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Ulwaluko - a powerful social institution

By Nelvis Qekema | Aug 19, 2009 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

THIS is the season when we get reports about circumcision (ulwaluko) deaths. It is also the time when the custom is subjected to acidic public scrutiny.

Columnist and activist Andile Mngxitama has poured scorn on the custom in several publications. In one article he seems disgusted by the "slave mentality" that induces Africans to "kill young men in the name of a mythical and idiotic thing called manhood".

He suspects "this madness is the result of spiritual and material dispossession" that resulted in our "backwardness, fear, superstition and irrationality".

A belief system as an aspect of culture is a subject that has over time intrigued anthropologists. It is simply repeated, learnt and acquired behaviour that sometimes consolidates into rituals. These rituals need not be "rational" or scientific. Nor do they have to be "proven" in newspaper columns or academic platforms for them to be accepted.

Those who might have an affinity with imposing Karl Marx's statements where they least apply may be interested to find out why he never cut his beard.

Belief systems are critically important for group affiliation, social acceptance and self-affirmation. The rejection and social sanction against those who despise our way of life is what sometimes compels inkwenkwe to join his peers entabeni against the wish and readiness of his parents.

All societies have their share of "irrationality and idiocy". There is for instance nothing "rational" in shaking hands; covering your body for decency and walking naked on the beach; shaving your head and beard hoping to be handsome.

But no matter how idiotic it sounds, no American male candidate would win a presidential election with a face hidden under a forest of hair and beard. It makes me wonder if it is the same concept of rationality that makes males like Mngxitama not wear skirts.

Granted, some aspects of cultural practice could be dangerous. Yet the beauty of culture might be located in that very same quality. Some Europeans spend valuable time fighting and sometimes killing or getting killed by bulls. I have yet to hear someone screaming about the idiocy and cruelty caused to animals by this culture.

Car racing, rugby or boxing are all "dangerous" and perhaps "idiotic" sports. But "rational" people call not for their abolition but regulation. By the same token, stringent regulation and control of ulwaluko must be imposed to curb the deaths that have the effect of drowning the social importance of the practice. Amakhwenkwe are never meant to be killed at the mountain - ayadlangwa. If we were to heed the socially reckless call to abolish ulwaluko because of the "neglect and incompetence" visiting the practice, there would probably be no public hospitals today.

The cut is a small aspect of ulwaluko. It is a powerful institution in which you learn the values of ubuntu. There is a particular curriculum you go through to socialise you into a born-again and better man. The greater part of the education (indoctrination to detractors) is about respect for life and humanity.

You learn that there is no such thing as "my wife", but inkosikazi yakowethu. This is why you could never beat a woman, because whom you wished to be "your wife" was never yours, but part of the bigger family.

If our culture was harnessed we probably would not have had programmes like "16 Days of Activism Against Women Abuse". This education and values are imparted by amakhankatha and iincentse (elders), and this belies the malicious notion that the initiates are dumped and left to die at the mountain.

Ulwaluko is also where I learnt to be an African and umJwarha. I came to appreciate the knowledge of science by the indigenous people. Umkhwetha smears lime (calcium carbonate) all over his body. This substance has antiperspirant and deodorant properties, which account for why umkhwetha does not have a foul smell despite not washing for months. It gives you the sweet smell of the jungle which makes you welcome to the animal community. It also serves as a sun screen.

After the cut they never declare you to be a man. You are instructed to chant, "Ndiyidoda". The reason is that manhood is earned through putting to practice the good values you learned.

Sadly, Africans are often the first to attack their own value systems in such exaggerated viciousness as would make Verwoerd turn green with envy in his grave. Talk about slave mentality.

lThe writer is a former Azasco president and Azapo political commissar


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