The Tradition of ulwaluko and Xhosa Women: On the Rite of Passage of Xhosa Boys into Manhood

FILE - In this photo taken Saturday, June 30, 2013 A Xhosa boy covered with a blanket and smeared with chalky mud sits in a field as he and others undergo traditional Xhosa male circumcision ceremonies into manhood near the home of former South African president Nelson Mandela in Qunu, South Africa. At least 60 males have died at initiation schools in eastern South Africa since the start of the initiation season in May, health officials confirmed. Thirty of them died in the Eastern Cape in the last six weeks, and 300 others were hospitalized with injuries. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam, File)

Public conversations on the tradition of ulwaluko are usually centred on male oriented norms for circumcision. It israre to hear the conversation geared towards what ulwaluko actually means to black women particularly within the Xhosa community.

Although unheard of in public conversations, Xhosa women actually have a significant influence on the self-perceptions Xhosa males hold on themselves and their desire for the tradition of ulwaluko. But the influence is generally not acknowledged and I highlight this side of the conversation for the purpose of shifting the gaze for a moment.

Ordinarily, it seems like a taboo to acknowledge that Xhosa women actually set the tone for the male machismo associated with the cultural importance of ulwaluko for Xhosa boys and men. And generally, Xhosa males will not publicly acknowledge this reality even as they know that Xhosa women are historically socialised against dating and marrying inkwenkwe, or even worse, to have a child with inkwenkwe.

While it is seemingly only the hierarchy of respect afforded among Xhosa males, it is actually also their value in the eyes of Xhosa women that makes them desire to go through traditional initiation.Xhosa women overtly state that they do not desire nor get into relationships with Xhosa males who have not gone through ulwaluko. And historically, it was even a taboo to have a child with a traditionally uninitiated Xhosa male, and rural Xhosa women reinforced this ideal to their daughters.

In their conversations about desirable relationships, Xhosa women talk about the concept of ubukhwenkwe, a state of social consciousness some Xhosa males embody as though they were not circumcised, as undesirable. Simply, ubukhwenkwe is an adolescent state of social consciousness associated with a lack of social responsibility and respect for family and community wellbeing. When embodied by supposed to be traditionally circumcised males, it means that the consciousness of ubukhwenkwe has not been eradicated in the ritual processes of ulwaluko.  And Xhosa males who behave as such are seriously frowned upon by Xhosa women and the community in general.

It is important to note that the tradition of ulwaluko is as old as ancient Egyptians. But over time, Africans adopted and adjusted it according to their social and environmental changes. For ancient Egyptians, for example, the primary focus was the necessity of circumcision for hygiene purposes. From this understanding, medical circumcision can be qualified as a practise rooted in ancient Egyptian life.

Although it is primarily associated with amaXhosa in southern Africa, the tradition enjoys wide appreciation by Africans in their different ways of practices. The fact of it being strongly associated with amaXhosa is because of the historical and cultural processes of initiation in the Eastern Cape. But the Sotho people for example also have an elaborate and cultural circumcision practice but they are not identified as much with the tradition as amaXhosa. While the practice has shortened to one month in theXhosa community, Sotho initiates take two months to go through initiation.

Even though it has shortened to one month and two times a year, ulwaluko is still a central rite of passage for amaXhosa in the social transformation of boys to take up family and community responsibilities –as culturally matured men. Ideally, the cultural transformation process ought to make them embody completely different values that show respect for themselves and towards others in the family and community. But the results of the process rest on the initiates’ individual circumstances.

While the tradition holds a deep value for the Xhosa community, global changes have however set in motion challenges that place it under public scrutiny. One of these is the rise in the death rates of the initiates. The tradition’s contemporary practitioners have been criticised for not adapting with the changing social and environmental circumstances. Their maintenance of old practices in changing social and environmental landscapes has validated much of the criticism against ulwaluko and the voices that calls for it to be abandoned.

Historically, however, the success of the traditional practices depended on the social structure and organisation in the Xhosa community. The historical organisation and practices of amaXhosa were, however, severely affected by the introduction of colonial and apartheid eras’ land and labour migration policies. The pre-colonial land ownership structures and processes afforded the Xhosa community the luxury of conducting the ritual throughout the year and for longer periods such as six months. The social organisation of family life around land ownership allowed family and community members to fully participate in the processes.

This provided a network of family and community members that provided solid support in the initiation processes to guarantee successful social transition for the boys. With the land dispossessions, however, the community no longer had the primary resource that was the foundation of the tradition, and followed by the labour migration policies, the tradition further suffered with the disintegration of families and communities as fathers left for the mines while mothers also left for domestic work opportunities in cities. Consequently, the tradition no longer had its pillars of success, resulting in it being practiced twice a year, for a month, and with further government limitations on the use of the land.

So with the further consolidation of the global capital economy, the tradition is increasingly becoming an economic challenge for financially constrained families. To work around their familyfinancial constraints, and forcing their way into initiation, some boys have opted for a practice called ukuziba. Ukuziba is a practise where boys who want to go to initiation schools but lack the economic means, take the decision to force their way through and into initiation schools without prior arrangements with their families. Cash strapped, they place their lives in the hands of unscrupulous caretakers who do not take care of them as they ought to be. These boys aresome of those who lose their lives in the process of initiation while others are left mutilated.

Now with the increasing social and economic changes in the intensely globalising political economy, and the direct effects it has on family and community life, the tradition is further facing a challenge of complete collapse. In this context, what is the role of Xhosa women in it?  And how should Xhosa women now define desirable Xhosa manhood?

Lindiswa Jan Researcher & Masters Candidate Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cape Town