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Abakhwetha (group of initiates)

Ulwaluko, traditional circumcision and initiation into manhood, is an ancient initiation rite practised by the amaXhosa. The ritual is traditionally intended as a teaching institution, to prepare young males for the responsibilities of manhood.[1] Therefore, initiates are called abakhwetha in isiXhosa: aba means a group, and kwetha means to learn. A single male in the group is known as an umkhwetha.[2] A male who has not undergone initiation is referred to as inkwenkwe (boy), regardless of his age, and is not allowed to take part in male activities such as tribal meetings.[3]


The initiation ritual is commonly conducted during June or December.[4] During the ritual process the traditional surgeon (ingcibi) severs the foreskin using an assegaai (sharp knife), after which he says "You are a man!" The initiate shouts in reply "Ndiyindoda!" ("I am a man!"). The foreskin is subsequently attached to the initiate's blanket. The period of seclusion that follows lasts about one month and is divided into two phases. During the first eight days the initiates are confined to a hut and the use of certain foods is restricted. This phase culminates in the ukosiswa rite, during which food taboos are released, marking the transition to the second phase that lasts a further two to three weeks. During these phases the initiates are looked after by the ikhankatha (traditional attendant). The termination of the period of seclusion commences when the boys are urged to race down to the river to wash themselves. The hut and the initiates' possessions are burnt. Each initiate receives a new blanket and is now called "ikrwala" (singular) which means new man or amakrwala (plural) (new man).[5]

Health concerns

Initiate with complications being 'rescued'

At least 969 initiates have died from complications resulting from the ritual since 1995. Accurate statistics are not available for the number of penile amputations, but it is estimated that their number is roughly twice the number of deaths.[6] Most deaths and complications are the result of incompetence on the part of traditional practitioners.[4] This is the reason why in particular Pondoland is heavily affected by deaths and complications. The amaMpondo practised the ritual until King Faku prohibited it in the 1820s after he had lost several of his sons from complications. Initiation schools re-emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, and the ritual is now being practised on a large scale.[7]

In January 2014, Desmond Tutu urged traditional leadership and government to intervene, and "to draw on the skills of qualified medical practitioners to enhance our traditional circumcision practices." He furthermore emphasised the cultural importance of the ritual as educational institution, preparing initiates "to contribute to building a better society for all."[8]

Medical treatment

Victims of failed mutilations have reported contemplating suicide due to depression and feeling deprived of their manhood [9] In December 2014, the world's first successful penis transplant was performed by a team led by Dr Andre van der Merwe. The patient was a 21-year-old man who fell victim of complications due to initiation rituals.[9][10] On 21 April 2017 a second penis transplant was performed by the same team of doctors led by Dr Andre van der Merwe on a 40-year-old man who lost his penis 17 years prior to the procedure.[11] Doctors have said that due to the circumstances surrounding circumcision, South Africa has become one of the countries with the greatest need for penis transplantation.[12]


Homosexual men in South Africa are still vilified and criticized by their communities. The ritual practise of ‘Ulwaluko’ may threaten the self-esteem of an homosexual young man. Some homosexual men who partook in this ritual reported doing so in order to receive personal validation of cultural manhood. Other reasons for partaking in Ulwaluko include fulfilling the desire to meet societal expectations as well as pressure from family to ‘convert’ to heterosexuality through the process of Ulwaluko.[13] The Film ‘The Wound’ premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and is inspired by Thando Mgqolozana novel ‘A man who is not a man’[14] which focuses on the experiences of homosexual men during ‘Ulwaluko’.[15][16] Xhosa traditional leaders criticized the film as being ‘disrespectful’, ‘undermining Xhosa culture’ as it showcased hidden traditions of the Xhosa people.[17] The film has been compared to the Oscar winning Moonlight.[18]

Modern day perceptions

Xhosa initiates after circumcision ritual

The ancient ritual of Ulwaluko is still perceived as relevant by young Xhosa men. Many are emotionally attached and find cultural significance in the ritual. It is perceived that the mortality and morbidity that is connected to ulwaluko is not significant enough to abolish the ritual.[19][20] Male circumcision is accessible in the hospital/clinical setting however, this option has not replaced Ulwaluko as it does not equate to the cultural meaning of Ulwaluko beyond the removal of the foreskin.[21]


Details of the ritual are not supposed to be disclosed to females or non-initiated males; according to the principle of 'what happens on the mountain, stays on the mountain'.[22] Cultural prejudice may be so great that uncircumcised or 'improperly' circumcised men are attacked and beaten for their lack of conformity.[4] In March 2014 a young man was assaulted after he had spoken out during a community meeting about the complications he sustained through the ritual.[23]

A Dutch medical doctor, who treated many patients with complications of the ritual, published the website ulwaluko.co.za in January 2014. The website gives detailed information about the problems accompanying the ritual and offers possible solutions. It also features a gallery of photographs of injured penises, which sparked outrage among traditional leaders in the Eastern Cape.[24] They demanded that the South African Film and Publication Board shut down the website. The Board however ruled that the website was "scientific with great educative value", addressing a "societal problem needing urgent intervention".[25]


  1. ^ Hunter, M. (1979). Reaction to conquest: effects of contact with Europeans on the Pondo of South Africa (First abridged edition). Cape Town: David Philip.
  2. ^ Hunter, L.H. Male Circumcision Ceremony – Initiation into Manhood. Ezakwantu.com. Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  3. ^ Kwekudee (2013). Xhosa people: South Africa's ancient people with unique traditional and cultural heritage. Blogspot.com. Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  4. ^ a b c Meintjes, G. (1998). Manhood at a price: socio-medical perspectives on Xhosa Traditional Circumcision. Grahamstown: Rhodes University.
  5. ^ Papu, J., Verster, P. (2006). A biblical, cultural and missiological critique of traditional circumcision among Xhosa-speaking Christians. Acta Theologica 2:178–198.
  6. ^ Rijken, D.J. (2014). Description of the problems accompanying the ritual of Ulwaluko. Ulwaluko.co.za. Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  7. ^ Bank, L. Between boys and men in Pondoland. Fort Hare Institute of Social and Economic Research. Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  8. ^ SAPA (9 January 2014). Intervene to stop initiation problems: Tutu. SABC. Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  9. ^ a b The South African Medical Journal. Volume 105 nr 4. Cape Town. April 2015.
  10. ^ Netto, Joseph (13 March 2015). "Doctors claim first successful penis transplant". CNN. Retrieved 15 March 2015.
  11. ^ Joshua Carstens (22 May 2017). "SEE: SA doctors perform second successful penis transplant". Health24.
  12. ^ Gallagher, James (13 March 2015). "South Africans perform first 'successful' penis transplant". BBC News. Retrieved 15 March 2015. 
  13. ^ A.Ntonzini, H Ngqangweni. Culture, Health & Sexuality. An International Journal for Research, Intervention & care. Volume 18, 2016. Issue 11
  14. ^ G. Hlongwane, K. Mtshali. Journal of African Identities. Mentoring, masculinity and reparation in Mgqolozana’s A Man Who is Not a Man.Volume 15, 2017 Issue 1.
  15. ^ J C. Lyden. The Journal of Religion and Film. Volume 21. Issued 1 April 2017. Article 14
  16. ^ http://www.torinofilmlab.it/projects/8-the-wound Torino Film Lab Retrieved 10 June 2017
  17. ^ S.Mzantsi. The Cape Times. Fury at festival film on Xhosa circumcision. 31 January 2017.
  18. ^ http://edition.cnn.com/2017/03/07/africa/the-wound-film-south-africa-john-trengove-nakhane-toure/index.html March 7, 2017
  19. ^ A.Ntozini, AA Abdullahi. Men and Masculinities. Sage Journals. First published June 6, 2016
  20. ^ A.Ntozini. Elservier. Procedia – Social & Behavioral Sciences. Volume 190, 21 May 2015. Page 135-138.
  21. ^ L.H Payne. Psychology in Society. Nr 52. Durban. 2016. On-line version ISSN 2309-8708. Voluntary medical adult male circumcision for HIV prevention in South Africa: The tensions between medicalised modernity and traditional practices
  22. ^ Zvomuya, P. (18 July 2009). Tackling the matter head-on. Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  23. ^ Malan, M. (25 March 2014). Man severely beaten for speaking out about his penis amputation. Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  24. ^ Feni, L. (11 January 2014). Outrage over graphic circumcision website. Daily Dispatch. Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  25. ^ Film and Publication Board (2014). Media release on ulwaluko.co.za. Retrieved 28 March 2014.

External links

  • The boys who lost their manhood – about young men who suffered from penile amputation due to complications of the ritual.
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