Carrying little more than a blanket, a pocket knife and a live chicken, Bongani Gcwanini set out for an initiation school he hoped to attend.
Frustrated with constantly being called nkwenkwe (little boy) by his older friends, the then 17-year-old walked the “too, too far” distance from his home in Lusikisiki, determined to go through the initiation process his friends had gone through that saw them now considered men; men who no longer wanted anything to do with an nkwenkwe.
“They were my friends before they went to initiation school. But, when they came back, they didn’t want to be my friends. At school, in our classroom, they would always ‘hey, thula wena, nkwenkwe’. They made me feel like I’m alone,” says Gcwanini, who chose not to use his real name.
He was hoping to offer the chicken — stolen from a neighbour — to the school as payment. “My father never supported us and my mom was poor. Very, very poor. She worked in a kitchen and did people’s washing. There was no money. No, no money. And I was told that, at that initiation school, if you don’t have money, you can pay them with a chicken or something.”
But the school refused to accept him because he was underage. It was “too risky”, they said.
Desperate to be considered a man, Gcwanini sat alone in a quiet area close to the school, whipped out his pocket knife — an Okapi number five, he remembers — and slashed away his foreskin.
“I screamed. It was too painful. Too, too painful. And the blood … it was a lot of blood, man, I won’t lie.”
Langa Mvaba is another young man who circumcised himself. “It was bleeding so much. I was confused when I was sitting there. I was so scared. I didn’t think it was going to bleed so much,” he says.
Sixteen years old at the time, Mvaba, who also didn’t want to be identified, says he took the decision because of peer pressure.
“My parents didn’t allow me to go. They said I must wait until I was 18. So I decided to cut myself because my friends were going [to initiation schools]. Everybody was going. Mna, I was feeling the pressure.”
It was winter, “but not bad, bad cold”, he says of the day he set out from his home in Lusikisiki with the express intention of circumcising himself.
“There was lot of pains. It is not a nice experience. So a lot of pains. A lot, a lot of pains.”
With no bandage to cover the wound, Mvaba walked with blood-soaked pants back to his home. “It became a problem. It was infected. I went to hospital for two months.”
James Porter is a doctor at the Madwaleni Hospital in the Eastern Cape’s Imbashe district. He says the hospital sees an average of 10 boys admitted weekly during the height of the initiation season, mostly for dehydration and septic wounds.
The number of boys admitted after circumcising themselves (one or two per initiation season) is comparatively low but the damage they do can be severe, taking up to a few months and requiring many procedures to heal.
Citing an example, Porter says: “The injury on one patient this year was quite bad. He had held the foreskin at the top and basically cut himself like he was peeling a carrot. It was horrendous. Last year, we had a patient who had cut through his glans [ the tip of the penis].”
Ben Gaunt, a doctor at the Mqanduli district’s Zithulele Hospital, says young men “can do serious damage” to themselves. “If the glans is cut, it is really, really not good. It also depends on whether the injury has become septic or not. Some patients end up needing a skin graft, but some need reconstruction.”
In November last year, the Commission for the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL) released its report on the problems that lead to deaths and injuries at initiation schools.
It found that the majority of initiates (79%) are in the Eastern Cape, where traditional initiation practices are favoured (63% of initiates) to hospital circumcisions (13%).
“What is striking is that only 17% of initiates understood the risks associated with traditional circumcision without being seen by a doctor, while 67% did not have a clue about these risks,” it noted.
Gaunt adds that he has had patients saying “they must go back to initiation school [to complete the process] because they are not seen as men”.
The CRL report noted that “in some South African cultures … an initiate is not viewed as having fulfilled all the requirements of being a complete man unless circumcision has taken place”.
The pressure to be viewed as “a complete man” is linked to young men’s sense of belonging in their communities, according to clinical psychologist Itumeleng Mamabolo.
“If these young men lived in other communities, there would of course be different challenges. It just so happens that, in this community, there are these norms around masculinity and masculine identity, which does create a burden for the young boys in terms of needing to fit in and also not really being allowed to find and develop their own identities as such.”
Mamabolo adds that the burden is greater in poor communities.
“Because there is a cost element to it, there is an exclusion of people who might not be able to afford it. This then adds more pressure because they are not able to be a part of something they are expected to be a part of.
“One can certainly see why somebody would go to extremes because of this pressure of wanting to belong, especially if this is where they have lived all their lives … It can be terrible rejection to not be a part of this.”
Mamabolo says the pressure to belong is particularly pronounced among teenagers because they have “impressionable minds and don’t really have good decision-making abilities, as these are still developing”.
Years after Gcwanini’s lone, determined walk and his self-performed circumcision, he says: “I regret that thing I did … because I disrespected my mom. She told me to wait. She said she was going to go and get money from the loan sharks so that I could go to initiation school.
“But I was impatient. I couldn’t wait. So doing that thing, I disrespected her. It was not good, not good.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the M&G