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And You Think Dating For You Is Hard: Male Adult Initiation Rituals in South Africa

August 29, 2011

Apparently, the women of Cape Town didn’t give Sanele the time of day. “It’s because I’m Zulu,” he lamented as we walked down the dusty road to a rugby tournament. “Most of the black women here are Xhosa. Without the Xhosa initiation ceremony, I am not even a man to them! At age eighteen!” He puffed out his chest. “They don’t care that I am good Christian.”

Larry and I shrugged. “That’s rough, man,” Larry comforted in laconic male fashion.

In South Africa, there are eleven official languages, and as many and more ethnic groups with distinct customs, cultural heritage, and collective consciousness. Everyone was South African, but nationalism wasn’t the strongest ‘ism’ binding people together, not by a long shot. In Cape Town, where Larry, Sanele and I were walking, the most common language group was Nguni Bantu, which includes both Xhosa and Zulu.

(To learn how to pronounce the Xhosa clicks correctly ‘click’ (get it?) HERE!)

However, those who identified as Xhosa far outnumbered the Zulu, at least in Cape Town. Sanele, as a Zulu man, was definitely in the minority. And though he could understand and speak Xhosa well enough (Zulu is to Xhosa what Quebecois is to French, or perhaps even more similar) his cultural heritage was different. Especially when it came to male initiation ceremonies.

Though accounts differ slightly (and there is a certain what-women-are-not-supposed-to-know factor) Xhosa boys graduate into men through male circumcision and ritual seclusion, usually happening when the boys are eighteen to twenty-three years old. Essentially, Xhosa boys in small groups are stripped of their youthful possessions, placed in a special hut, circumcised by male elders in the community and then stay in seclusion, fast, and become a man over a period of two weeks to three months. At the end of this period, they are transformed, leave the hut, wash themselves, burn the hut down in a symbology akin to a benign burning of your bridges, and take part in a huge feast, involving a goat. They are now men in the traditional sense, and are allowed for the first time to own property, marry, and officiate ceremonies. They also wear what modern, urban people would consider “old fashioned clothes”  including blazers and tweed and roaring twenties style hats. They wear these clothes for six months to display to the world their new status.

To read more (or differing!) accounts of this ritual, click HERE and HERE)

I was in the city of Cape Town in 2009; this practice was still prevalent, despite its modern, urban setting. Even brief online research reveals the depth of meaning that this ritual has for those who practice it:

Being a Xhosa man is very special and unique all because of the initiaion process. Nothing needs to be changed in what ever that is being done. As a tradional man i will have to teach my son the very same thing that i was thought starting from A-Z as my farther did. If im not giong to teach my son then who will?, i don’t want my son to be LOST and not know where he comes from (its all about roots).… I consider myself very lucky to be a Xhosa man that had gone trough the curcumcision ritual because some have’nt and they would really love to be made a Xhosa man.

So for Sanele, who as a Zulu, no longer had this custom (Zulus had a similar ritual, but it fell out of practice about 200 years ago), he would never be more than inkwenkwe, a boy to Xhosa women.  Bummer.

Larry and I were quiet for a moment. Then Larry asked, “Hey, did you ever consider dating a white chick?”

Sanele rolled his eyes and punched Larry gently on the shoulder. “I am desperate, but that is too desperate,” he said. He looked at me. “No offense.”

“None taken.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Bryan permalink
    September 1, 2011 4:04 AM

    Fascinating. 🙂

  2. November 18, 2012 12:49 AM

    How could any of this be better sttaed? It couldn\’t.

  3. Lara CH permalink
    July 16, 2014 8:08 AM

    Great article! Would like to talk to you RE the photo and rights/usage but can’t find an email address… any chance you could pop me an email:

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