A traditional rite practiced in South Africa has left 23 male teenagers dead following the Xhosa Ulwaluko ceremony, which consists of circumcision plus an initiation into manhood.
The ancestral, yet lethal practice, is carried out in the South African province of Eastern Cape, where Premier Oscar Mabuyane has called for those responsible to be tried for murder.
The victims suffered from dehydration or sepsis from circumcision at the start of the ceremony, which lasts between two and six months. Almost a thousand young men have died from this rite since 1995, while another 2,000 have had their penises amputated. The summer initiation season still has a month to run.
Authorities had hoped the Customary Initiation Act of 2021 would help reduce the number of victims even Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu was against.
The winter season in June and July was cut short this year because of the COVID-19, with 19 initiates dying during the process. Initiation prepares young men for the transition to manhood through cultural teaching.
The process, known as Ulwaluko, is enthusiastically embraced by the Xhosa people, although it is known to happen all across South Africa. The circumcision is performed by a traditional surgeon known as incibi. The initiate is expected to show no pain and cry out “I am a man.”
Then the young man -thenceforth an Umkhwetha- spends a month of solitary healing before being sequestered in a hut with a group of others. They are taught values, principles, hardships, respect and accountability within cultural tradition. Once the process is completed, the hut is burned together with their boyhood clothing. An uninitiated man is called Inkwenkwe and may not attend tribal councils and other adult events.
The 2017 film The Wound depicts the hardships homosexuals who do not undergo initiation have to go through and former South African President Nelson Mandela has described the procedure in his autobiography A Long Walk To Freedom.
Initiates are strongly discouraged from talking about the rite. Parents, too, are reluctant to give evidence, which leads to inexperienced or dangerous incibi surgeons to continue the practice.
There is also initiation for women that begins after their first menstrual period.