Witsies avoid initiation cut

SOME women students at Wits are being pressured by families to attend initiation school, forcing them to choose between their education and their culture—and possible “genital alteration”.

Two female students from Wits, one in her first year, the other in second, said they faced judgement and scorn from their families for choosing to stay at university rather than attend a “compulsory” initiation school in Venda. Both students asked not to be named for fear of being treated differently by their peers.

All initiation schools involve compulsory tests of virginity, during which elderly “gogos” look or insert fingers into the young women’s vaginas to determine if the hymen has been broken. Many also involve forms of “genital alteration” to make intercourse more pleasurable
to men.

The first-year student, currently studying politics, said her aunt accused her of not being a virgin and of engaging in premarital sex. She said her current “situation” was the main reason behind her reluctance, since these schools included a compulsory virginity test.

“They [the family] have accused me of trying to embarrass them. I’ve been told I will be a bad wife, because I am too headstrong,”
she said.

Both women said their families disapproved of their using their studies to avoid attending the school. Both were subjected to ridicule from their peers at home, as they were seen as “inadequate”.
“Sometimes I dread going to the village,” said one. “Some of the girls call us trees, just growing without discipline.”

“Some include training on how to please your husband both sexually and mentally … They teach a woman how to learn her place.”

She said the reason behind her reluctance to go to an initiation school is that she did not want to be “violated” with possible genital alteration.
Mercy Manci, a traditional healer and community activist from the Eastern Cape, said she knew of several initiation schools in
different tribes.

“These schools vary from tribe to tribe. Some include training on how to please your husband both sexually and mentally,” she said. “They teach a woman how to learn her place.”

Different forms of genital alteration were practised in different schools. “There is a practice where females are supposed to tug on the inner labia repeatedly until it stretches to a certain length and there is another where they are to squeeze and slice the clitoris in the middle. This ensures that the male genitalia does not slip out during sex and that the intercourse
lasts longer.”

However, not all initiation schools practised genital alteration, Manci said. The initiation can last anywhere from seven days to two weeks, starting with a compulsory virginity test. If a girl was found to be “whole” [a virgin] the old women would ululate, but if a girl was found to be “damaged”, the old women would sound their disapproval loudly.
The virginity test was then followed by teachings on behaviour in male company, reproductive health, sexuality and how to run a household. The women had to avoid certain foods during initiation since these were believed to arouse them. They had to eat traditional foods like umnqusho (samp) and sweet potatoes to “strengthen her endurance and core”.

During initiation, girls dressed in a certain way and painted their faces with clay. This signalled their unity with the ground and their ancestors. Each returned to her family for a graduation ceremony, after which they were seen as “ripe” and traditionally ready for marriage.

Female initiation schools are still a common part of the compulsory rite of passage into womanhood – some operating secretly and others publicly. They are meant to equip young women with “all that is needed in the journey to becoming a ‘good wife’.”

“They told me that if I don’t go then I won’t know how to handle my man.”

Tendani Makwarera, a Venda woman who once attended an initiation school, told Wits Vuvuzela the classes were designed to help a girl through the transition to womanhood and taught them how to behave in a marriage.
“I had to go when I was sixteen and it was compulsory. They told me that if I don’t go then I won’t know how to handle my man.”
She explained that she actually enjoyed the process, which lasted two weeks.

“When I look at the woman of today, they don’t have a long heart [endurance], which is why there are more divorces. When you look at the women who went there you see that they don’t divorce at all.”
Since she was the only girl in the family, she appreciated the lessons as she had no one else to teach her. She did agree that, initially, she was afraid of the older women who taught them since these women were said to do “funny things to you”.

Prof Robert Thornton teaches a course on ‘Sex, Culture and Society’ at Wits, which covers the area of Female Genital Modification, also referred to as Female Genital Mutilation, (FGM).
“Why it [initiation] raises so many questions is because it somehow opposes the popular, scientific culture that says that sex is somehow natural rather than cultural,” he said. “In fact in reality, we do have to learn how to do sex.

We have to learn how to fulfil those roles, which is done one way or another; either formally by the gogos and the rituals or fumbling about in the dark.”
He said the aim of these rituals was to legitimate the initiation, to give knowledge and validate the process of becoming a woman. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), FGM procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of new-born deaths.
According to the WHO website: “FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

“It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women.”

A snip in the bush vs a scalpel in bed

Edwin Makitla believes he would not be the man he is today if it were not for his experience at initiation school. Makitla first went to the mountain when he was 12 years old. He has been returning every year since then to be reminded of his teachings and to help usher other young boys into their new-found manhood.

Makitla says the initiation school he went to is professional and safe. He says the initiation schools in the rest of the country that he reads about in the papers every year are run by drunks, men who have no respect for true culture and tradition.

Black Joburgers forget who they are

He says black South Africans who move to big cities like Johannesburg forget who they are. They come to the city, follow “the things of white people” and then abandon what they have been doing for years. They forget their ancestors and turn to Western practitioners, whose medicine they believe in without question.[pullquote] “When you are an African man and you don’t go to initiation school, things will go wrong in your life. You will not succeed. This is cultural.”[/pullquote]

Every year, between May and August, the media zooms in on traditional circumcision and its failures that lead to the deaths of young men. Initiation schools and their associated cultures across the country come under the microscope of the media and South Africa.

Makitla says African men cannot “survive” without going through traditional circumcision. “When you are an African man and you don’t go to initiation school, things will go wrong in your life. You will not succeed. This is cultural.”

Other side of the coin
Rendani Ramovha, a Wits rugby player, says he went the medical circumcision route but was too young to remember it.
[pullquote align=”right”]”If you consider all of that, then I think if the ancestors really were angry at me, I would be dead.”[/pullquote]On the ancestors “getting angry” when black men don’t go to initiation school, Ramovha says: “I cannot comment on something that does not exist in my reality.”

Ramovha’s father denounced his chieftaincy when he was a young boy. He left the community and turned his back on his traditional background.
“If you consider all of that, then I think if the ancestors really were angry at me, I would be dead.”

Untrained traditional healers are the problem

Traditional healer Thifulufheli Nemavhulani says that in more than 30 years of working with traditional circumcisions he[pullquote]”You can’t just wake up one morning and decide that you are going to work with these things [traditional circumcision].”[/pullquote] has never had a complication. He attributes the problems at some initiation schools to people who do not respect their culture.

“People do not understand tradition. You can’t just wake up one morning and decide that you are going to work with these things [traditional circumcision].“It’s a delicate thing. You have to be called and trained to do this.”

Makitla says he believes that the initiation school he went to is good because there have been no deaths there for as long as he can remember.

He says traditional healers run the initiation school and, if any small complication occurs, there are medical doctors who have been circumcised traditionally on standby to assist.

Traditional circumcision makes “better” men
Makitla says he believes that the medical way can never be a substitute for the traditional route. He says he cannot imagine a woman nurse, in the hospital, circumcising him. To him, it makes no sense.

“It’s not just about being circumcised. We learn things there that we can never learn anywhere else. We leave having been part of a brotherhood of men united by the praise poetry we learn there and men who are strong and respectful.”

He says men who went to initiation schools are better than those who go the medical route.

Ramovha says he does not believe there is a difference between men who went to initiation schools and those who went to medical facilities for circumcision.[pullquote align=”right”]”At initiation schools men are different. They learn endurance. Even women prefer men who have been to initiation schools.”[/pullquote]

“What could they possibly learn there that I cannot learn throughout my life? It’s all about perspective. It’s about the way you programme your mind.

“If you tell yourself you are better than someone, even if it is not true, because you believe it is so then it will be. If you believe you are better men just because you went to the mountains then you will behave as such.”

Women like initiated men
Nemavhulani says men who go to initiation schools and those who go through medical circumcision are different.

“At initiation schools men are different. They learn endurance. Even women prefer men who have been to initiation schools.”