“But what sort of man would that make?” the old Xhosa man asked, giving us a disdainful look. We were discussing initiation and circumcision and had got to the bit about the health risks when these procedures are performed in less than clinical conditions.
Tony Eweul of African Coastal Adventures explained that there were suggestions from the health authorities that circumcisions should be performed at clinics and hospitals. The old man was clearly not enamoured with the idea. It was our 6th day in the area and we had been searching for Xhosa initiates or abaKhweta to photograph for what seemed like ages.
It was only with great fortune that we had, the previous afternoon, seen 5 young men walking across the veld, the late afternoon sun reflecting orange off the white clay that covered their naked bodies. We stopped and chatted to them and their inKhankata or mentor and, later, after further discussions with their fathers, all were in agreement: we were allowed to photograph them! What followed was one of the most profound experiences of our lives.
But first a bit of background: The Xhosa people traditionally occupy the land in the Eastern Cape between the Kei River in the south and the Mtamvuna River in the north. The land along the coast is a land of rolling hills dotted with typical thatch and clay huts, deep tree-lined river valleys and spectacular cliffs bringing the land to an end as it meets the ocean. The large swells crashing onto the rocks below, sometimes bring with them a boat or ship. The coast is dotted with wrecks like the Jacaranda, the Oceanos, the Grosvenor and the Sao Joao! It makes one realise that this is not the place for inexperienced sea fearers should a storm come up!
Inland the former Transkei rises up into the mountains where it meets Lesotho. Here in the winter months the higher, snow covered peaks, provide endless fun for those into skiing and snowboarding.
One of the most important events in a Xhosa man’s life occurs in his mid to late teens when he goes through an initiation ceremony that marks his transition into manhood. It involves being circumcised along with a few of his contemporaries, spending time staying in a grass hut away from the rest of the community, living off the land and learning about the responsibilities of being a man from their inKhankata.
During this time, (the initiation may last as long as 4 months or as little as a few weeks) the young men, now called abaKhweta, smear their bodies with white clay and spend much of the time naked, covering themselves with blankets when the weather turns cold or when they are close to communities.
Several matters struck us very forcibly during our time of photographing the abaKhweta. There was a dignity and solemnity to the whole event that we weren’t expecting. The first time we photographed abaKhweta was near Coffee Bay and so keen were the young men to go through the initiation that they broke with tradition and ran away, undergoing the circumcision without their parents’ permission.
The family was very poor so there was no money for the celebrations or the goat that needed to be slaughtered and no time to build the grass hut so when they returned, one of the huts in the homestead was made available to them while a grass one was being built.
The abaKhweta seemed to be very proud of what they had achieved. They were sitting around the small fire burning in the centre of the hut, the air blue with smoke, wrapped in blankets (it was one of those chilly misty mornings) chatting away with the inKhankata as he tended their wounds, using herbs and other medicinal plants that promote healing.
The other occasion was on the graduation day of some abaKhweta in the Qora Mouth area. We had arrived at their little grass hut about 2 hours before first light to make the long trek, with the abaKhweta, the inKhankata, a few friends and a handful of assorted hangers-on down to the Qora River for the ritual washing, before the traditional burning of the grass hut and the graduation festivities began. We returned to find the fathers, other male family members, the surgeon who had performed the circumcisions and a few dignitaries sitting near the initiates’ grass hut.
The abaKhweta approached the group, slowly, chanting and with heads bowed in respect. The looks on the fathers’ faces were of pure adoration. The fathers then smeared their sons’ bodies with butter as part of the ceremony, fitted new penis sheathes to them and covered them with clean blankets.
The abaKhweta, who are now called amaRwala, faced away from the hut and after one of the fathers had set fire to it the young men walked away without turning back, symbolically leaving behind their boyhood.
We were left there with the burning hut, alone I thought. But after a while I noticed some amaKwenkwe (young boys) hiding in the thick grass watching with huge eyes as the hut went up in smoke. How long had they been there I wondered? What part of the ceremony that we had just photographed had they seen? I bet they were looking forward to the day when they to would be called abaKhweta. And I wondered if they were asking themselves what sort of men they would be?
CONTACT US TO NEGOTIATE A PACKAGE FOR YOUR SPECIFIC NEEDS
AFRICA MEDIA ONLINE MAY AMEND THIS POLICY AT ANY TIME. AMENDED TERMS SHALL BE EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY UPON THE POSTING OF THE REVISED POLICY AND ANY SUBSEQUENT ACTIVITY IN RELATION TO THE WEBSITE SHALL BE GOVERNED BY SUCH AMENDED TERMS. IF YOU DO NOT AGREE WITH ANY TERM IN THIS POLICY, PLEASE DO NOT USE THIS WEBSITE.
This Agreement was last revised on 31-03-2020.
Enquiries: Kate Dearlove
Note: Your password will be generated automatically and sent to your email address.