They prepare to become bakhwetha, initiates who undergo a series of trials in the wilderness (or, in Cape Town, on plots of land that border the N2 highway) – trials that culminate in circumcision.
Come June, with winter at its coldest and wettest, the stories start to appear in the newspapers: the stories that tell of boys who didn’t make it into manhood. Instead, they died, or were mutilated, because their operations were botched. We saw the stories last year and will again this year. But despite the ubiquity of these stories, they don’t haunt the imaginations of everyone who reads them as perhaps they should, because many of us don’t know what it’s like to be an umkhwetha in the first place.
New novelist Thando Mgqolozana has now lifted the veil on Xhosa initiation – a brave, taboo-busting move – recreating the world of a victim of botched circumcision in his book A Man Who is not a Man. BOOK SA is pleased to bring you an excerpt:
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It was morning in the ward. I woke up to unfamiliar brightness. The blinds on the windows had been drawn open though the windows themselves remained closed. I was to learn that they were left that way permanently, for reasons of hygiene.
The lights were off and the brightness was all from the natural light outside. Our ward must have been on the west side, for the early sunlight did not shine directly into it. I felt homesick for my east-facing hut that looked out onto the dawn. I missed my view of rosy sky through the zinc holes, with the light growing amber as the sun rose from behind the boobs. This view looked wrong to me. It was populated by the same thorn trees and aloe plants that I was used to, but the mountain seemed ugly and misshapen without the familiar boobs. It looked unfinished, like.
A short, fat nurse came into our ward and stood there looking at us. The arms of her spectacles appeared to be loose, for she must have pushed them back into position at least three times before she uttered a word. She greeted us in a scornful voice and we responded with reluctance – we being the two patients opposite me and myself. Little did we know that by our lukewarm response we were fuelling an already lit brazier. The short nurse broke into a mocking song:
Somagwaza, amagwala abalekile
hay yoh weh
hay yoh weh
Somagwaza, ngizogwaza lakwekwe.
The song she sang was the same ‘Somagwaza’ that is meant to be sung during the different phases of the circumcision ceremony. The verse she chose was particularly significant, for it is the one that reports to the mythical Somagwaza that the cowards among them have chickened out; ‘them’ being us, of course, the supposed initiates. She was openly insulting us for having landed up at the hospital – we cowards! She was bringing home the disgrace of our being survived by our empty huts at the mountain and impressing on us our invalidity – the manhood rejects that we had become by fleeing to the hospital and the sub-human status that we were about to assume in society as a result. Her reaction might seem extreme, but it was typical of the mockery and censure that we could expect to encounter outside.
I took an immediate dislike to this nurse. I rested my head back on the pillow, envying the two initiates next to me who never answered her or even retrieved their heads from under the white sheets. They were the two patients who occupied the beds on my left-hand side. I hadn’t seen their faces since I had arrived in the ward, so I could only presume they were initiates. The two who lay across the way from me clearly were initiates – I mean failed men – because their faces, like mine, still bore traces of white clay.
When my eyes landed on them, I felt a jolt of anxiety sliding down my throat. I hadn’t known whether to greet them or not. By greeting them I would be acknowledging our common shame and opening the way to awkwardness. What would we talk about? And what language would we use? As initiates, we were meant to speak in the code language of the mountain. To open your mouth wrongly was to subject yourself to scrutiny and give yourself away. Far better to remain silent and anonymous in such circumstances.
Ignoring the rest of us the nurse shuffled herself over to the beds of the two covered-up initiates. She had a wheezing breath, as if she was asthmatic. Her belly had two protruding slopes, one above and another below her bellybutton. She could not bend forward easily.
‘Mkhwetha!’ she called out and then again in quick succession:
The way she hailed the two initiates was as if she was approaching their hut. It was the way men call out when they approach an initiate’s hut, the way Rain had done with me. But she did it with such scorn in her voice that I felt my face twist into a grimace. The two initiates did not move. They lay with the white hospital sheets pulled over their heads and their knees drawn up, as they had done from the beginning. It was clear they were not asleep but simply had no courage to face their world.
The nurse was about to do the inevitable. She positioned herself between the two beds, gripped both top sheets with her thick hands and pulled them violently away, leaving the bodies of the initiates exposed. Apart from brutality with which she had performed the action, we were all embarrassed by the strong rot smell that assaulted the atmosphere from under those sheets. I had never imagined such a smell coming from a living human being. If I had thought my smell was foul, it was nothing compared to this.
I could not see the initiate in the far bed, but the one nearest me neither moved nor spoke. He kept his hands in the position they had been in before he was revealed. Palms set flat to cover his face and the tips of his thumbs touching his earlobes. His body was covered, like mine, in a blue gown and I noticed there were rings of brown stains around the genital area.
The nurse was still berating us. ‘So you think you are men now, mmh? Well the men I know were made at the mountain, not in the comfort of white sheets!’ she lashed out in her knowledgeable way, while throwing back the sheets on the first initiate’s bed. No one answered her, at least not aloud.
She bent over with difficulty, looking for something under the beds and I heard something fall down, which I presumed to be her loose spectacles. She picked them up and jammed them back on her nose, then straightened up and walked round to my bedside. I readied myself not to answer anything this rude and unprofessional nurse might throw at me. But she didn’t say anything.
She stood by the trolley table at the foot of my bed, perusing the grey folder that lay there. I saw her skew name tag and the head people quickly photographed what was written there: Mrs E. Yaziyo, Auxiliary Nurse. The name suited her, for Yaziyo, loosely translated, means ‘Know It All’. Adjusting her spectacles for the umpteenth time, Nurse Yaziyo dipped her forefinger in her saliva and paged through the folder pages furiously, as if looking for something hidden between them. Then she stopped and ran her finger down the last page as if following the words one by one, her forehead furrowed and her eyes blinking frequently. Finally she slammed the folder shut. I swallowed and waited for my fate to be spelt out for everyone in the ward to hear.
‘So this one has no catheter, just a drip,’ she declared loudly to herself. Wheezing heavily, she walked away, knocking her spectacles back into position a final time as she left the ward. If ever I wished for a tsunami, for my giant wave from the Ox Kraal dam to come crashing down and swallow us all, it was at that moment.
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- A Man Who is Not a Man by Thando Mgqolozana
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Photo courtesy Tripeleff