S.Africa circumcision ritual: a dangerous route to manhood
Coffee Bay, South Africa | AFP | Naked, covered in white clay mud, and with his penis wrapped in leaves, Abongile Maqegu, 20, sits in a hut in South Africa recovering from his circumcision — a traditional ritual that can prove fatal.
For Maqegu, it has been a gruelling initiation test that marks his arrival as an adult, and the pain is an essential part of the experience.
“You must go through that pain to show that you are a man,” he told AFP outside the coastal village of Coffee Bay about 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Umtata in Eastern Cape province.
“We don’t even think of (getting) a medical circumcision because it is the easy way out. We laugh at those who go to hospitals.”
Maqegu is one of thousands of youths from the Xhosa ethnic group attending this year’s annual winter initiation schools across Eastern Cape province.
After his foreskin is cut off by a tribal elder using a knife, he is kept in the small thatched rondavel hut with two other initiates for up to four weeks, with a “bush doctor” present at all times monitoring their wounds.
The initiates are allowed no contact with women, and spend their time playing cards, applying mud and stoking the smoky fire to try to keep warm.
“If you go to hospital you are weak, you are not a man. Your wound must not be treated with Betadine (disinfectant),” Maqegu said.
“There is special traditional medicine for that and it heals fast.”
– Secretive ceremony –
He revealed tree leaves tied like a bandage around his genitals, which are also covered in a traditional healing ointment and held to one side by string.
The ritual is revered and guarded by the Xhosa people, but the unhygienic conditions — and abuse by some initiation schools — exacts a heavy toll.
At least 11 youths have already died during this southern hemisphere winter in Eastern Cape, according to provincial officials, while the government says several hundred have died nationwide in initiation schools since 1995.
Often the cause is infection from a botched circumcision, which can lead to penis amputation surgery.
Circumcision has also been demonstrated to be a powerful weapon in the fight against HIV, by helping to protect men from the AIDS virus.
But specialists — meeting in Paris from Sunday for a four-day forum on HIV/AIDS — remain worried about botched operations and poor hygiene.
Other risks include dehydration or maltreatment by initiation leaders, who conduct the secretive circumcision rituals deep in the mountains.