GEMMA GATTICCHI AND SAVANNAH PLASKITT
The release of John Trengove’s film The Wound has sparked controversy, as it centres on the secretive Xhosa rites of passage and the practice of traditional male circumcision. The highly contested South African film tells the story of a homosexual African man who returns to the rural Eastern Cape to be a mentor or a khaukatha to new Xhosa initiates. The film, which premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, brings to light the practices of ulwaluko and the concept of African masculinity.
The Xhosa ritual of circumcision is highly controversial due to the statistics detailing its medical risks. The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) conducted an intervention study in the Libode district in the Eastern Cape during the period of 2009–2013. They found that 453 circumcision initiates died during the period of June 2006 to December 2013 and 214 initiates suffered penile amputations in the Eastern Cape region. The HSRC also stated that dehydration, sepsis, and gangrene play a leading role in the cause of deaths among initiates.
UP Anthropology lecturer, Dr Fraser McNeil, explained these perceived risks: “This is about the construction of masculinity – this is about a much wider question. South Africa is a dangerous place to live, and we can trace these things to men being migrant labourers and going to work in the mines where there was a pretty big chance that you would get injured and die in the mines, so risky behaviour is a thing that’s associated with masculinity in this country, and perseverance is something that’s associated with masculinity as well in this country, so that idea that if you’re in pain and you’re struggling, you’re not meant to make an issue of it, that is symbolic of lessons for life as many things in initiation schools are.” A Xhosa fourth year LLB student, who wished to remain anonymous, explained this further, saying, “At the end of the day any rite of passage is to be viewed as ‘dangerous’ to an extent. Look at the Aborigin[al] rite of passage, then again look at North American tribes’ rites of passage. It’s surviving that risk that makes it even more of a life-changing experience for most [initiates].”
With calls to end an age-old tradition, Richard Bullock wrote
in Africa Geographic Magazine that “banning it is a ridiculous notion. Ukwaluka is fundamental to Xhosa life, but it’s not a rigid, inflexible ritual.” In reality the practice has conformed to contemporary notions by initiating the boys in a secluded area closer to home and for a shorter period of time. It must be remembered that the nation calling for the ban does not know much about this sacred tradition besides the statistics that come with it. Dr McNeill stated that “they [initiation rituals] are ways older men and younger men engage with modern society by connecting to their past. It’s not just about some imagined history, it’s a real way of expressing masculinity in a contemporary context.”
The Xhosa fourth year LLB student, who preferred to remain anonymous, said, “The rite of passage is still very important. I think people forget that originally the rite of passage itself was to pass down knowledge of our culture and our traditions from the elders to the younger boys. So understanding the context and where you fit in your culture is important. Look, nobody is forced to go through a rite of passage. But its significance in most people’s lives is outstanding – mind-sets change.” They went on to explain, “What most people don’t understand is that it’s a cultural rite of passage. Not everyone must know what goes on up the mountain, especially the fairer sex and outsiders. Among the many reasons is that you won’t understand because you’re looking in from the outside. This lack of understanding has people with uninformed opinions of which one can’t even explain to people, because it’s not supposed to be common knowledge. Talk to a Xhosa woman and to an extent they even understand the secrecy of what goes on up there. I’d ask people to understand that certain information cannot be public knowledge. Even though we’re in an information age, rites of passage aren’t for public knowledge. Yes, people sadly pass away, but we must understand that there are regional traditional leaders that deal every year with such things and initiates’ caretakers are consulted yearly to adapt to changing circumstances [and] health issues.”
The process of Xhosa initiation is usually a closely guarded secret which has led to the movie being viewed as a “betrayal of a sacred [rite] of passage tradition.” When asked about the
secrecy surrounding the initiation, Dr McNeil said, “There’s a hierarchy of knowledge here and youngsters can only go through the rite of passage because people at the top of this hierarchy have got knowledge they are trying to give to the people down below.” He went on to explain that “it takes on more significance than just being a body of knowledge – it starts to become a way in which you can really maintain masculinity in a wider context of crisis.”
Dr McNeill said that the questions that we ask and the way we ask them reveal a lot more about where we come from as people, instead of what we try to find out about the actual topi c. He went on to ask if we are really that different if we all engage in risky behaviour.
Trengrove said in an interview with City Press that he doesn’t believe there is anything exploitative or exposing about the culture in the film. Trengrove went on to say, “I think we’re actually speaking about something really important about the culture that clearly isn’t being discussed enough.”