The Khweta Circumcision Ceremony

The region of the north-eastern Cape (the old Transkei) has many traditions. One of these is performed to make men out of the boys - the Khweta circumcision ceremony.

It is a very old tradition and every Xhosa boy has to go through the ceremony before he is regarded as a man. If he does not, his people will forever refer to him as a boy and no self-respecting woman will want to marry him.

During the Khweta ceremony, boys of different ages live in a so-called circumcision lodge. Here they stay in isolation during the winter months. For this period they are under the orders of the lodge master, who imposes some tough tests of stamina on them.

Traditionally these tests were so severe that they often resulted in death. In modern times, however, the conditions and disciplines have become less severe.

Living in a special hut away from the rest, the lodge master instructs them in the conduct, social duties, and the traditions of their people as well as their political obligations. The knowledge that the boys will have about these things depend greatly on the character and knowledge of the lodge master himself.

No one is sure exactly what happens in the lodge, because it is kept a close secret between the men. Anyone who speaks out takes the chance of not being regarded as a man by his people.

What is known for sure, is the strange circumcision costume the young men have to wear: Their bodies are whitened with sandstone. They also wear a white sheepskin as a coat or blanket. This is done to keep away the evil spirits. For ceremonial occasions they dress in a reed skirt, which they put on by tying one end to a tree and then winding themselves into it. On their heads they wear a reed cap in the form of a cone and also a reed mask.

With these costumes they perform special dances. Imitating a bull, they paw the ground, tossing their heads in the air and snorting. They lose themselves in the dance, drumming their heels in the ground and flexing their muscles, perspiring.

They are very proud and like to show off their dancing skills. They perform their dances to neighbouring huts. But they always stay masked and females know to keep their distance, because no boy is allowed to marry before he has completed the ceremony and is a man.

This happens in spring when finally, the circumcision operation is performed. When this is completed, all the costumes and other items used, including the hut, are burned. The young men are then driven to a river by the initiators, who ceremonially thrash them as they go.

Under no circumstances are they permitted to look back. In the river, the white paint is washed off – the last sign of their boyhood. They enter the river as boys, but when they come out of the river they are men. They receive the formal gift of a blanket from their fathers.

Returning home, the young men are smeared with red clay, which is not removed for three months. When this is washed off, they are finally regarded as adults and can marry (with the customary delay of four years).

These men have a strong bond between them for the rest of their lives. They now carry with them the knowledge of the traditions and history of their people. They are men and ready to face the world of adults.

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