Becoming a ‘real man’ hurts like hell in South Africa…

This post is also available in: nlNederlands (Dutch)

‘This December Katiso is getting circumcised’. What a cheerful topic when you’re just enjoying your cup of tea in the morning. Sinnah, our nanny, looks at me with a serious face. ‘Seriously?’ Somehow I associate circumcision with the Jewish culture so I was quite surprised. It says more about my ignorance, just read Wikipedia (and they are always right), in 2006 about 30% of men worldwide were circumcised. Huh? 30%? That’s like…. Really a lot… And in certain African cultures circumcision is an important ritual. Without circumcision, a man is not a ‘real’ man. ‘Aiiii…. That’s going to hurt!’ The poor boy is not a baby anymore, but already 18 years old!

This country keeps on astonishing me. Despite modern times with smartphones and cars that can drive by themselves, ancient traditions such as circumcision continue to be preserved. In fact, it has become more popular in recent years because it is thought that a circumcised man is less likely to be infected by HIV. And HIV is quite a problem in this country: in 2016 about 19% was HIV positive. ‘So, what is going to happen? ‘ I ask. But the question is not so much what (because that is something with a foreskin that goes off) but where and how? Well, Sinnah doesn’t know it either. Women are not allowed to attend the circumcision. What she knows is that Katiso will go to the mountains for two, three weeks with a group of boys. When they come back they are all circumcised and ‘real’ men. During this period they eat and drink as little as possible. This is to ‘ harden ‘ the boys and at the same time to reduce the risk of infection. And that’s no unnecessary luxury because every year young men are dying in South Africa because they are circumcised. The setting in which this happens is not the most hygienic one can imagine. Traditional healers often use the same knife to circumcise all the boys and only herbs to disinfect the knife. Anyway… to me it just seems really, really, uncomfortable.


It turns out that Sinnah also must follow certain commandments. For example, during the time Katiso is in the mountains, she cannot use any sharp materials. That means that she cannot cook. Pretty unpractical if you live with your three kids. ‘ Ah, it’s fine, I just ask Samuel if he can cook. ‘ Samuel is also a son of Sinnah and is 11 years old. I believe that when I was 11 years old, I didn’t go beyond drying the dishes so chapeau for Samuel. Other country, other customs. Furthermore, she is not allowed to have sex. I wonder what her sex life has to do with the circumcision of her sons’ Dick and his twins, but what the hell do I know? 

I find traditions and rituals in general great! A relic of my student time. From generation to generation customs and knowledge are being passed on and you feel connected to the generations that came before you and with the generations that still have to come. What I find difficult with these kinds of rituals is that it involves a lot of costs. The intention is to have a feast in advance in which two sheep have to be slaughtered, traditional clothing must be bought and litres of African beer to be made. All in all it’s costing Sinnah more than a month’s salary. And to my question what exactly is changing for Katiso, I don’t really get a clear answer. I don’t really dare to ask further… All that pain and trouble for what?

Around Christmas, when we are in the Netherlands, we find out that Katiso is not unharmed. He is seriously ill. It is unclear whether he has suffered an infection or that something else is going on. He must be admitted to the hospital immediately. Luckily he recovers well and he’s not a part of the statistics of young men dying during their circumcision.

Son number 4 is now 8 months old. ‘What are you going to do with him?’ I ask her. ‘Is he going to be circumcised?’ Yes, but I’m taking him to the hospital at the end of the year!’ So good to hear that age is not a restriction to become a real man!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *