July 8, 2013

Nelson Mandela's Rite of Passage Into Manhood

In the research for the Man-Making book, and in the groups of men I work with, I like to ask men, When was THE moment in time when you became a man?

Stop reading for a moment, and if you're a guy, consider the question: When did YOU become a man?

In men's responses, there were and are always a few answers you'd expect, such as when I got laid for the first time, started to drive, went into the military, or had a child. But by far the most common response was, and always is, I'm not sure I'm a MAN today!

Getting you dick cut changes all that for a young guy. For all that may not be politically correct, hygienic, fair, or even necessary when it comes to circumcision, in places where it's culturally woven into the fabric of community life, the act of having your foreskin cut off leaves no question in a young male's mind about the moment he became a man. I'm not suggesting it should be done, that is much too personal a call. I am only saying I believe young males have a powerful need for a clearly defined, positive, and community supported crossing from boyhood to manhood. The work of making men out of boys, and helping them cross the line and step into the world of men, is ancient and necessary men's work. More on that in future posts.

As he is for many of us, Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes. His image and all he stands for looms large in my heart these days. I was not surprised to learn that among all the lessons embodied in his life and person, he has something to teach us about making of a man out of a boy.

President Mandela is a member of the Xhosa tribe in South Africa. In that tribe's traditions an uncircumcised man is not considered a man at all, but still very much a boy. He is not allowed to inherit the family's resources, he cannot be married, and he is prevented from participating in his community's rituals. While painful, and requires risking death, you can see why boys are willing to endure the long and painful ritual to become a man. In his story below, taken from his book, Long Walk to Freedom, President Mandela describes his experience of becoming an Xhosa man. As you read his story, pay attention for those subtle moments when the boy actually transforms into a young man as a result of the ritual.

When I was sixteen, the regent decided that it was time that I became a man... It was a sacred time; I felt happy and fulfilled taking part in my people's customs and ready to make the transition from boyhood to manhood.

... At dawn, when the stars were still in the sky, we began our preparations. We were escorted to the river to bathe in its cold waters, a ritual that signified our purification before the ceremony. The ceremony was at midday, and we were commanded to stand in a row in a clearing some distance from the river where a crowd of parents and relatives, including the regent, as well as a handful of chiefs and counsellors, had gathered. We were clad only in our blankets and as the ceremony began, with drums pounding, we were ordered to sit on a blanket on the ground with our legs spread out in front of us. I was tense and anxious, uncertain of how I would react when the critical moment came. Flinching or crying out was a sign of weakness and stigmatized one's manhood. I was determined not to disgrace myself, the group or my guardian. Circumcision is a trial of bravery and stoicism; no anaesthetic is used; a man must suffer in silence.

To the right, out of the corner of my eye, I could see a thin, elderly man emerge from a tent and kneel in front of the first boy. There was excitement in the crowd, and I shuddered slightly, knowing that the ritual was about to begin. The old man was a famous ingcibi, a circumcision expert, from Gcalekaland, who would use his assegai to change us from boys to men with a single blow. Suddenly I heard the first boy cry out, ''Ndiyindoda!' ('I am a man!'), which we had been trained to say at the moment of circumcision. Seconds later, I heard Justice's strangled voice pronounce the same phrase.

There were now two boys before the ingcibi reached me, and my mind must have gone blank because, before I knew it, the old man was kneeling in front of me. I looked directly into his eyes. He was pale, and though the day was cold, his face was shining with perspiration. His hands moved so fast they seemed to be controlled by an otherworldly force. Without a word, he took my foreskin, pulled it forward, and then, in a single motion, brought down his assegai. I felt as if fire was shooting through my veins; the pain was so intense I buried my chin in my chest. Many seconds seemed to pass before I remembered the cry, and then I recovered and called out, 'Ndiyindoda!'

I felt as if fire was shooting through my veins;
the pain was so intense I buried my chin in my chest.
I looked down and saw a perfect cut, clean and round like a ring. But I felt ashamed because the other boys seemed much stronger and firmer than I had been; they had called out more promptly than I had. I was distressed that I had been disabled, however briefly, by the pain, and I did my best to hide my agony. A boy may cry; a man conceals his pain. I had now taken the essential step in the life of every Xhosa man. Now I might marry, set up my own home and plough my own field. I could now be admitted to the councils of the com­munity; my words would be taken seriously.

... Immediately after the blow had been delivered, an assistant who followed the circumcision master took the foreskin that was on the ground and tied it to a corner of our blankets. Our wounds were then dressed with a healing plant, the leaves of which were thorny on the outside but smooth on the inside, which absorbed the blood and other secretions.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, we returned to our huts, where a fire was burning with wet wood that cast off clouds of smoke, which was thought to promote healing. We were ordered to lie on our backs in the smoky huts, with one leg flat, and one leg bent. We were now abakwetha, initiates into the world of manhood. We were looked after by an amakhankatha, or guardian, who explained the rules we had to follow if we were to enter manhood properly. The first chore of the amakhankatha was to paint our naked and shaved bodies from head to foot in white ochre, turning us into ghosts. The white chalk symbolized our purity, and I still recall how stiff the dried clay felt on my body.

That first night, at midnight, an attendant, or ikhankatha, crept around the hut, gently waking each of us. We were then instructed to leave the hut and go tramping through the night to bury our foreskins. The traditional reason for this practice was so that our foreskins would be hidden before wizards could use them for evil purposes, but, symbolically, we were also burying our youth. I did not want to leave the warm hut and wander through the bush in the darkness, but I walked into the trees and, after a few minutes, untied my foreskin and buried it in the earth. I felt as though I had now discarded the last remnant of my childhood.

. . . symbolically, we were also burying our youth.
... On the day of our re-emergence, we went down to the river early in the morning to wash away the white ochre in the waters of the Mbashe. Once we were clean and dry, we were coated in red ochre. The tradition was that one should sleep with a woman, who later might become one's wife, and she rubs off the pigment with her body. [Today, this would present a serious risk of being infected with HIV.] In my case, however, the ochre was removed with a mixture of fat and lard.

... Now I was a man, and I would never again play thinti, or steal maize, or drink milk from a cow's udder. I was already in mourning for my own youth. Looking back, I know that I was not a man that day and would not truly become one for many years.

If you're inclined, you can anonymously share your experience of crossing the line into manhood with the blog's readers. You can comment in the comment section of this post or send me a quick message. Also, if you, like so many men, did not experience a clear, positive, and supported crossing into the world of men, tell us how do you feel about it today?

Here is a National Geographic video showing almost the same Xhosa Rite of Passage ritual as it's done today.

If this clip doesn't show up use this link.

If you are interested in the global trends in the practice of circumcision, here is a great website describing the incidence and distribution of genital cutting in the world for men. The site also contains data on the practice for females and some of the recent legal decisions from different countries regarding the practice.

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  1. Not a moment too soon my friend. What a great man Nelson was/is. Poignant symbolism. I am wondering when did I shed my boyhood and bury it in the woods?

    In 1985 I had taken a job with my dad's company. I was sent to St. Louis to close a packaging plant. Very soon after arriving all the employees (4) quit. Working 12-15 hour days I got it done. There was a sense of accomplishment and a joy about passing my first big test. It was hard (ordeal). There was fear (dangerous location and stories about myself I had to push against daily). There was a dropping of the old self to embrace a new, true self. There was a return to the village (welcoming/home office) where I gained a seat at the table with the elders.

    Up until tonight I had not thought of the experience in these terms. Thank you!

    Mark Schwietz

  2. Neil Tift12:02 PM

    Nelson Mandela is one of my son's heroes and mine as well.

    I think it was 50 years ago today that his journals were exposed, which led to his eventual incarceration for 26 years. We know his declining health was impacted by his long term jail term.

    But we must continue our work, yours with man-making, mine with promoting father engagement.

    Keep up the good work.

    Neil Tift
    Father Involvement Program Director
    Child Crisis Center
    817 North Country Club Drive
    Mesa Az 85203
    480.834.9424, Ext 4240


Your response to this blog post is appreciated and welcome.