A Man Who is Not a Man

IRONIES AND CONTRADICTIONS IN NEO-TRADITIONAL XHOSA MASCULINITY

SILENCE AND SHAME

Thando Mgqolozana’s A Man Who Is Not a Man was first published in June 2009. The launch of the book coincided with the annual Xhosa circumcision season. Both the timing of its launch and the thematic concerns of the novel destabilised the culture of secrecy that shrouds the Xhosa rite of passage into adult masculinity. Mgqolozana’s novel addresses the subordination and stigmatisation of initiates whose circumcisions fail. Of the “collective silence” that shrouds the horrors of Xhosa circumcision, Mqgqolozana has said the following: “It is this disquieting reality that has prompted me to break the silence and talk about the cultural practice that I have experienced first-hand. And for this reason alone, I feel like I have more than earned the right to break the silence, and start a debate of reconstruction, or perhaps, if need be, total deconstruction of that which kills” (cited in Zvomuya 2009). The situatedness of the novel between shame, silence and speech rendered it a path-breaking novel at the time of publication. As a novelist, Mgqolozana dared to voice and make public a personal conviction, “even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood”, to quote Audre Lorde (2007: 40).

The novel not only opened up a dialogue about the various taboos surrounding ulwaluko [1], subverting several of the codes attached to the initiation ceremony; it also evoked anxiety and rage in readers who self-identified as Xhosa. At the book’s launch in the Eastern Cape, one attendant “infused raw paternal emotion into the proceeding when he revealed his anxiety over his son, who, at that moment, was at the mountains undergoing the snip” (Zvomuya 2009). This father’s anxieties were accompanied by the rage of “a big, imposing man who identified himself as a Xhosa traditionalist” and who wanted to “smack” Mgqolozana for revealing what should remain hidden from children, women and uncircumcised men (ibid). The different anxieties of these Xhosa men seem partly precipitated by their inability to talk openly about male sexuality, and their tendency to gloss over discussions of failed or botched circumcision in order to avoid admitting that their negligence might contribute to these failures. The protagonist and narrator Chris Vumindaba’s Xhosa name roughly translates to “accept your case” or “admit your crime”. With its second-person injunctive, it subtly provokes the traditionalists to take responsibility for the deaths and the scarring of bodies that feature annually in circumcision rituals. Vumindaba, as a name, demands not sanitised propitiation but a subversion of established practice. It is a prayer, and an invocation, to the sires of tradition to admit their guilt. The anxiety of certain readers of the novel reflects the power of textual representation to solicit response. It also speaks to masculine insecurities about exposure and public scrutiny, “for masculinity, like any subject obsessed with authority, becomes paranoid and apprehensive when its source of authority is probed” (Goniwe and Gqola, 2005: 82).

Scholars have long demonstrated the layered importance of male circumcision in Western and non-Western traditions. The practice not only links the body with the spiritual realm: it also bestows upon the circumcised subject certain male privileges, such as marrying, acquiring property, communal eating in the company of circumcised men, overseeing and participating in community and domestic rituals. “The Jews view circumcision as adherence to Jewish tradition and the covenant sworn between God and themselves. To them circumcision does not necessarily imply cleanliness and health. Instead, it is hallowed as religious act that builds a contract between God and his chosen people” (Aldeeb Abu-Sahliem 2001: 48). Goniwe and Gqola (2005) and Kenyatta (1965) remark that Xhosa and Kikuyu circumcisions are performed in order to establish an ancestral link and to teach morality and respect for the elderly. The initiate’s incorporation into the group post-circumcision allows him to perpetuate the clan and tribe through procreation. Against this backdrop, the narrative voice of the novel becomes highly subversive. The “failed” man traditionally has no right to speak about matters pertaining to “true” Xhosa masculinity, its construction and rituals. His failed-man status renders him a boy, and a “boy” cannot speak to the gathering of men. Furthering the subversion, the novel holds out alternative possibilities for being a man and developing a masculine Xhosa identity, possibilities that rub against traditional prescriptions for attaining manhood.

The disapproval and ostracisation that Chris experiences from his community stem from the complex relationship between silence, shame, humiliation and dominant modes of masculinity production embedded within Xhosa mythology and the folk songs sung during ulwaluko. Morrell (2001) posits that dominant masculinity does not always rely on brute force to silence oppositional masculinities: it often relies on consensus. In the narrative, this consensus is felt through the internally and structurally imposed silence with which the “failed” man accepts his maltreatment as an appropriate punishment for his breach of culture. His feelings of shame and guilt are cemented by the song “Somagwaza” [2] and the different contexts of its rendition in the novel. Furness and Gunner (1995: 3) underscore the power of folklore and folksongs. They posit that oral forms like the song are “not just folksy entertainment […] They are themselves invested with power; that is to say, the words, the texts, have the ability to move, to provoke, to direct, to prevent, to overturn and recast social reality”.

Chris points out that under normal circumstances, “Somagwaza” is sung during the initiation ceremony, when the initiate has successfully completed the rite of passage. In the novel, however, the first rendition of the song is sung by Bra-Mtyobo on behalf of Chris (69). Bra-Mtyobo’s jazzy performance of “Somagwaza” coincides with the jubilant ululation of Chris’ grandmother and the other women of the neighbourhood. The women and Bra-Mtyobo sing and ululate because the initiate has proved that he is ready to become a man: he has withstood the pain and hardship involved in cutting and hauling wet fire wood from the mountain to the homestead. The firewood will be used in the homestead for domestic purposes, and during the initiate’s circumcision ceremony. As Chris tells us, “this song takes the form of a warning given by the traditional surgeon to the mysterious Somagwaza that he is going to stab ‘this boy’ with his assegai right now. He tells Somagwaza that the cowardly boys have chickened out, but this one, the boy here, will be stabbed at once” (69). Bra-Mtyobo’s rendition of the song fills Chris with pride and sends shivers down his spine. This scene is bitterly ironic, though, since Chris and his family do not know that he will be the very “coward” cited in the song (122). Chris describes the disbelief and shock that engulfed him when he, “the village bumpkin”, landed at the hospital, while the “urbanites”, Sbenga’s grandsons, successfully “became” men. Compounding Chris’ humiliation, the car that transports him from the village to the hospital is owned by Sbenga himself, one of the village’s most economically successful men. The songs sung for Chris by Bra-Mtyobo and his grandmother haunt him incessantly: they are a constant reminder of his “failure” to become a man in the culturally prescribed manner.

After the gradual wasting away of his penis due to negligence and septicaemia, Chris exchanges ibhoma [3] for the hospital ward. The morning-shift nurse, Mrs Yaziyo, greets him and the other “failed” initiates with a “corrupted” rendition of “Somagwaza”. Chris notes that “the verse she chose to sing was particularly significant, for it is the one that reports to the mythical Somagwaza that the cowards among them have chickened out; ‘them being us’, of course, the supposed initiates. She was openly insulting us for having landed at the hospital—we cowards!” (122). The performance of the song in both scenes is significant in the making and unmaking of Xhosa traditional manhood. In the first instance, the song is sung to celebrate an initiate who has emulated the mythical Somagwaza’s manly qualities. In the second instance, the same song is sung to mock the cowards. It reports to Somagwaza that the weaklings have chickened out. The song makes the “failed” man and the amaXhosa people accomplices and accessories in the discrimination of men based on the success or failure of their initiation process. The novel addresses itself to Mrs Yaziyo; to Sbenga’s son, who visits Chris at the hospital but only to confirm and relay the news of his ruined manhood to the villagers; to Chris’ grandfather, who neglects him in favour of booze and treats him with disdain when his penis becomes infected; to Mr Ugly, the hospital porter, who shows annoyance towards Chris when he turns up at the hospital; and to Yanda, Chris’ girlfriend, who unceremoniously abandons Chris when she hears about his “failure” to attain manhood. Chris’ narrative questions these individuals (and the larger community-response they represent), destabilising the secrecy and shame that imprison his psyche.

MASCULINITY, BODY AND ULWALUKO

Kondile (2012) views A Man Who Is Not a Man as a book about culture. Mgaga (2009) reads it as a story of betrayal, arguing that the central character is let down by love and by his elders, the custodians of Xhosa culture. Yanda’s abandonment of Chris rests on the unspoken equivalence of the “failed” man with boyhood, and the view that “a woman cannot marry a boy because he will scandalise her” (Holomisa, cited in Gqola 2009). Yanda’s reaction reveals that way women actively participate in the shaping of masculinities. Chris’ elders betray him by putting him in harm’s way through their negligence, and later on by failing to own up to their irresponsibility, squarely laying the blame for the septic circumcision wound on him. Ultimately, their actions consign him to a life of psychological trauma and physical scarring, leaving him susceptible to the ridicule of his community. My critique of the novel builds on Mgaga’s reading of the novel. However, it stretches the conversation further by reading the novel as a text that belies notions of a homogenous Xhosa culture and that unearths the complex issues surrounding the initiation ritual in the contemporary era. I argue that the novel is not only about culture and betrayal—that it also depicts the intractable relationship between the male body, culture and the recreation of contemporary Xhosa adult masculinity. By destabilising the myth of a seamless relationship between body and culture, the novel proffers new and complex ways of being and becoming a Xhosa man today. Finally, I see the novel questioning the mechanisms of exclusion deployed by dominant Xhosa masculinity, by allowing the “failed” man to access and be included in the social capital of adult masculinity.

Reid and Walker (2005), Mehta (2000) and Morrell (2001) point out the correlation between the male body, male circumcision and masculinity creation. Their work is useful in examining how A Man Who Is Not a Man unsettles the centrality of the wound at the mountain—the success or failure of its healing—as the ideal marker of “true” Xhosa manhood. The novel challenges the conceptualisation of the body as a stable terrain in the process of adult Xhosa masculinity-making. Foucault proposes that “the body is directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, train, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies and to emit signs” (cited in Epstein and Straub 1994: 14). Foucault discusses the way the dominant masculinities of any given society exert their force on the body in order to make it emit the signs and carry out the roles associated with the body’s “newly” assigned gendered identity.

Goniwe and Gqola (2005) localise and push this poststructuralist’ view of the body a step further. In a series of his body-art exhibitions, showcased at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, Goniwe explored a certain shared awareness and relationship between the body, art and culture. Through his playing with Xhosa body paintings, masks, the male body and ulwaluko, Goniwe conceptualises the body as

[r]eference, object, tool, item, thought, theme…it is means but not the end…it is a problem as well a form and a way to reflectively negotiate other problems. I take the body as not always a surface on which meaning or issues are inscribed; I consider it substance and conduit that makes as well as unmakes meaning. Thus, meaning is always at stake, invented and reinvented, contested and contesting itself. (Goniwe and Gqola 2005: 80)

Foucault’s and Goniwe and Gqola’s logic is taken up by Kizito Muchemwa and Robert Muponde (2007) in their critique of dominant contemporary Zimbabwean masculinities, as embodied by the Zimbabwean government. Connell (1995: 52-3) suggests further that “the physical sense of maleness and femaleness is central to the cultural interpretation of gender. The body is unavoidable in the understanding of and construction of masculinity. Masculine gender is (among other things) a certain feel to the skin, certain muscular shapes, tensions, certain postures, ways of moving, certain possibilities in sex” (Connell 1995: 56). These scholars all seem to agree that the body is positioned at the meeting point of culture and masculinity production. They argue that the dominant culture inscribes itself on the body in order to make it fit into the categories of “real” or “feminine”/“feminised” masculinity, thereby regulating the body’s access to social power. In short, the male body—its contours, organs and mythologies—is heavily implicated in the construction of masculine identities. It is an unstable terrain that makes and unmakes meanings of gender power and relations. It is used not only as a tool on which power is stamped, contested or resisted, but also as a contradictory site in which both maleness and femaleness converge and divert.

The centrality of the male body in the construction and deployment of masculinity is captured in the performance of ukwaluswa (the actual snipping of the penis), the ceremonies that accompany the ritual, and in the investment in a classification of bodies as “bogus” or “real” men. Ulwaluko is both an agent of socialisation, and a practice that is realised and inscribed on the body in order to incorporate it into the community’s “appropriate” sexuality and biological categories (Mehta 2000). Ideally, once ulwaluko is imprinted on the body, it wounds and destroys in order to produce a body ascribed with the “newer” gender roles and privileges associated with dominant masculinity. The importance of the penis/male body in the novel is underscored by the conflation of the penis with manhood. This dynamic plays out in the mountain scene, when Ta-Rain’s speaks to the initiate about his festering penis: “There is no point in you staying on here, only to lose the very thing you meant to build here” (110). Before Ta-Rain’s arrival, the initiate contemplates the situation and the possibility of landing up in hospital. He muses, “I lost my whole manhood and buried it at the mountain—and, perhaps even my life itself” (98).

RECOVERY AND NARRATION

In his explanation of the importance and relevance of ulwaluko to Chris, Mc-Squared points out that the body must manifest certain qualities that will mark and make it the body of a “true” Xhosa man. For instance, it must be able to withstand the pain of circumcision without showing signs of vulnerability. Consequently, the hospitalisation of an initiate is reviled and viewed as a sign of ultimate vulnerability and failure. Indeed, one of the ways the Xhosa commune curbs “femininity” among its initiates is through the ostracisation and humiliation of “failed” men. Through its depiction of Chris, the novel contests the power imbalance that arbitrarily favours some men over others, according to the failure or success of their ulwaluko. The novel scrutinises the relationship between dominant Xhosa masculinity and power. It exposes the way dominant masculinity repels and silences “deviant” masculinity through humiliation and fines imposed upon “failed” men once they are found out. And yet the alarming rate at which botched circumcisions occur cultivates anxiety within dominant masculinity, which sees in this crisis its own inability to propagate itself. The swelling number of “bogus” men who seek solace in silence and live in fear of being discovered threatens the “ideal” of Xhosa dominant masculinity. In the novel, the abusive behaviour of Mrs Yaziyo, Mr Ugly and the Chairperson of the House of Trational Leaders reveals the violent and coersive srategies employed within a hegemonic order to propagate adherence and punish “failure”.

The novel’s positioning of the hospital at the centre of its hero’s recovery deconstructs the disgust that hospitalisation evokes for the amaXhosa of Ngojini village. Mc-Squared warns Chris against hospitalisation through his metaphorical description of the hospital as the “house of ruins”. He tells Chris that it is better to die at the mountain than to go to the hospital because the village has no place for “betadine men” or “onotywetywe”—men whose circumcision wounds have been sutured and smeared with betadine at the hospital. For the villagers, the hospitalisation of the initiate connotes his inability to withstand pain and his failure to singlehandedly nurse the circumcision wound back to health. But Mgqolozana portrays the hospital as a place of restoration and rescue. Chris is happy to have ended up at the hospital and announces that, even if he were given a second chance to enact his rite of passage, he would replay the same outcome again and again. Chris’s affirmation of his unique path to manhood subverts the traditional tenets of “real” Xhosa masculinity—the ability to withstand circumcision pain at any cost and to heal one’s circumcision wounds alone, using traditional remedies. It also suggests new and radical ways of defining what adult Xhosa masculinity means in contemporary South Africa. Chris unwittingly ends up embodying the vision of Oom Dan, his grandfather’s brother-in-law, who sees manhood as a strategy open to each and every Xhosa man, to be used according to his own unique context.

This novel is written for victims of septic circumcision whose lives might be saved by Chris’ story. The novel implicitly links Chris’s ability to speak out against his trauma with his therapy and healing, a connection that is echoed by Radstone and Hodgkin. In their examination of trauma-narration, they write:

The individual who speaks of the suffering s/he has experienced is an iconic figure, and the moment of disclosure, in which the unspeakable tries to find representation in speech, is the central and shattering instance. The relation between speech and silence is figured as one of liberation, both politically and personally: to reveal truths which have been denied and to remind the world of its responsibilities of those who have suffered, on the other hand; to heal the self by the very act of speaking and being heard. (Radstone and Hodgkin (2006: 98)

Chris’ vocalisation of the trauma and shame involved in his septic circumcision and subsequent ostracisation makes him an “iconic figure” to other “failed” men, even as he remains vilified by traditionalists in the community. His finals acceptance of his fate offers hope to men who have suffered a similar ordeal, proving that it is possible to break the silence and take a stand against practices of dehumanisation. Undoubtedly, Mgqolozana’s is an activist novel that stages a political intervention and holds out the possibility of empowered healing.


[1] Goniwe (2005: 5) defines Ulwaluko as circumcision, an initiation ritual performed to transform boys to men, a means of gain adult status and acceptance to preside over sacred ceremonial activities. It serves as a spiritual function to establish links with the ancestor. It is a gaining of knowledge … instilment of moral values and social values as recognise by Xhosa commune. These traditional beliefs serve to construct masculinity cultivating the self-conscious attitude of identifying with the voice of authority: man is to be head of the house, decision-maker, provider and protector of family. This definition fits in the study’ context of use in the sense that it defines the ritual as a process of becoming or negotiating manhood, instead of seeing it as a point of arrival into adult Xhosa masculinity through a cut on the penis.

[2] In Xhosa mythology, “Somagwaza was held to be the first man ever to be circumcised the proper way, a long time ago” (Mgqolozana 69). He is believed to have circumcised himself by chopping off the fore skin of his penis with a sharp stone. He then nursed the wound to health through the use of traditional herbs (69). Xhosa men revere him for his bravery, patience and ability to withstand pain, qualities that the initiate must embody and exhibit in order to become a “real” Xhosa man.

[3] Ibhoma refers to the temporal zinc structure that the initiate lodges in at the mountain. Its burning after the healing of the circumcision wound symbolically represents his procession from boyhood masculinities to adult masculinities.


SOURCES

Aldeeb Abu-Sahliem, S. Male and Female Circumcision: among Jews, Christians and Muslims: Religious, Medical, Social and Legal Debate. Pennsylvania: Warren Centre, 2001.

Connell, R. Masculinities. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995.

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Furness, G. and Gunner, E. Power, Marginality and African Oral Literature. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1995.

Goniwe, T. and Gqola, P. “A Neglected Heritage: Aesthetics of Complex Black Masculinities”. Agenda (2005): 80-94.

Gqola, P. “How the ‘Cult of Femininity’ and Violent Masculinities Support Endemic Gender Based Violence in Contemporary South Africa”. African Identities 5 1 (2007): 111-124.

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Morrell, R. Changing Men in Southern Africa. London: Zed Books, 2001.

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Nonhlanhla Dlamini is a PhD candidate at Wits University, registered in the African Literature Department of the School of Language, Literature and Media Studies. Her PhD thesis examines the varying literary strategies of representation used by contemporary black writers to challenge the fictitious pillars of dominant masculinity.