The uncircumcised politics of the foreskin.

This is me, openly declaring myself as part of #TeamUncut, an imaginary support group that deals with how to handle the stigma and the body shaming directed towards “uncircumcised men”. and yes, to me “uncircumcised men” is more than just the great oxymoron popular on emotionally-abusive-African-girl twitter. I’ve never understood how the entire world can stand in solidarity for the complete eradication of female general mutilation (which is considered culture in some regions) and yet, the same people, in the same world sign off entire budgets and advertising campaigns for male circumcision which is, by definition, male genital mutilation.  Surely what is good for the goose should be good for the gander, more so in a man’s world. For as long I can remember, boys have been dying to become men across all the native circumcision practicing cultures in my country. shout out to South Africa. Although I personally consider myself to be acultural, meaning I acknowledge being born of a certain bloodline but I have chosen to not be bound by the rules and rituals that govern my people and my people’s people before them. I’m all for other culturally inclined peoples upholding and promoting their cultures, as long as it poses no harm to another human.

The question of what happens in initiation schools should not be considered a question actually, its usually rhetorical at least and monologue at most. I never quite got the answers I was looking for, but then again, what was I looking for? Apart from other things,  I always wondered what happens to the damned foreskins. I’m a really inquisitive individual, almost unnecessary, and the mischievous search for the fate of the damned foreskin has led to some rather awkward conversations with those who, for lack of a better word, have been “brainwashed” to assume that no male outside of their circumcision practicing cultures is worthy of being called a man.  I’ve been blatantly ignored for asking this question (the monologue)… one time, another guy told me to ‘stop being a nagging little boy asking him useless shit, if I wanted to know, I should go to the mountain and experience it myself’, yes, that dramatic.  I never understand how and why secret societies keep some information private, if these things learnt in private are good and beneficial to society, why can’t they be general public knowledge?  Why can’t we make a better society by imparting the knowledge of the “makings-of-a-man” to all boys regardless tribe? Perhaps this is a simplistic view of this rather complicated topic, this I acknowledge but I cannot be apologetic.

I grew up in a township divided into various sections according to ethnic tribes; this was a legacy of the apartheid government damning integration of even the blacks among themselves. The Zulus, Xhosas, Tsongas, Ndebeles, baSotho all had their own sections to stay, so did all the other tribes. This lack of intergration led to a misunderstanding of the rites, rituals and ways of life of the various tribes.  There were many stories one would hear in the township… thing about township stories is, you never knew which ones were true and which ones were fabricated for entertainment purposes. Because of the secretive nature of initiation ceremonies, regrettable drunken confessions and urban legends were sometimes the only insight into the subject matter. The walls, or trees if you prefer, have spoken of initiates eating their own foreskins, other versions speak of large cauldrons boiling a broth of the damned flesh to be shared by the initiates. I’ve heard of ‘umatanyula’, erotic relations between initiates and their teachers in a coming of age ceremony similar to Pederasty, once popular in ancient Greece. Other sources have claimed the foreskin to be buried at a sight chosen by the initiate, while others burned the foreskin to ashes, and mixed the ashes in a concoction believed to be the ‘elixir of manhood’… I had seen and heard of stranger things, people do what they gotta do. This is where I learnt to keep an open mind closed, believe nothing, dispute nothing, and just get on with it.

As a Zulu boy, I never got culturally circumcised… the world famous Zulu Monarch Shaka Zulu banned the practice among the Zulu as he found that the whole process, from checking into the bush to eventual healing, was too long and robbed the young warriors of necessary time needed for combat and combat training. The current Zulu King recently decreed that the practice of cultural Circumcision among the Zulu be re-instituted to try and curb the highest HIV prevalence rates in the country. Apparently Circumcision helps lessen the chance of contracting HIV and other STI’s, I never got around to figuring out that logic. I escaped being religiously Circumcised, mother believed in a creator god who put the foreskin, just like everything else, where it is for a reason (one we may or may not understand). My tonsils were removed, but they were inflamed, (the most important fact) and they threatened to mess with my sugary voice, they had to go! I eventually decided, and never got medically circumcised, instead I grew up slightly stretching my foreskin with my pinky fingers on most mornings, to accommodate my growing penis and avoid (para)phimosis, a condition associated with a tightened foreskin.  My esteemed queen mother believed chopping off a foreskin for hygienic reasons was a drastic measure to try and keep a penis clean. I believed this, its as easy as thinking … you’re going to wash the penis everyday anyways, what’s a little 5 seconds extra to pullback a foreskin and wash… think, spreading your toes to clean in between…? The real reason I never got circumcised I believe, is that my mother probably knew the kind of kids she was going to raise, and yes, I was probably going to ask her for my perfectly healthy foreskin and demand it seamlessly sewn back as soon as I found out she had agreed to have it removed without my consent.

Ultimately, all this is about Identity, a perception and validation of self.  As a child begins to grow and differentiates from family and parents, the child begins to realise what’s important about them and to them as an individual. The unfortunate part is that identity is usually dictated by environment and the culture of the said environment. I say unfortunate because I feel this robs the individual of the opportunity to be an individual.  The concept of self , within the larger context of roles and responsibilities, is imposed by the culture; based on thousands of years of how things were done, In this instance depriving young men to be their own man. It almost feels like interfering, a similar argument is ‘how would Afrikan civilisation be, had we been left to forge a future without the disturbance by colonialism?’. What does it really mean to be a man? I think each young man should be afforded the privilege to be able to come to this conclusion by himself.  Just like each and every society should define what civilisation according to them, without pressure from external influence. Existential… ? Of coarse! Those that profess to teach men how to be men, where did they learn how to be men, who compiled that bible and why should I subscribe to how he and his 5th century buddies thought a man to be? Surely, There are various roads to manhood, whatever various means… end of story. Apart from the obviously physical aspect of being born a male, being a man should be a mind-set defined by the individual, as there are many men of good standing who have never been part of a mass cultural initiation into manhood. Of course, there will be contradictions down the lonely road that leads to being a man, there will be conflict within and annoyingly with those around you. but do not fret,  no great idea was ever built without first struggling with and understanding the contradictions that arose as a result, it is in these contradictions that a man’s own identity is put through the fire, to eventually BECOME.

We need to establish what are the most important facets of receiving initiation in the mountain? Is it the experience of being in the bush, living like a monk among other young men with a common purpose? It is exposure and assimilation of teachings of the tribe administered and passed down by the older men? Is it the ability to endure the pain of circumcision without physically expressing the weakness associated with Pain? Maybe it’s a combination of all of these things, I aint got the answers. Every man has his mountain, a continuous journey more than it is a moment. Like all great decisions, being a man (what ever being a man means to you) is not a decision made once… the man continuously, consciously learns to live with and in his decisions especially at moments when his values are tested, he must endure and go forward with his intention. Seems a bit cruel, and rigid and so… ‘grrrrrr im so hardcore!!!’. Lacking the fluidity that nature allows us to just be us. All things considered, with all these distractions, I guess chopping off a foreskin and the scar that remains are pretty effective reminders of the lessons and the journey. Because maybe that’s what its all about, ancient ways of remembering, create an environment with an unforgettable (pronounced TRAUMATIC) experience and attach whatever knowledge to the event and its subsequent results. That way the knowledge remains for as long as the memory remains, or not. maybe…? Look,  All I have are a few permeable urban legends, a foreskin and a sweet voice in a foul mouth to say; those who wish to advance culture into the future should find ways to do so without associating “already oppressed” African culture with death and gore. The keepers of ancient customs should develop means of control within the practices in African culture to avoid exhibiting characteristics of barbaric cults that need the sacrificial blood of unblemished boys to appease… whatever! The model for initiation, whatever it is, should not give purpose to cultural imperialists who would see African cultures eradicated under the guise of progress or supposed civilisation.

3 thoughts on “The uncircumcised politics of the foreskin.

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  1. Ironically I’m watching you on Sifun’kwazi on Mzansi Magic as I write this and the thought of your foreskin is rather awkward, anyhow my beloved dear friend Sfiso,I should claim. Nice script but conviently you ignored the one side of your arguement and persuade what seem to be a satisfactory arguments for your case.

    Some cultures circumcise their boys from birth, does that make them “man” as one part of arguement alludes to. No, Perhaps…I wonder, does removing a foreskin really makes one a man, No whatsoever. Whoever told you that misled you completely. Perhaps the reason why your arguement is scudded to one side, and that of pain, death (as a result of botched circumcisions just by the way) and going to the mountain as if thats all there is to the custom. I’m Xhosa as you would know and circumcised traditionally, as it were. All of these didn’t make a man however, the wisdom, experience teachings I received from the elders (amaxhego) whilst at the mountain made me more of a “man” than I could ever image. Subsequently, how I now behave, reason,act, responsible, knowledgable and wise are attributes I could have never received anywhere they way I had received them in the peace and tranquil pace of the mountain in pain meditation. Pain meditation, requires emotional intelligence unimagineable.

    Consequently, the pain part of the custom which you alluded to has a philosophical meaning behind it and subsequently how you go on about undersatnding life is the real meaning of the pain of circumcision in sanity. Saddly, philosophy as a subject is for the elite not very one is capable to grasp this phenomenon even though life is philosophy, you might argue isn’t life science, well science is philosophy therefore life is philosophy. How you function on a day to day basis is guided by this philosophically and scentifically pain. Point you are missing completely instead diluting it with your concept of what the ritual is. Here’s a scoop of life Philosophy for you regarding pain and life, pain may be about suffering in general or more specifically about physical pain . The experience of pain is, due to its seeming universality, a very good portal through which to view various aspects of human life. Discussions in philosophy of mind concerning qualia has given rise to a body of knowledge called philosophy of pain , which is about pain in the narrow sense of physical pain , and which must be distinguished from philosophical works concerning pain in the broad sense of suffering .

    Maya Angelou once said when you know better, you do better…hence I could understand your frustration with circumcision (removal of a foreskin) not the custom. I must concede I agree with on some of your points, however surely you can’t use selective ideologies to define an entire concept you must look at it in its entirety. And facts are; a foreskin keeps bacteria and fungi however to circumcise because you lazy to clean it up is a lousy excuse I reckon, circumcision reduces your chances of HIV it’s a fact that is scientifically proven. In a country with the highest HIV rate perhaps circumcision as corrective measure is not a bad idea at all and this has nothing to do with manhood, the point that I agree with you (removal of a foreskin does not make you a “man”). But again as a Liberal I’m against goverments deciding for their people but this is not the case it’s by choice. A question, have you ever wondered why KZN has the highest number of man living with HIV in SA, the answer lies above.

    Circumcision by its own form is Philosophical and Scientific even biblical I might argue and anyone who dares to question these concepts is incognito and questioning his own existence…if that’s the question perhaps this not the subject. This is not to excuse the deaths, forced circumcisions and undermining others cultures and treat yours a supreme. Absolutely not…

    Farewell

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  2. Awesome blog Sfi, as a female I can only observe and from that I have witnessed boys go through the rite of passage into manhood, but they return hardened,drop out of school and are involved in criminal activities (from the ones that I personally know, ALL have come back to this fate). Historically I have no knowledge of how circumcision changed the boys, but it has left me wondering if the values(whatever they are) of living purposefully as a man that were being taught previously are the same values that are taught to the current initiates.Again from observation I will assume not because I and the majority in my hood have not seen nor experienced the benefits men being circumscised(rape and abuse statistics are still high).

    Is it really logical to only determine a person’s ability to become a man through an event?what about personal experiences and the choices he makes?

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  3. Word…personally i agree with your mom that what God created shouldn’t be removed unless is trouble with your health.I have always been curious in what happens too in the initiation school,and as always I would not find a clear answer and for that matter because I’m a girl and I’m not suppose to know…but forgetting that one day I will be a mother and I’m expected to know all answers of the world,so why make it a secret but then expecting a mother to put a risk of her child to go on the school hoping the boy to become a man or not even coming back at all, who ever said this part of the culture should be practised should also allow the society to have questions and have knowledge about the initiation school.

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