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Percy Zvomuya on Thando Mgqolozana: Tackling Circumcision Head On

A Man Who is Not a ManThando MgqolozanaTwo reports appeared in the Mail & Guardian this week on the Xhosa initiation ritual of circumcision for boys – cultural rites and trials of endurance that are currently taking place in many spots in the Eastern and Western Cape provinces which, because of infectious conditions, cause the deaths of a number of initiates each year, and leave even more mutilated for life.

The death toll for 2009 is approaching fifty:

Four more boys have died because of botched circumcisions in the Eastern Cape, bringing the death toll to 49, health officials said on Friday.

“Three of the boys died in Mdantsane in East London and the other in Mount Ayliff last week,” Health Department spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said.

“These cases were only reported to us today [Friday],” he said.

Thando Mgqolozana‘s first novel, A Man Who is Not a Man, tackles Xhosa circumcision head on, as journalist Percy Zvomuya learned when he attended the book’s launch in Grahamstown. Zvomuya’s subsequent feature on the book is part reportage from the launch, part review, and part sociological treatise. He compares A Man Who is Not a Man with Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God. The piece is well worth a read:

The Eastern Cape launch of Thando Mgqolozana’s book, A Man Who Is Not a Man (UKZN Press), was anything but dull. Mgqolozana introduced his book — about a circumcision that goes wrong — at WordFest, a forum for writers at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Before that Mgqolozana was introduced by Siphiwo Mahala, author of When a Man Cries, a staffer at the Department of Arts and Culture and a Grahamstown-born Xhosa man.

I mention Mahala’s ethnicity because what he says about the book is informed by the fact that he is a writer himself and understands the Xhosa culture of circumcision better than I do. At the Cape Town Book Fair last month, where the book was launched, Mahala said A Man Who Is Not a Man is the “most comprehensive” book written about the rite. In a review Mahala emphasised his point by saying “very few published texts interrogate this custom” in the way this novel does.

At the Grahamstown launch a big, imposing man who described himself as a traditionalist said his impulse was to “smack” Mgqolozana because he has mentioned what shouldn’t be mentioned in front of women and the uninitiated. Mgqolozana has broken the dictum that what happens on the mountain stays on the mountain.

Mandlakayise Matyumza, the executive head of the Centre for the Book, infused raw paternal emotion into the proceedings when he revealed his anxiety for his son, who, at that moment, was in the mountains undergoing the snip.

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