against traditional manhood initiation processes (ukwaluka). We will be told by Westerners and the fools among our own, controlled by the former, screaming “change this custom”, “This is thuggery, boys are dying!” and so forth.

All of this because of the irresponsibility of Jwarha-types and the uncontained excitement by the likes of Tetse.

If I appear to lay the blame at the feet of Jwarha and Tetse, this is by design. There is nothing amiss in the actual custom. When we speak of custom, we refer to the procedures of a people according to their faith systems. In historical writing, Sonkqishe and others, defined tradition as that which is adhered to in each home in accordance with that family’s belief system. There would be customary correlation within the same family lineage (isiduko). There is also the belief that custom is medicine – that people who exists outside of it can fall ill or be badly behaved.

From the above, then, the source of contemporary problems with men and manhood is evident. Many men today emerge out of initiation schools not with custom but with bad behaviour. The textures of this need extensive investigation. There are also distracting (destructive) conflations of traditional manhood initiation (ukwaluka) with mere circumcision (ukwaluswa). This simplistic merging of a process and an event is particularly evident in the noise on television and newspaper pages.

Traditional manhood initiation processes used to be a protected custom, but it has since become an openly discussed matter. What is troubling is how few Xhosa men have intervened into these discussions of what has gone wrong. I am not sure whether this is due to jealousy or civilisation. Jealousy seems to be at the heart of the matter for me. Otherwise, how do you explain those of us who have benefitted from the lessons of traditional manhood initiation refusing to pass on this very same wisdom to the youngsters who come after us? Is it because we no longer see the role of ukwaluka in society? Then how dare we exclaim in horror when youngsters deemed officially to be men are so crude in behaviour?

They rape old women and children, beat up women, terrorise communities, kill one another – ask for cigarettes and alcohol from boys, are openly intoxicated in public, they live for alcohol.

That is the situation. We have been so infatuated with “Western” ways of being that we have forgotten that before a person was a person through communion with others, people were human through adherence to their own customs.

Perhaps all matters to do with custom are hard to swallow for some because of the involvement of venerating the ancestors, something new Christians are repulsed by. Why are our people so ready to worship imported gods when these are as unscientific as ours? Why is it so easy to make the leap of faith towards that of an other but not towards our very own? While we look down on all matters ancestor related we worship at the very throne of other faith narratives.

Yes, faith is a private matter. You have a right to choose. But as a Xhosa person, your starting point should be custom and ancestry referenced as a source of strength, growth and protection. Instead we are saddled with men who are not only badly behaved in communities and society at large, they also abdicate their responsibilities within families. This is a crisis.

We need to ask again: what is a man?

Is it enough to simply go through a stage, end of story followed by celebrations? Last I checked, being a man meant graduating from boyhood in accordance with ukwaluka. A man is he who has been counselled by experts who have gone before, along with other wise elders. A Xhosa man is he who takes care of royalty, leaders and protects office bearers as per African tradition. No man lives alone. When the home is beset by problems, a man seeks counsel from his peers. Such a man supports others in the community and ensures that his home is well nourished. These days you notice how women shoulder all of the responsibilities I have listed, while men choose the infantile behaviour of boys. Today’s “men” choose the easy way out.

Can such an individual still be called a man? No. Why do they even bother going to traditional manhood school (esuthwini) these days? Given how such men behave, it becomes easy to look down on ukwaluka as an ineffective custom. No wonder outsiders call for the elimination of ukwaluko; there is no discernable difference between boys and these new men.

As a man who continues to go home, I am pained when I visit initiates in rural villages and townships alike and find their traditional caretakers (amakhankatha) gone missing, the places of confinement for initiates (amabhoma) littered with beer bottles competing for space with KFC packages. I see any random men from the environs taking liberties with these initiates, offering inappropriate advice. Why then should initiates take such an institution seriously as a dignified station and role. It has simply become procedure, another stage, just so they can also declare “I am a man” at the end.

This is a problem. If we take neither responsibility nor pride in our own custom, how dare we expect outsiders to take us seriously? The calls for the end of this custom will continue to gather momentum.

I predict that larger numbers of initiates will enter hospitals, where their amabhoma will be a Ward number. These numbers will explode because most children are singlehandedly raised by their mothers. Where are the fathers? They have gone astray. They are indifferent to who will initiate their sons. What do we think of this enormous burden we continue to place on these single mothers? Do we really expect these women, who stay and parent, will knowingly enter their sons into this disastrous situation?

We have long ceased caring, and our carelessness will be our decline. We bear witness to the fruits of that disregard. Yet we keep asking ourselves, “what is wrong with today’s youth?” And “what is wrong with today’s men?” We threw away customs that built us and now we feign shock and horror.

Although it is forbidden to discuss the internal workings of the initiation process, we have come to a place where we need to deviate from this secrecy and start writing the procedures down. Otherwise, we run the risk of further damage by pseudo-experts. We have come to a juncture where we also need cultural Bibles, like other peoples in the world. We certainly cannot rely on traditional leaders on this count, given the dire state of those positions. Let us open this discussion and get the support we need in order to strengthen one another in the open, rather than harm ourselves in private. The priority needs to be ensuring adherence to custom in order to see how we can improve our collective fate again.

We, Xhosa people, have elaborate leadership and governance structures, advice giving and rehabilitation mechanisms that predate and survive the introduction of “Western” styles of rule. For example, this past weekend I was at a Gugulethu joint called Corner Lounge, where I suddenly saw different types of beverages arrive along with a group of men who settled next to me. I soon realised from the conversation that all of this alcohol was compensation paid by two men: one who had beaten his wife up and another who had been badly behaved in the community. Witnessing this made me happy to see traditional Xhosa dispute resolution practices at play. People get punished in Xhosa society in ways that quickly address the wrong. The first man’s wife was reassured by these other men that should he behave inappropriately again, they would sort him out.

Don’t we agree that punishment is universal in Xhosa idiom?

The solutions to our problems lie before our very eyes. Let us return to exploring what manhood is. What does it mean to be a Xhosa man?

Let me conclude.

I started out by pointing to the onset of July, some initiates have entered ukwaluka and some will not come out. We will be inundated by newspaper reportage on the evils of this custom. We will be unable to defend it. We will remain silent insisting on respecting the expected insider secrecy. We will miss an opportunity to educate society on the importance of making men, through education, respect, through support and affirming counsel.

This custom tries to build, not to kill.

We will not ensure that those like Jwarha do not open their own initiation schools in the wild; we will not ensure that boys understand why they are there. We will not ensure that no boy enters without parental permission. We will not ensure that men in the community strengthen this custom or that we standardise its practice today.

While some say custom can embarrass us, I say to abandon it is to surrender the future.

*Read the original isXhosa “Ukukruneka KweKrwala” here.

**Opening image © Andre du Plessis.

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