Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Leave only footprints

The Eastern Cape’s first survival school gets up and running

Shane Engelbrecht cuts a shy and unassuming figure but when he talks the man seems to grow in stature. He talks with passion and intensity about the environment and humankind’s increasingly problematic relationship with it. The challenge for him, a deeply personal one and now a career choice, is how we understand and relate to the environment.

Engelbrecht is founder and coordinator of The Eastern Wilderness School, the first and only of its kind in the Eastern Cape, based on Fairview Game Reserve just outside of Grahamstown on the R67 towards Port Alfred. The school offers courses on the basic skills of wilderness living and outdoor survival.

Born in Kwa-Zulu Natal, Engelbrecht has lived all over South Africa as well as having travelled inside of Southern Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the United Kingdom. He has returned to the Eastern Cape, now home, hence the name of the school.

The cultures of indigenous people have always interested Engelbrecht, the way that they live in and with the environment and the social harmony that results. This interest was given new fuel after he studied a BA at Rhodes University with majors in anthropology and sociology.

As he talks one can hear that the fascination is deep, complimented by a learned understanding of the peoples and ideas he talks about. The Khoisan and Ovahimba (Namibia) peoples in particular are a source of inspiration because of their nomadic, low impact lifestyles. “The whole idea of living in harmony with nature interested me, taking what you need and nothing more,” explains Engelbrecht.

The importance of proper use of the environment first hit home during a camping trip in Namibia. “We made a bonfire at night,” he says, “not for warmth or cooking but because we could. The next day we saw an old Himba man with a small fire and I realised we burnt what he uses in a week”.

The biggest problem in the western world, he says, is how we have moved away from a holistic consciousness, from seeing ourselves as part of nature, to one where it needs to be conquered and dominated. This situation is likely the largest contributing factor to the global environmental crisis that humanity now finds itself in. To counter this, says Engelbrecht, “our main push is to rekindle a love of the outdoors. The best survival skill (of indigenous people) is to work with nature”.

“The long term plan is to take different people out of the city environment, put them in the wilderness and give them an alternative view of nature,” he says.

The philosophy driving the school is one that seeks to bring people back to nature in a way that they are not starry-eyed tourists giving them, instead, a grounding in the ways of surviving in the natural world.

We must remember, he argues, that “in each of us are certain instincts but they dormant, in the current context of global scarce resources, these things are important. We teach a holistic way of thinking about nature and survival. If you do one thing it feeds into another.”

Courses cover things such as survival psychology, knives, water, food, fire, shelter, navigation, creepy crawlies, as well as rescue procedure and survival kit. Eventually the school will cater for various levels ranging from basic weekend courses, highly specialised training such as military and pilot/air crew survival, and personalised programs, designed to suit the needs and natural environment of the students. So far Engelbrecht has run courses for students and some local schools.

The school is also linked to Hobbiton-on-Hogsback, an organisation that does social outreach programme aimed at underprivileged children and schools with a focus on outdoor activities and team building. Through providing complimentary activities groups leave with a more rounded experience.

One gets the sense that this process of learning about going back to nature has been a spiritual journey leading to the establishment of the school. “The ironic thing,” says Engelbrecht, “is that most of these (survival) skills have been forgotten here (in Southern Africa) and I have had to travel very far to learn them. I am interested in recovering these lost skills”.

Smiling, he recalls “the first time I got fire with a fire stick it took me four hours. When I saw flame I felt what the first human must have felt, but here I am in the twenty-first century. I thought to myself, this is it! If I can share this knowledge with someone else and they can have that feeling, great.”

Partner in the process of building the school is Grahamstown local Siyabonga Mthathi (21). Mthathi is co-facilitator and responsible for teaching students about Xhosa culture. With time Engelbrecht hopes to train Mthathi up to a level where he will facilitate for Xhosa-speaking groups. The school’s aim is not to be exclusive but to educate people of all ages, backgrounds and racial groups as environmental issues are a universal human concern.

Fairview owner, Len Kruiskamp, says that the presence of the school at Fairview would add depth to the farm’s existing offerings and provide a valuable service to the entire Grahamstown community. “From my point of view it is a facility that Grahamstown needs and with the Hobbiton connections it gives added opportunity to underprivileged kids which they don’t have at the moment.”

In parting Engelbrecht quotes from a book on “participating in nature”. His challenge is simple, “the more you know the less you need to take with you. Then you go out and melt into nature”.

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Video:                                                            FIRE IN A FLASH - hand drill friction fire method 

Advanced Survival Course 24 August 2011:       Navigation
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Thursday, 5 July 2007

Trouble in the rite

“Are we achieving anything by looking at manhood in the way we are doing?”

This is the question posed by Zweliyanyikima Vena an inkhankatha (traditional nurse) who practices in and around Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. Vena is a small man but great in presence, stature and in the way he wears his ubudoda (manhood). As a Xhosa, Vena’s manhood is one of the most important things to him personally and his identity as a Xhosa. He is only a man today because he under went the traditional rite of passage from ubukwenkwe (boyhood) to ubudoda inside of an initiation process involving circumcision. For this Xhosa this is the only way a boy will ever be a man. Further, to become a man is to leave behind the carefree life of a boy and take on the responsibilities of adulthood. A boy may not marry, inherit from his father, attend council meetings or be heard, and more generally is prohibited form entering into full community membership.

As indoda makhulu (elderly man) Vena’s duty to his community is to safeguard it and serve as a model of manly behaviour to its men and boys. As a traditional nurse his duties are greatly extended. Every of June and December thousands of Xhosa boys “go to the bush” to being their transitions to manhood and so being a new life as men. Vena’s role in the process is as warden of the seclusion lodges where the process takes place. His job is to ensure the abakhwetha (initiates) are safe throughout, that the healing process is done properly and monitored, that discipline is kept and, most importantly, he is the first source of the many teachings and instruction in manhood.

“It is important for boys to know who they are.”

This is where the moral, spiritual and cultural teachings of the ritual are key. They are the means by which the importance of positive masculine behaviour is imparted. It is the way an age set (group ) is formed and cemented through collective experience and a cultural means of ensuring both group solidarity and purpose. Those circumcised together will think of each other as peers, and more importantly brothers. They will support each other and also discipline those who are seen to cast a shadow on the practice of manhood. In this way a man will have a support group all his live, one that will help him fashion his manhood and he, in return, theirs. A function of this collectivity is to create harmony amongst men and so reduce conflict. This is in stark contrast to many western settings where manhood and masculinity are driven by competition and struggle.

The experience of the ritual is physical and serves as a reminder of significance of the process at work as well as being proof that one has actually undertaken the journey. However, the physical process is not the focus of the ritual, it is the means by which the psychological or moral aspect is meant to take effect. The training toward full community membership happens from birth and this socialisation continues well into adulthood with the transition to manhood a key step in the process.

“We groom the child into the traditional ethic and the child has to grow up being proud of his clan, his family and in himself as a black man.”

While the rites of passage are meant to change an individual’s status, role and responsibilities in his community it is not the end of the process. Manhood is conferred but it is not immediate, instead it is a life long process of self development. Vena explains the process in its evolutionary stages:

Ikywala – The grooming phase – Newly graduated “raw” man

Iyafana – Young man – He looks like a man

Indodana – He is beginning to build (mental) muscles, to behave responsibly

Iqina – He has gained strength (in his manhood)

Ubudoda – He can now sit and discuss with the elders, be delegated tasks without supervision

Indoda makhulu – He must now look after his community

However, the question asked by Vena in the beginning is a sign that things are not well. The ritual is increasingly being associated with death as each season brings with it more deaths. Added to this is the seeming social breakdown in South Africa which has brought with it a climate of violence perpetrated by men against women, children and the weak (rape, domestic violence, murder), behaviour that is deplorable in traditional thinking.

“Today the men in our community are so westernised. They don’t realise they have a culture of their own that has to be held.”

“For lack of education, the young man is found wanting in many ways.”

The lack of connection to ones roots has had a destabilising effect as have the widespread socio-economic conditions (historically, politically, and socially rooted) that have created an environment in which some men have become absent fathers, abusive husbands/fathers/brothers/uncles, robbers, murderers and rapists. The drive towards individualism – as a result of both the breakdown of culture and community as well as global pressures toward individualistic behaviour and self-motivated consumption – has damaged cultural institutions such as rites of passage and have left men outside of structures that inform their identity as men.

“From 1976 the community morals have changed and we need to put our house in order”.

Vena concludes saying that all is not well. Men today are not as they were before. Something is missing. In the past unruly boys were changed in the bush and yet now it seems as if those same boys are coming back men while not fully leaving boyhood behind. Speaking rhetorically, he asks of a boy about to undergo his passage today:

“Is his manhood going to be meaningful? Is he going to define his manhood properly?”

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Individualism and collectivism: the problem of men

The traditional round, mud hut stands on the edge of the village. A small way further and the rolling hills of the Transkei, on which it stands, fall off into the Indian Ocean. It is symbolic of the role which the structure plays in the ritual that is in process inside.

Entering the hut, the nose is filled with the smell of dried grass and smouldering logs. The eyes take time to adjust to the dim, smoke filtered light before the sense experience begins again. Inside it is dark with an accompanying quiet. Deep brown walls provide a stark background for three white-ochre painted bodies who sit naked on blankets, their month old circumcised penises, tightly wrapped and bound to the waist, exposed.

Their ghostly appearance is again symbolic, as is their newly cut manhood – a sign of the transition to ubudoda (manhood). The abakhwetha (new initiates) are liminal; they are no longer boys, not yet men. Their seclusion keeps them away from the community that has, will, shape and give meaning to their lives when they return home as amadoda (men). A month ago they were abakwenkwe (boys) and all they can think about is coming home, the start of a new life, new responsibilities, through the practice of ubudoda.

Each umkhwetha (initiate) is on an individual journey. He is not, however, alone because the transition is a shared one, in fact his journey makes no sense outside of the greater whole. He is walking a path that his father, grandfather, and fathers before them have walked and so his passage is as much of the past as it is the present, and even the future; the journey his sons and their sons will have to make if they are to become amadoda.

This is the “rite of passage”.

An important addition to the above is the very different worldview of another. The ties that bind, those primary ties that bind this individual to the group, are long broken:

"I am a product of western, Enlightenment individualism through which I am “free” in determining and choosing my associations and affiliations. Yet, in being free I lack that belonging to kin, group, or community that shapes and gives structure, collective meaning, to the individual’s life."

"I am also a man. I am a man though I am not sure how and when this became so. I am a man because my culture has lost its rituals to make it so. I am a man not through rite but because the words man and boy no longer denote some important distinction. The boundary between the two is no longer of some greater significance, it is porous and I have managed to slip through. (My passage was not achieved through rite, nor was it my (cultural) right). As such I have nothing to show for this change and cannot identify that thing that makes this difference, between boyhood and manhood, so. I still feel very much a boy sometimes, ill prepared to face the world. There is much fear in me that I do not, must not, make shown, “cowboys don’t cry” after all."

"I am a hegemon. I wear a skin of bright white privilege, a sex that is not of the fairer kind and am classed in a way that makes me a member of a small, global elite. Oh, and I am compulsively heterosexual. Any talk of privilege is addressing me in part or as an archetypal whole. In looking at hierarchies (of privilege) in these categories of being, I am associated with the hegemonic in them all. Such a subject position allows me access to privileges denied others (those crudely classified as women, blacks, the poor, homosexuals) and enjoyed by the few; this is not because I have earned them in the sense of having laboured for them but because my physicality is the marker of such privilege."


The two above passages paint very different pictures. The individuals in both are shown as very one dimensional characters, products of their environments and particular histories but little more, and yet inside of these two passages we can begin to get a sense of the multi-layered histories, environments and contexts that has shaped them. The first is a snapshot of the world of three Xhosa abakhwetha during their rite of passage to manhood. While this process is gendered – boys becoming men together – it has a larger importance than the mere making of men, it is a process through which boys are invited to create a selfhood, find a way of being that best serves the individual and his particular social world.

The second is an essentialist rendering of one who is fully individuated, a man who is also in transition inside of the personal project of confronting the self toward finding a way of being that involves a more positive expression of manhood, selfhood. An essential process after the realisation that the models or ideals of masculinity he has been socialised into (through the gendered institutions of the family, culture, school, sport, the media and so on), that make claims on this troubled conscious, are not only oppressive of others but more importantly himself. The commonality in these rites of passage diverge here however, as the resources this individual has at his disposal are very different to the ones used by the abakhwetha in their transition to manhood.

Why do they diverge? Well, from the shared common ground of being men in the world the commonality diverges as it is shaped by the forces of worldview that exert themselves on differing consciousnesses and, ultimately, shape their social worlds.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Individualism and collectivism explored

The collective

A useful conceptual framework that helps articulate that feature of collective life on which group social structure and its functioning is predicated can be found the writing of RenĂ© Girard. Girard (1972) sees society, culture, as having an inherent order which he calls “degree”. Within a culture the individual’s place is clear to him or her because that culture dictates roles for its member – father, daughter, uncle, chief, warrior, labourer, medicine (wo)man, etc. This order makes social meaning possible because the individual comes to understand him/herself in relation to others through the structures of culture. Girard says that:

"‘Degree,’ or gradus, is the underlying principle of all order, natural and cultural. It permits individuals to find a place for themselves in society; it lends a meaning to things, arranging them in proper sequence within a hierarchy; it defines the objects and moral standards that men alter, manipulate, and transform" (1972: 50).

Degree then is something that, to borrow from Mbiti (1967), “largely governs the behaviour, thinking and whole life of the individual in the society of which he is a member” (1967: 104). This feature is such that:

“Only in terms of other people does the individual become conscious of his own being, his own duties, his privileges and responsibilities towards himself and towards other people. When he suffers, he does not suffer alone but with the corporate group; when he rejoices, he rejoices not alone but with his kinsmen, his neighbours and his relative dead or living…Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual. The individual can only say: ‘I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am’. This is the cardinal point in the understanding of the African view of man.” (1967: 108-109)
Mbiti’s plays cleverly on Descartes’ concept of “I think, therefore I am” – probably the best known articulation of individualist being – by presenting what might be seen as the collectivist equivalent. The individual inside of the collective has no meaning, no degree, outside of his/her group and so that individual’s sense of self is tied to into this belonging; while the individualist thinks and so becomes a self, the individual in the group is gains selfhood through his/her relation to others.

The simplest expression of the collectivist logic can be found in the Xhosa phrase umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu (a person is only a person through people) or ubuntu.

The individualised
Psychoanalyst Eric Fromm’s (1942) book Fear of Freedom is a comprehensive work which looks at the forces that gave rise to the individual and the consequences (social, economic, political and psychological) of this process. The starting point of the book is the social, economic, and political changes that took place in Europe, beginning in Renaissance Italy in the 14th century, that resulted in both physical and psychological shifts inside these European societies that ultimately gave birth to the individual.

In short, the breakdown of traditional (collective) social organisation through the changes in the cultural, political and economic order (towards capitalism) lead to the decline of fixed social positions and cooperative interaction, all of which gave rise to widespread competition and the birth of a new kind of individual; one whose success or failure was determined by individual capacity and willingness to succeed through the accumulation of wealth, status and power. Such a setting eroded much of the cooperation and collective purpose that existed before and helped pit one self-serving individual against another. For Fromm this societal development finds its roots in the emergence of the capitalist economic order in which the economics, and following from this the social, religious and political, of Europe changed from an ordered (read Degree) system inside of which collective operation was common to one in which this order was replaced by free market and individualist operation. Thus was the individual born.

The individualist mode of being has been the dominant one influencing recent world history (through imperialism, colonialism and now globalisation and capitalism) which has had an unsettling effecting on traditional structures, organisation and gender regimes. The impact on men inside of both modes of being has made men and masculinities problematic globally. Men are increasingly vulnerable, isolated and self-interested, as informed by individualistic ways of being, often with negative outcomes.

Among the amaXhosa, for example, an individual’s place in society is clear, a man is a man and a boy a boy, each with their own place, role, and responsibility within Xhosa society. Ritual is illustrative of these positions as the rite of passage is the process by which degree is adjusted in the transition from one clear status to another.

On the other hand, those who are fully individuated are often in a situation where the primary ties (family, community, culture, etc.) are broken in that they have little to no obligations to those they would normally be bonded or responsible towards. Instead they choose their associations based on wants and needs, they do not identify with a particular culture which gives meaning or direction to social life, the main binding association being based on the modern-day contract. Such people tend to be a product of the amalgamation of a range of diverse, different, and even contradictory influences and ideas. In short, they can lack a strong sense of degree, a state that allows they unlimited "freedom" in movement and in what they are allowed to experiment or engage with, the ability to make and unmake themselves as and then they choose, but this often leaves them with feelings of loneliness and without a concrete sense of who "I am" or how to be.

It is much like the ship that shed its own anchor in an attempt to become free, but then finds itself at the mercy of an utterly indifferent sea...