When I was sixteen, the regent decided that it was time that I became a man. In Xhosa tradition to become a man; this is only achieved through one means only: Circumcision. In my tradition, an uncircumcised male cannot be heir to his father’s wealth, cannot marry or officiate in tribal rituals. An uncircumcised Xhosa man is a contradiction in terms, for he is not considered a man at all, but a boy. For the Xhosa people, circumcision represents the formal incorporation of males into society. It is not a surgical procedure, but a lengthy and elaborate ritual in preparation for manhood. As an Xhosa I count my years as a man from the date of my circumcision.
Early in the year, we journeyed to the two-grass huts in a secluded valley on the banks of the Mbashe River, known as Tyhalarha, the traditional place of circumcision for Thembu Kings. The hut were seclusion lodges, where we were to live isolated from the society. It was a sacred time; I felt happy and fulfilled taking part in my people’s customs and ready to make the transition from boyhood to manhood.
We have moved to Tyhalarha by the river a few days before the actual circumcision ceremony. The lodge was near the home of Banabakhe Blayi, the wealthiest and most popular boy at the circumcision school. He was an engaging fellow, a champion stick-fighter and a glamour boy, whose girlfriends kept us all supplied with delicacies. Although he could neither read nor write, he was one of the most intelligent amongst us. He regaled us with stories of his trip to Johannesburg, a place none of us have ever been before. He so thrilled us with tales of mines that he almost persuaded me that to be a miner was more alluring than to be a monarch. Miners are mystique; to be a miner meant to be strong and daring, the ideal manhood. Much later, I realised that it was the exaggerated tales of boys like Banabakhe that caused so many young men to run away to work in the mines of Johannesburg, where they often lost their health and their lives. In those days, working in the mines was almost as much of rite of passage as circumcision school, a myth that helped the mine owners more than it helped my people.
The night before the circumcision, there was a ceremony near our huts with singing and dancing. Women came from the nearby villages, and we danced to their singing and clapping. As the music became faster and louder, our dance turned more frenzied and we forgot for a moment what lay ahead. At dawn, when the stars were still in the sky, we began our preparations. We were escorted to the river to bathe in its cold waters, a ritual that signified our purification before the ceremony. The ceremony was at midday, and we were commanded to stand in a row in a clearing some distance from the river where a crowd of parents and relatives, including the regent, as well as handful of chiefs, and counsellors, had gathered. We were cladded only in our blankets, and as the ceremony began, with drums pounding, we were ordered to sit on a blanket on the ground with our legs spread out in front of us. I was tense and anxious, uncertain of how I would react when the critical moment came. Flinching or crying out was a sign of weakness and stigmatized one’s manhood. I was determined not to disgrace myself, the group, or my guardian. Circumcision is a trial of bravery and stoicism; no aesthetic is used; a man must suffer in silence.
To the right, out of the corner of my eye, I could see a thin, elderly man emerge from the tent and kneel in front of the first boy. There was excitement in the crowd, and I shuddered slightly knowing that the ritual was about to begin. The old man was a famous ingcibi, a circumcision expert, from Gcalekaland, who would use his assegai to change us from boys to men with a single blow.
Suddenly, I heard the first boy cry out, “Ndiyindoda!” (I am a man!), which were trained to say in the moment of circumcision. Secondly, I heard Justice’s voice strangled to pronounce the same phrase. There were now two boys before the ingcibi reached me, my mind must have gone blank because before I knew it, the old man was kneeling in front of me. I looked directly into my eyes. He was pale, and though the day was cold, his face was shining with perspiration. His hands move fast the seem to be controlled by an otherworldly force. Without a word, he took my foreskin, pulled it forward, and then, in a single motion, brought down his assegai. I felt fire shoot through my veins the pain was as intense that I buried my chin into my chest. Many seconds seem to pass before I remember the cry and then I recovered and called out, “Ndiyindoda,”
I looked down and saw a perfect cut, clean and round like ring. But I felt ashamed because the other boys seemed much stronger and braver than I had been; they had called out more promptly than I had. I was distressed that I had been disabled, however briefly, by the pain, and I did my best to hide my agony. A boy may cry; a man conceals his pain.
At the end of our circumcision; the lodge and all their contents were burned, destroyed our last link to childhood and a great ceremony was held to welcome us as men to society.