The rough gravel road to Jarha, a remote village east of Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape, is not where you would want to get stuck. In the mountainous region, with its patchy cellphone reception, you are unlikely to be able to call for help.
It takes about 30 minutes to negotiate the circuitous, weather-beaten track to get to the rondavel-dotted village of no more than 3 000 people set in the foothills of the mountains.
From the Jeke brothers' compound, you do not readily notice the small group of blanket-clad initiates, or abakhwetha, among the rocks, sunning – or even relieving themselves.
Because, despite running a well-respected, government-sanctioned initiation school, the brothers – Ramos, Phansikwakhe and Gcinikhaya Jeke – do not offer ablution facilities for their initiates.
"They can't go to my toilet," said Gcinikhaya. "What if my wife is there? I can't have her run into an umkhwetha."
They inherited the school from their father, who died in 1992, and it is touted as an example of best practice in the face of mounting deaths related to botched circumcisions.
Ramos said that, in December, they could take in up to 300 initiates.
Most of this season's reported deaths in the Eastern Cape – nearly 50 since June – have occurred in Mpondoland in the northeastern region of the province. Five initiates have had to have penile amputations and 300 have been hospitalised because of injuries related to circumcisions. The numbers are unprecedented, even for a province in which deaths related to ritual circumcision have been recurrent.
Descending the mountain in single file with their red-striped blankets covering their painted torsos, there is an air of dignity about the small group of initiates, who avoid contact with both locals and visitors.
There are seven, the last of the winter's intake of 36 between June and July.
The group files into a dark bhoma, which in this case is a solid mud building, not a makeshift hut, with windows but no furniture.
It's hard being a man
Spontaneous singing begins while they wait for a lunch of samp and sardines, which is served in large metal bowls.
"I will never hit a man because I appreciate what he has gone through", are the words of one song. Another, following immediately after the first, says that "it's hard being a man, I feel sorry for those who have to go to hospital".
The second chant is more disdainful than sympathetic and directed at those who voluntarily go the Western medical route.
Wandile Fana, a Comfimvaba-based newspaper publisher who has also worked as ikhankatha (initiation school nurse), said the stigma attached to those who had medical circumcisions could haunt them for the rest of the lives.
"My cousin did his initiation with a doctor's son," Fana said. "They had a ceremony where the doctor circumcised them and they had a makeshift structure behind the yard at the doctor's house under some trees.
History of initiation
"The people in his community frowned upon this, so he went to a traditional surgeon to get circumcised again. This wound became septic and he had to get amputated."
The causes of death, especially in Mpondoland, are linked broadly to the history of initiation in the area. The tradition was abandoned by King Faku during the Mfecane period and has never been officially reinstated by the current Mpondo king, Zanozuko Sigcau.
But these days, because of a greater intermingling of Xhosa-speaking groups, defining manhood in the area involves the question of whether one went to an esuthwini (an initiation school) or not.
Commercial brands are also weighing in. A peeling mural outside Dicks Tavern in Cofimvaba, about 150km southwest of Mpondoland, proclaims that the drinkers of Commando Brandy possess the "hallmarks of a great man" – a virile black stallion emphasises the point.
In the Eastern Cape, Commando outsells its competition. As one woman put it, no post-initiation ceremony is complete without it. It is also the preferred fine for an ikrwala (a graduate initiate) who fails a manhood test – a verbal confrontation known as ukudodisa, which insiders say is fast becoming the equivalent of the prison practice of ukuphakamisa inombolo, the recognised association with "numbers" gangs.
Unregulated and unregistered
Fuelled by the desire to be seen as legitimate men among their peers, truckloads of young Mpondo men have been flocking to unregulated and unregistered initiation schools in places as far as Matatiele and Mount Fletcher, some returning to hospitals, if they return at all.
Mothers are not told of their son's deaths until their fellow initiates return. They are greeted by their sons' clothing on their doorsteps and a chorus of mournful songs from their peers.
"We decided to engage further with the Mpondos, especially the young ones, to say it's not correct to go to esuthwini without the parents' involvement," said Ngangomhlaba Matanzima, head of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders. "The custom should be led and done by elders.
"It would appear that there has been some resistance, because the number of deaths is escalating. So we are talking to the amakhosi [traditional leaders] too.
"What is surprising, not just in Mpondoland but elsewhere in the province, is that children are not consulting the parents, and the iingcebi [surgeons] and amakhankatha [nurses] are young people and the methods they use are foreign," Matanzima said.
The interruption of the practice among the Mpondo-speaking people and its pressure-related resurgence among the youth has created intergenerational conflict and highlights the precarious position of women in many rural societies.
At an imbizo (meeting) in Lusikisiki in the heart of Mpondoland, Matanzima said, a widow related how she had sent her two sons to their uncle for advice on how to handle preparations for the ritual. The uncle said: "I didn't do it, your father didn't do it, my father also, so there's nothing I can say to you."
When the boys returned home she told them to go where the others were going and gave them money for the trip.
"People are saying the women are screwing things up, but which man can raise a man without the contribution of a woman?" the lanky Matanzima said. He lives in Qamata, a village outside Cofimvaba.
There are simmering tensions between the department of health and traditional leaders because of the health department's view that circumcisions have to be done by iingcebi trained by medical professionals.
'As a traditionalist, we don't agree with that kind of training. It's a foreign thing. But I understand the thinking of the government – they want to save lives.
"I met some of these boys [trained by doctors]. I would favour the approach of educating them about traditional practice. The law says initiates should be 18 and above, but it doesn't restrict the age of iingcebi.
"So it shows that people in general have lost the meaning of initiation. They are concentrating on the circumcision. In my experience, circumcision is just a part of it. The main part is about turning boys into men," Matanzima said.
According to Xhosa lore, a nurse or surgeon inherits the profession and a nurse must have been mentored by an older man versed in the practices and philosophy of the specific duty he has chosen to perform.
Those who have undergone initiation, or are familiar with it, say that changes to the ritual, its commodification and the ill discipline of the initiates, surgeons and nurses are responsible for the proliferation of deaths. Many occur as a result of dehydration, exposure to cold or complications arising from botched circumcisions.
Gcinikhaya Jeke said every traditional surgeon had to be registered with the department of local government and traditional authorities and every initiate should have medical clearance before attending an initiation school. Without a medical clearance, boys are not allowed on their premises.
"If he takes medication, we tie it to his waist so he doesn't forget to take it," he said, putting out a cigarette.
His elder brother Ramos said there was a degree of asceticism that went with his vocation, which he has been doing since 1989.
"In June and December I have to abstain from sex because I can't touch a woman and then touch the boys with those same hands."
They use spears to circumcise the initiates, sterilising the blade before each cut.
Each initiate pays R1 000 for a two-week stay, which includes food, shelter, the circumcision and "a curriculum", which the Jekes would not expand on, except to say that it involved teaching respect and leadership qualities.
Given the number of deaths and the shortened time the initiates are now spending at the initiation schools, debates are raging about how to modify the practice and the curriculum to make it more relevant to modern times and bring an end to the fatalities.
Dr Didekile Shasha, who has performed medical circumcisions on initiates since the 1970s, said the custom, especially in its original months-long form, was a hindrance if initiates were at school or a tertiary institution.
He said people had been mixing and matching African and Western practices for decades, which is what he advocates because medical circumcisions heal more quickly.
"There's the old belief that they can't drink fluids because it supposedly helps the wound heal better," Shasha said. "I'm opposed to not drinking water at all, because they get dehydrated, get renal failure and die."
What the debates surrounding the culture of initiation in the province seem to reveal is that Xhosa people, in general, are still fiercely proud of their cultural practices. The advent of Christianity notwithstanding, customs associated with ubuqaba, (undiluted African customs) are thriving and wrestling for a place in a rapidly Westernising society.
But many people believe that the initiation in its current, truncated form is not producing men capable of advancing society. Instead, it is seen as a conveyor belt of circumcised boys who become men instantly by virtue of having dispensed with their foreskins.
Former Pan Africanist Congress MP Clarence Makwetu, a long-time advocate of African customs, said some practices, such as umutshotsho, in which pubescent children are allowed to mingle innocently under peer supervision, had fallen away and were never replaced with any equivalent, leaving a society of undisciplined teenagers who cannot learn much from two or three weeks of bundu-bashing.
"If you go to Khayelitsha now, a majority of the families are run by females," Makwetu said from his cattle farm near Queenstown. "Now, do you think a woman can talk about circumcision?
"But we must find a way of doing it, because the breakdown of the family was done deliberately."
Place of enlightenment
But Fana said the custom should either be returned to its original form or dropped entirely.
"The physical pain can take you to a place of enlightenment, closer to the truth. Honestly, though, I could have learnt more [from his time at initiation school]. I think my generation was the start of the ultimate breakdown of this custom.
"Before then, you learned to stick-fight, to use herbs, to be more independent. The only thing I learned were songs that came with some form of education in them."
With the hard line being taken by traditional leaders, who have complained of atrophying monitoring budgets from the department of health, which fell from R4.4-million for 2010 and 2011 to R770000 in 2012, and the provincial department of health increasingly washing its hands of the matter, efforts to get on top of the problem before the summer season will probably fall on the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders and the department of local government and traditional affairs.
"We gave them 30 4x4s for monitoring," provincial department of health spokesperson Sizwe Khupelo said. "It is no longer a health issue; they are doing it as amakhosi."
Thobela Mgudlwa, an Eastern Cape-based businessman who has consulted traditional leaders on establishing a uniform practice, said the department of local government and traditional affairs should go to the treasury and make its case for more resources.
"We're talking about lives here," he said. "Right now, they are a department that is being babysat by another department with its own core functions and core problems."
In a rural homestead outside eDutywa in the Eastern Cape, traditional poet Zolani Mkiva put on a feast to celebrate the homecoming of his nephew from a stint at an initiation school.
The event, attended by Mpondo King Zanozuko Sigcau and Xhosa King Zwelonke Sigcau, was meant to serve two purposes: first, to show that, in the proper hands, the culture of ukwaluka (ritual initiation) had its place, and, second, it was a symbolic pledge to work together with the Mpondo people to reduce circumcision-related deaths in eastern and western Mpondoland.
"We have not discussed in detail how the process will work, but we will have to forge interdepartmental relations between the departments of local government and traditional affairs, health and social development and the house of traditional leaders," the Mpondo king said.
Prince Xhanti Sigcau, a spokesperson for the Xhosa king, said he was prepared to send traditionally trained surgeons to the Mpondo area to perform the circumcisions and teach the locals who were prepared to learn, because the consequences of uninformed practices are clear.
"Today we have brought home five initiates and it is an indication that when boys go to the mountain, they should come back as normal," Xhanti Sigcawu said.
- abakhwetha: Initiates undergoing a rites of passage ceremony that includes circumcision
- bhoma: A hut where initiates live during their initiation
- ikhankatha: An initiation school nurse, always male
- esuthwini: Initiation school
- ikrwala: A graduate of an initiation school
- ukudodisa: Confrontational test of a graduate's credentials
- amakhosi: Traditional leaders, formally known as paramount chiefs
- iingcebi: Traditional surgeons
- umutshotsho: A social gathering of pubescent youths under peer supervision
- ukwaluka: Ritual initiation that involves circumcision