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?”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting piece. Sounds like there are a lot of challenges and problems with men in South Africa at the moment, definitely confirms what I have read in the papers.