Is There Place for a Scalpel in the Bush?

News  The Sowetan (Johannesburg, South Africa). Wednesday, 18 July 2001.

Makhudu Sefara


Circumcision Kills 28 boys

It's supposed to be a rite of passage when boys are ushered into manhood by the elders of their communities. This centuries-old tradition, handed down for generations, is now attracting unprecedented attention, but for all the wrong reasons.

Every year during the winter holidays, thousands of boys head to initiation schools, most of them of their own free will - but a minority under duress.

While most become men, others are not so lucky. Some die an excruciating death from septic wounds and many are maimed for life. Is this what the rite is supposed to be? And for those who survive the wounds, are their scars a memory they want to carry into adulthood?

The deaths at circumcision schools, especially during the latest school break, have cast a dark shadow across the practice once revered for turning boys into idolised men of reverence.

Botched circumcisions have cost 28 lives already, pushing what is supposed to be a secret practice into sharp public focus. The hardest hit provinces are Eastern Cape, Northern Province, North West and KwaZulu-Natal.

The initiation practice, once so sacrosanct that it was only performed by known practitioners approved of by a local chief, has in the recent past been infiltrated by unscrupulous mercenaries who, when faced with a shortage of initiates, simply kidnap youngsters. Those forcibly circumcised include children.

The practice has also come under fire from health workers, who say that unqualified traditional surgeons are performing the circumcisions and are botching them. Many initiates land in hospitals. Some do not come out alive.

The manhood of many boys becomes septic and they die, while others develop gangrene, a condition caused by a lack of blood flowing to the wound.

Traditional leaders and surgeons are unable to tackle certain problems of hygiene and to stop excessive bleeding. The weakened immune systems of many initiates spell doom for the boys who are usually stuck in the middle of nowhere far from hospitals.

South Africa has no policy to regulate circumcision and this makes it easier for chancers to spoil the party for those still doing it right. HIV- Aids now presents an even greater challenge to this rite.

In the wake of these challenges, shouldn't we be thinking about changing the way circumcisions are done, without losing their traditional value and costing lives unnecessarily? Can we make the procedure safer?

Dr Eddy Mhlanga, chief director responsible for youth and women's health in the Department of Health, says they have started encouraging people to use hospitals because they are safer than the mountains.

Mhlanga suggests that if people insist on following the age-old tradition, the surgical part, which is the cutting of the foreskin, should be done in hospitals or clinics. The other rituals can be conducted in the bush.

National House of Traditional Leaders chairman Nkosi Mpiyezintombi Mzimela says change is inevitable.

As long as culture is not changed just for the sake of changing it, we welcome the advancement of technology into the bush.

Mzimela's deputy, Morena Matheadira Mopeli of the Free State, says culture is not rigid. In this era of many deaths and killer diseases, we cannot fold our arms when confronted with problems that seek Western-inspired solutions to our African traditional practices.

Masodi Legodi, a mother from Rustenburg, says there is nothing more painful than sending your child to die at a circumcision school.

If technology permits, we should use it to advance our culture, she says.

Asked why people kept on sending their children to initiation schools, she says: It is a question of pride. It is about being African and having no regrets about it. But others do it because of societal pressures. Florence Dlangalala, who had her son Sizwe (13) rescued from an initiation school last year in Beverly Hills, Johannesburg, is more forthright.

These circumcision schools have outlived their purpose and should be closed down forever, she says.

There is nothing these boys learn in the mountains. They say they learn how to survive and become good people, when in fact they learn how to do crime and also rape us. Some of the principals are small kids who smoke dagga and drink alcohol. The result is that they cut more than they are supposed to. Enough is enough.

Other observers have questioned the value the rites have to children as young as 10. They will most probably have forgotten everything by the time they become men, cynics argue.

Mhlanga puts it more aptly: People must not resist change or else we are doomed. Do we want to have a nation that is traditionally correct, but with most men's penises fallen off as a result of surgical blunders in the mountains?

Or do we want a healthy nation using Western influences and technology to advance our traditional practice?

Dr Mamisa Chabula, a leading Eastern Cape expert on circumcision, says traditional leaders must still perform the practice, but only by those trained in surgical procedure.

But firstly I believe there should be pre-medical examinations to check if would-be initiates have any illnesses that may develop into complications. If they are detected early, they can be dealt with, says Chabula.

She says the use of a Taraklamp, a gadget that reduces bleeding during cuts, could be a solution.

While on a fact-finding mission to Malaysia, Chabula learnt that the use of the Taraklamp helped reduce excessive bleeding and prevented the contraction of hepatitis B, which causes cancer of the liver. She says the idea was shot down three years ago simply because it was made by a woman.

The Motherwell municipality and Eastern Cape government have recently begun to embrace the idea and no deaths have been recorded in Motherwwell since they started using the Taraklamp, she says.

Kgoshi Setlamorago Thobejane takes a dim view of attempts to alter culture to deal with modern influences. Thobejane says he is sick and tired of black people behaving like stooges of the West, thinking everything black and African is ill-fated.

Thobejane says when people die in accidents, hospitals or from Aids, nobody puts the West on trial.

But when 10 people die at an initiation school, we are pestered and put on trial. We try to adopt a no-death policy but almost always people die - just like they die at hospitals, says Thobejane.

He says the media has launched a witch-hunt against traditional leaders to appease its white bosses.

When I grew up, about 50 of the 70 people who went to a circumcision school in our area died. But nobody made a noise. Now that you (black journalists) go to white schools, you want to appease your white bosses at the expense of our tradition, he says.

People should not go into the practice for money, but for the love of it, he says. In that way, he argues, deaths are minimised.

Deaths at circumcision schools will remain a talking point and the Government cannot fold its arms. A national policy framework is needed to regulate this traditional rite.

Unnecessary deaths must be minimised. If culture is, indeed, dynamic, the practice must either adapt or die.

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