Costs of manhood can be too much

It is initiation season, the time when many South African males are sent away boys and expected to return as circumcised men. Some don't make the cut and end up in critical condition. Some don't return at all.

When police raided an illegal circumcision school in the Eastern Cape, they discovered the body of a 22-year-old left in the forest.

“It was not even a proper burial. They just dug a shallow hole and put branches on top,” said Sizwe Kupelo, Media Officer for the Eastern Cape Department of Health.

On another occasion, the department reported that four young males were reported dead in less than a day.

These youths all had the same desire— they wanted to be initiated into the realm of men. They did not want to suffer the cultural stigma of retaining their foreskin. The cost of their pursuit was death.

Initiation is a rigorous process where young men are secluded in off-beaten areas in the forest or mountains, usually for two weeks. They are oftentimes forced to bear harsh conditions and are taught lessons about their social responsibilities, such as marriage. Most importantly, they are circumcised.

While successful initiations are highly regarded and joyous occasions, too many are disastrous. Every year the government expresses intentions and initiatives to make becoming a man safer. Still, every season is marred by hundreds of young South Africans who get more or less than they bargain for— like blood infections and amputated penises.

Although there is a Circumcision Act that regulates the ownership of initiation schools and those who can perform surgeries, traditional circumcisions are regularly performed by untrained individuals in illegal initiation schools.

Furthermore, whether legal or illegal, the settings tend to be unhygienic. Traditional surgeons, without gloves and proper access to water, use one un-sterilized blade to circumcise a group of boys on a single occasion – resulting in group complications.

On Monday, when the Department of Health reported the death of a 15-year-old at a hospital near Mthatha, they also reported that seven other males were admitted with him.

Although most of those admitted to hospitals do not die, many of them bear permanent damage. Some lose the tips of their penises to gangrene. Others must forego their entire male genitalia.
Botched circumcisions, not only cost young men and their families, but they tax the province as well. After last year’s initiation season, it was estimated to have cost the government over $100 per day per person admitted for treatment. A single hospital reported 535 admissions, and a portion of those were young men who were in critical care and could not be quickly released.

This year the situation is not looking more optimistic on any account. The number admitted to hospitals and the double-digit death toll have authorities worried.

In some parts of the province the situation is very bad, Kupelo says. In Eastern Pondoland, “the situation has prompted local state doctors to go out in teams with police to treat youths at schools.”

“They can’t watch the boys die any longer,” he said.

Michelle Smith for RT