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Jo'Burg Days: The Amakwedeni

Barbara Durlacher tells a tale about the dire effects of an African tribe's male initiation ceremony – a tale which regrettably is based in fact.

June, and the frost lay white on the grass. Nights were increasingly cold, with sub-zero temperatures and the wind blew icy from the east where snow lay heavy on the mountains. This was the season for the annual Xhosa initiation and frequently on their rides the children saw the small grass shelters of the amakwedeni, built by the boys as protection from the harsh weather. Every year, groups of young boys between the ages 12 to 19 were initiated into manhood by a 'teacher' and, as part of their instruction, they had to endure extremes of temperature, starvation, beatings and other tests one of the most important, being ritual circumcision. Only after they had completed the period of segregation from their families and recovered from their wounds, were they considered to be worthy to take their place alongside the adults and be accepted as men and responsible members of their society.

'They smear white clay on their faces and bodies,' said Mark as they trotted gently along the footpath up to the galloping plateau, 'people think it's to scare away bad spirits and tokoloshe. They sleep in small shelters of grass and only have one blanket, even when the temperature is below freezing, and after they've been circumcised, they're not even allowed to eat or drink anything, sometimes for as long as three weeks. Did you know that?'

'How awful, but don't they get hungry and thirsty, and what do they do there?' asked his sister Agnes, urging her horse in front of her sister Margaret's mount and glancing meanwhile at her cousin. Hetty always boasted that she knew all about the customs of the black people and what the Xhosas in the district did in their kraals.

'Oh, that's something that females are not supposed to know anything about,' interjected Mark, before they two girls could start arguing with Hetty, who was doing her usual overbearing 'big-sister' thing of knowing more than the others. She was eleven months older than the twins and always thought that she knew more than they did.

'Even though I've lived here since I was a baby and Dad's been farming in this part of the Eastern Cape since he was a boy, we still don't know much about what actually goes on at the initiation schools,' continued Mark. 'They're usually hidden deep in the bush, or in a wooded krantz, and it's forbidden to talk about them as that can bring bad luck and prevent the makwedini making a smooth transition into manhood. That's why the boys have to be kept away from everyone until they are brought back to celebrate with their families. It's a bit like our 21st birthday parties and getting the 'key to the door,' but it has a lot more spiritual significance.'

The horses picked their way through the waist-high grass, the grass bending horizontal as the wind off the snowfields increased. Nodding their heads up and down, their breath made clouds in the icy air as and they shook their manes, anxious to race. Then, reaching the galloping plateau, 'First to the black rock and back,' yelled Hetty as she kicked her horse into a gallop and swerved to block Mark as he wheeled his mount round to outpace her.

'Bliksem,' muttered Mark as she nearly unseated him with her dangerous manoeuvre, and timidly, Agnes urged her pony after them, still insecure on her mount as she had only been riding for a few months. Meanwhile, Margaret's horse dropped his head and nibbled the grass.

As for Hetty, she always swore that she could ride anything, and even talked sometimes of trying her luck on Pluto, the tame ostrich. He was a star attraction at the farm when they had bed and breakfast guests, when Ou Piet, the coloured stockman, put a sock over his head and, leaping from the safety of the split-pole fence surrounding the paddock, jumped onto his back for a crazy ride. Hooking his legs over the bird's wings, Piet grabbed a handful of feathers and the bird's neck as they careered along the path in the soft white sand, to the whistles and catcalls of the other farm workers. Hetty admired Piet’s audacious manner as he jumped on the ostrich’s back, and imagined herself doing the same, and now, astride the powerful horse, she felt she could easily outpace Mark. Bending low over the horse’s withers, she urged him on with cries as they neared the turn.

But Mark was the more skilful rider and had judged his horse’s pace and stride well. Turning skilfully at the black rock, he was already three strides ahead and fast extending the gap. Passing the twins' slow trotting, he made a final dash to the finishing point and pulled King up just as Hetty came stampeding along behind him. Then, as the little group trotted sedately home, they saw three figures emerge from a grove of trees. In the middle, supported by the other two, was a frail, youth, groaning and staggering.

‘Ask them what’s wrong Mark’ urgently suggested Agnes, and after a few minutes of rapid-fire talk in Xhosa with clicks, tstssts, and clocks dominating the conversation, Mark turned to the others and said, ‘They’re terribly ill. One has not eaten or had a drop to drink for days. He’s burning up with fever and his penis is so swollen he can hardly walk. The others are also pretty sick.’

‘You dash off and tell Uncle Hennie,’ said Hetty, immediately taking charge. ‘Tell him to bring the Landrover, some blankets, water and a foam mattress. We can lift him into the back of the car. The others can sit with him and I’ll see if I can get him to sip a little water. We must get him to the nearest hospital.’ The long road to the hospital was covered in record time and the sick boy was delivered into the care of the busy doctor and nurses.

Phoning some days later, it took Hennie Le Roux a long time to get any information. When he had all the facts, he sat back in dismay. ‘Another death,’ he exclaimed, ‘that’s the fifteenth this season; these boys are going down like ninepins. I’ll have to talk to Jonas and get him and the other men to work with me to find out what’s going on.’

Weeks later, they had all the facts. Against all the rules, as well as the community’s long-established practice, a new ‘teacher’ had come to the district. He had recruited the young boys with promises of gifts and enrolled them in his initiation school. Working with one razor blade as he moved from patient to patient, he had circumcised the boys, beaten and tortured them, demanded their money, stolen their clothes and shoes, and kept them starving and thirsty. Feeding them nothing but terrifying tales of tokoloshe and animal spirits, he imprisoned them in an old barn, and refused them food and water. They were too terrified to leave when he drove around the district looking for more boys to bring into his group.
‘The boy you found was suffering from starvation and pneumonia. He was in terrible pain with an infected penis. We had to do a major operation to save his life. Poor lad, he’ll never be a father; indeed he’ll probably never be able to keep a girlfriend, once she finds out that he can never satisfy her,’ said the doctor when Hennie finally managed to speak to him. ‘The man is an unregistered practitioner and working quite illegally, without the knowledge of the community. He’s just in it for the money and has no real authority to act as a sangoma to the boys. We’ve informed the Police and they’ve arrested him and are questioning him. Its time they stamped out these practices. They are far too dangerous and too many young men are being maimed and injured for life in this way. It’s a great scandal that it’s been allowed to continue for so long.’

***

While this is an entirely fictitious story, the facts are as they are presented. Many young boys fall victim too easily to plausible ‘teachers’ who persuade them to join these illegal ‘schools’. The youngsters are so anxious to pass this one big test of manhood that sometimes they run away from home without their parent’s permission and they, and others frequently end up in the Emergency Wards in the hospitals, and many have to endure operations which change them for life. Sadly, unless the rural people can be given the proper counselling and advice, it seems that small-scale initiatives to help the families can have only limited success, but the authorities are aware of the problem and are doing all they can to counter this dangerous scourge.

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