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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[edit]

Initiate with complications being 'rescued'

At least 853 initiates have died from complications resulting from the ritual since 1995. Accurate statistics are not available for the number of circumcisions, 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]


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'.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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".[12]


  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. ^ Zvomuya, P. (18 July 2009). Tackling the matter head-on. Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  10. ^ Malan, M. (25 March 2014). Man severely beaten for speaking out about his penis amputation. Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  11. ^ Feni, L. (11 January 2014). Outrage over graphic circumcision website. Daily Dispatch. Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  12. ^ Film and Publication Board (2014). Media release on ulwaluko.co.za. Retrieved 28 March 2014.

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