/ 18 January 2024

KwaGaba Initiation School: A family’s answer to challenges in cultural male initiation

Initiates at some initiation schools face abuse at the hands of traditional nurses
File photo

As people reset their goals and hope for new and better stories for their lives, some things in the New Year will be predictably the same. In the summer season of cultural male initiation that began in November 2023 and ends in January 2024, thousands of young amaXhosa, amaMpondo, amaHlubi and baSotho males in the Eastern Cape province go through the initiation ritual as a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. 

At the time of writing, thousands of these young males have returned home and were welcomed through celebrations (umgidi), accompanied by feasting and ululating. At the same time, 35 families are wailing in sorrow, as their sons met their deaths while undergoing ulwaluko. In the same period of the previous year (2022) there were 46 deaths of initiates in the province. The slightly lower number of initiate deaths in 2023 compared to 2022 does not necessarily represent a positive decline of deaths due to the post-Covid higher numbers of initiates in 2022 after the lockdown was lifted. 

The 2023 death figures of initiates in one season follow a three-decade or more trend of initiates’ deaths in the Eastern Cape. In addition, various injuries and complications related to ulwaluko lead to hospitalisations, penile amputations and other challenges, including psychological trauma. 

This is a crisis because of its yearly occurrence. It has become clear that decades of interventions to stem the tide have not been successful. Despite the passing of two provincial laws — the Application of Health Standards in Traditional Circumcision Act (No.6 of 2001), otherwise known as the Circumcision Act, and the Eastern Cape Customary Male Initiation Practice Act (No.5 of 2016) — and the national Customary Initiation Act (No. 2 of 2021) to legislate who can undergo the ritual, how and by whom, the crisis continues with no signs of waning. Academic studies and on-the-ground experiences over the past three decades have shown that the causes of deaths of initiates are not solely concentrated on “botched circumcision” as a result of poor or inappropriate surgery. 

There are multitudes of other causes of deaths of initiates, many of which can legitimately be described as criminal. Denial of food, water and necessary medication; rough treatment and assault in the hands of males who have undergone the ritual, including those tasked with caring for the initiates, otherwise known as caregivers or traditional nurses (amakhankatha), have become undeniable contributions to unsafe and deadly male cultural initiation in the province. 

In addition to these criminal causes of deaths and hospitalisations that occur in the bush, the general safety and security of initiates is emerging as a major challenge, as stories of initiates struck by cars or being negatively affected by weather elements and lawlessness that is aided by easy access to initiation schools, have become frequent. Poor security and lawlessness are clearly an additional challenge. Ironically, the national Customary Initiation Act (No. 2 of 2021) is meant to deal with all these issues, particularly the Constitutional rights of initiates.

It is in this context that I share the story of the Gqamane family in East London, Eastern Cape. Since I have worked in the area of ulwaluko for about two decades, including as part of Ikamva Lesizwe Institute, which I founded in 2016, I have read, researched, observed and commented on ulwaluko. Most importantly, I have sought to highlight and share stories that I believe can make a positive contribution to stemming the tide of deaths and hospitalisations in ulwaluko. 

The establishment of a rescue centre in Mbizana to help initiates who face major challenges in the bush and the highlighting of the story of safe male initiation in Matatiele (AmaXhosa of Matatiele say yes to ‘safe’ initiation), are two examples of this mission to contribute to lessons that can yield positive outcomes in ulwaluko. While not necessarily a new innovation, the Gqamane family’s model of running an initiation school has interesting and unique aspects that can encourage the stakeholders in ulwaluko to draw lessons.

Mhlobo Gqamane has been a traditional surgeon (ingcibi) since 1978. He began this profession in kwaMdingi village, near Qonce (previously King William’s Town), where he was born and grew up. In 1990, while working for a courier company in East London, he and his wife decided to purchase Tyutyu farm in Cove Ridge, with the hope that it would contribute to their livelihoods. The farm, which borders Bongweni village, is 28 hectares in size and there are 12 goats on it, and not much more in terms of farming. Mhlobo, who is popularly known by his clan name Gaba, says: “Even though I bought the farm for livelihood, I had a dream that I can use it for initiation”. 

His dream was not to be realised until 2009, when his oldest son, Zuko, was ready to undergo ulwaluko. Mhlobo was determined that Zuko would undergo ulwaluko by his hand on the farm. Two other boys joined Zuko and the Gaba family took care of all the daily food needs for the three initiates. From then, the dream slowly became a reality. 

By 2018, when Mhlobo and his wife Vuyiswa (Nogcinile) decided to accept all interested initiates to the farm in 2018, KwaGaba Initiation School was born. Mhlobo says most of the initiates come from Bongweni, but some come from far afield, after people hear about how well-being is prioritised at the school. In addition to a rapid shortage of space for initiation in the village, many families liked what the Gqamane family offered on the farm. The villagers were familiar with Gaba’s work — he was a traditional surgeon for Bongweni long before KwaGaba Initiation School was established. 

When Mhlobo was asked why KwaGaba Initiation School is trending positively, and people are sending their sons to it, he says: “I am an ingcibi (surgeon). People want safety and security for their children. I have never had a medical complication here, but most importantly, there is strong security for initiates who are here.” Mhlobo adds that he is fortunate to work with his family in the school. Vuyiswa and their daughter, Asenathi, helped by others, take care of all the food needs for the initiates for their entire stay. 

Asenathi, a University of Fort Hare social work graduate, also helps to assess the psycho-social needs of the boys before they undergo the ritual. Through these pre-initiation assessments, the family is able to know who needs assistance, including those who have chronic ailments that need regular medication. Luvuyo, the Gqamanes’ youngest son, is one of three caregivers (amakhankatha) who live on the farm and are available 24/7 for any need that may arise. 

A fourth young man serves as a “runner”, delivering food to the initiates, as well as taking messages from and to the initiates. Mhlobo says he strongly believes in having well-trained caregivers who are sober minded and who never leave the premises until the season is over. Mhlobo states that he is prepared to go to extra lengths to ensure that those who treat the initiates maintain quality of care. 

“I want amakhankatha to be clean. If they need toiletries to ensure cleanliness, I go to lengths to provide them with these. I am prepared to go to the shops myself, because they need to be full-time on the premises,” he says. On average, each caregiver treats about 10 initiates per season. For the summer season of 2023/24 there were 34 initiates at the school.

Interviews with the Gqamane family, as well as with eight local community senior males present on the day of my visit, reveal that the well-being of initiates is a top priority. Mhlobo argues that what makes KwaGaba Initiation School attractive to parents and guardians is strict observance of the rules that he sets for the initiates, parents, amakhankatha and any other persons allowed to visit the farm. 

Ayikho indawo engenamthetho (there is no place without laws) and here on my farm I insist that the rules of the initiation school are strictly observed. It is a question of take it or leave it for all those who want to be part of the school.”

Mhlobo believes that KwaGaba Initiation School is fully compliant with the Customary Initiation Act and prioritises the observance of the rules in a way that protects both the initiation custom and the Constitutional rights of each initiate. He believes that KwaGaba Initiation School could become a model for many other schools because of at least five key non-negotiable factors. 

  • First, parents, guardians and initiates have to be transparent and declare everything that may impact the initiates’ well-being at the school. This includes pre-existing illnesses and medication taken; substance abuse challenges; dietary restrictions; behavioural problems, and so forth. 
  • Second, there is strict entry control to the initiation school premises. Only parents or guardians of initiates are allowed entry. If a relative visits and wants to see an initiate without the parent or guardian present, amaGaba call the registered parent/guardian to ask if the person has their permission or not. All visitors, extremely few, are under the watchful eye of Mhlobo at all times. Mhlobo believes that this ensures that the common practice in many initiation schools of men visiting and wanting to see how the healing process goes, does not happen. Mhlobo says, because of entrance control and strict monitoring of visitors, only him and the care-givers can touch the initiate. By the same token, initiates and caregivers are strictly forbidden from leaving the farm. 
  • Third, parents and guardians hand over all responsibilities about the diet of the initiates. Under Vuyiswa and Asenathi’s leadership, with consultation with Mhlobo, initiates have adequate access to water and nutritious food, including plenty of vegetables. Vuyiswa says: “We make sure that they eat like they are at home. This helps them feel at home.” 
  • Fourth, there is a no drugs and no alcohol policy on the premises of the initiation school. Mhlobo believes that alcohol and drugs at an initiation school, irrespective of who uses these, compromise the safety and security of initiates and leads to poor observance of the rules. With alcohol consumption being common as part of ulwaluko, including men who help build the initiate hut, and during the departure of the initiate at the end of the stay at the school, amaGaba have found ways to deal with this. AmaGaba pay cash for people who build each initiate hut, and no alcohol is given. If family members come to conduct some ceremony for the initiate that normally involves alcohol consumption, they are not allowed to do so at the initiation space. That alcohol is consumed at a location that is outside the initiation zone. 
  • Fifth, Mhlobo, as the head of KwaGaba Initiation School is the only voice that matters about the process of ulwaluko, once the initiates are on the premises. He believes that too many voices at the initiation school confuse initiates and allow for mixed messages that may be detrimental to the well-being of the initiates. Mhlobo believes that the strict security, especially controlled entry to the premises of the initiation school, as well as close monitoring of the few visitors, helps to streamline the messaging, in a way that benefits the initiates.

I believe that what the story of KwaGaba Initiation School shows us is that, in addition to safe clinical surgery, strict control and adherence to the rules that are consistent with an initiate’s Constitutional rights, provide clear protection. Appropriate wound management and diet, as well as safety from criminal behaviour by initiates or outsiders, hinge on prioritising safety and security. While the KwaGaba Initiation School model may not be possible in many parts of the province, by virtue of initiation schools being in communal areas in the villages, towns and cities, rather than on private and fenced land, it is perhaps time to think seriously about scaling up security in initiation schools, including stricter control on the movement for all stakeholders (initiates and visitors). 

This security could help reduce the number of voices, which often conflict and are sometimes not consistent with the initiates’ Constitutional rights (such as whether to drink water or not). While many positive interventions and legislation have been implemented over the past few decades, the time has arrived to take another brave step and invest resources in replicating many of the strategies followed by KwaGaba Initiation School. These interventions by the state could additionally include providing funding to model schools such as KwaGaba Initiation School, as a way of encouraging the positive contribution they make, albeit limited in scale, to ulwaluko.

Ayanda Nqeketo is a medical anthropologist and director of the Ikamva Lesizwe Institute. He has many years of experience working in the space of ulwaluko in the Eastern Cape and beyond.