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Special Report from Grahamstown: Siphiwo Mahala on Thando Mgqolozana and A Man Who is not a Man

Thando Mgqolozana and Siphiwo Mahala

When a Man CriesA Man Who is Not a ManUKZN Press authors Siphiwo Mahala and Thando Mgqolozana both hail from the Eastern Cape – and returned to their home province this week to attend the National Arts Festival and WordFest in Grahamstown.

As Mahala reports, “We had great time in Grahamstown and Thando was fantastic in his session. The audience was surprisingly receptive and women were particularly vocal… One of [the MEC's]… seemed very pleased that we are both “sons of the soil”.

Mahala published a treatment of Mgqolozana’s A Man Who is not a Man in the literary newspaper of the festival, Wordstock. For those who couldn’t make Grahamstown, we bring it to you here:

Mahala on Mgqolozana“What happens to initiates when they go to the mountain?” This is the troubling question that remains illusive to those who do not exercise the ritual of ulwaluko—circumcision according to the Xhosa custom. The ritual is widely practiced among the Xhosa people and yet, you never really know what it entails unless you’ve experienced it first-hand.

In his debut novel, A Man Who is Not a Man (UKZN; 2009), Thando Mgqolozana lifts the veil on this ancient tradition and the mysteries associated with it. The novel is about a boy named Lumkile Chris Vumindaba, otherwise known as Bravo, who is subjected to circumcision after being “problematic in society”, a behaviour that is usually curbed by dispatching the boy to the mountain. Things turn ugly after a few days of circumcision and he ends up in hospital where his life is saved, but his manhood remains compromised in the eyes of the society. In this novel, the Whittlesea born Mgqolozana presents a blow-by-blow account of the experience of being circumcised, surviving botched circumcision and the struggle to reclaim manhood.

Notwithstanding the author’s splendid and engrossing narrative style, one of the most remarkable aspects of this novel is the sensitivity with which he grapples with the subject of circumcision. Very few published texts interrogate this custom as much as Mgqolozana’s novel does. He, for instance, takes the reader with him on a journey to the mountain; paints a vivid picture of an initiate watching his male organ melting away like “ice cream”; and poignantly describes the subsequent failure of his manhood by ending up in hospital. On arriving in hospital, he is embarrassed by the rotting odour coming from his circumcised penis, a smell that made him feel like “a decaying dog” (p. 11)

It is common knowledge that circumcision is marked by the removal of the foreskin but in this novel the author seems to be arguing that this is not what defines manhood. The Xhosa saying, “Indoda yindoda ngezenzo” (a man is a man through his deeds), is a clear illustration that beyond the ritual, which only marks the transition from boyhood to manhood, one has the responsibility to carve and uphold his manhood. This view is eloquently articulated in Mgqolozana’s novel, as Mc-squared tells the protagonist, “There are many ways of becoming a man, but each and every man has a responsibility to articulate his way into manhood. By that I mean you can’t tell us you are a man simply because you don’t have a foreskin, or because we were there when you were circumcised” (P.65).

Some readers may be excused for feeling that with this moving account Mgqolozana is stripping himself, and by extension, the entire Xhosa manhood naked for all to see. While I cannot argue the morality of the story from the perspective of Xhosa tradition and the implications it might have in changing perceptions about this clandestinely guarded ritual, I am confident that it is a great work of art and it should be viewed as such. Suffice it to say, as a work of art it reveals sensitive aspects of culture that are hardly spoken about.

One wonders if there is no lesson to be learned from the story of the protagonist whose single mother did not know about his agony and near death experience until he ended up in hospital. As the narrator puts it, “To this day, mother and grandmother still don’t know the real story of what happened to me. They don’t know if I even have a penis. They hear the stories of what goes on in hospital, of men urinating through pipes, and they wonder if that’s what happened to me. But women can’t ask, like, what happens at the mountain stays at the mountain” (p. 180). Culture is not static, and perhaps it is about time that we started speaking out about some of the conditions that have seen hundreds of initiates dying on the mountains.

With this beautifully woven novel, Mgqolozana introduces himself to the literary fraternity in a grand style. He is a writer endowed with talent to turn words into vivid images that make you cringe and sometimes laugh-out-loud as he explores the deepest reaches of what it means to be a man in modern society. One cannot help but look with envy at this young writer and salivate in anticipation of his future writings. Mgqolozana is by all accounts a courageous and immensely talented writer.

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Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    July 9th, 2009 @11:33 #

    That review does both Mahala and Mgqolozana proud. Brave and sensitive.


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