SOUTH AFRICA: Mthetho Tshemese, “All you hear about are the deaths, the injuries, the botched circumcisions"

"In the media, all you hear about are the deaths, the injuries, the botched circumcisions"
JOHANNESBURG, 11 September 2012 (PlusNews) - Mthetho Tshemese is a psychologist from South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, the traditional homeland of the country’s Xhosa community, in which traditional circumcision marks a boy’s transition to manhood. Tshemese is also a featured author in a new book about HIV and gender, (Un)covering Men, in which he writes about this traditional, and controversial, initiation.

Tshemese spoke to IRIN/PlusNews about writing about the tradition, one he underwent himself.

"Being a Xhosa man from the Eastern Cape, what punctuates our masculinity is ‘Abakwetha’, or traditional initiation. In the media, all you hear about are the deaths, the injuries, the botched circumcisions… I knew what was happening beyond what was being reported so I wanted to do stories that were different, but also gave some aspects of what happened during initiation without breaking the traditional codes [that prohibit men from speaking about what happens during the process].

“Sometimes people say this thing is terrible. It’s barbaric. It should be abolished. It is terrible that young people should die [during traditional circumcisions]. They shouldn’t be dying, and I’m quite angry about that… As a country we haven’t dealt with unemployment; as long as that remains, we must expect people to take chances with people’s lives [by opening up illegal initiation schools].

"But, just for interest’s sake, there were about 42,000 young men in the Eastern Cape who went for initiation in last year. There were six deaths and about a hundred or so hospitalizations…so I looked for someone who was doing this very well. I met a gentleman by the name of Andile Qwanyisa, an amazing guy who’s been looking after initiates since 1986 - no serious hospitalizations, not a single death.

“Something that’s taken as a given is that women have no space whatsoever when it comes to initiation, which is actually false. I interviewed a lady who’s been one of the pioneers in making traditional circumcision is safer. She knew even more about some things than I did, and I’ve been to initiation school.

“I visited some of the [initiation school] sites, and they had been given names like ‘Iraq’ … after conflict areas, which was interesting… I spoke to young men who had healed following their circumcisions. One of the first things they said was, ‘We want to go home and test out our “Mercedes-Benzes.”’ That shows how they were thinking about things. I remember one boy making a joke, pointing to another boy saying, ‘Yours is a Corolla.’

"For me, the process refined what I really want to do for a lifetime - working with young men in the Eastern Cape so that they have the space to reflect on the kind of masculinities they want to embrace. I’ve started a programme at my old high school where we are trying to bring boys in and talk to them about sex and HIV prevention. For me, there comes a time even though we embrace rituals about who we are. We have to start thinking about what that that means for us as individuals because all the things we do as men, we do mostly in our individual spaces.”


Theme(s): Gender Issues, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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