What is an initiation rite? Some rituals, or rites, mark a stage when – at least in ceremonial terms – the child becomes an adult in the eyes of his/her community.
One of the oldest of these rites, which is still practised in a number of South African societies, is the male initiation ritual involving circumcision. This officially marks the transition from boyhood to manhood. In going through this ritual, young men learn the values and spiritual knowledge of their society. They are expected thereafter to be able to take on their social and cultural responsibilities and roles as adults within
Young initiate’s rites of passage
Very often, this kind of initiation involves the young initiate being separated from his family and remaining in isolation for some time. It entails risk, and the risk itself is part of its power: it is meant to instill personal discipline, and to develop a bond between the young cohorts (members of the initiate’s age-group). It is a test of the initiate’s ability to survive in the wild; and this includes his circumcision.
These days these rites entail new risks; at the same time, we have new knowledge that can protect initiates. For instance, the number of serious infectious diseases, like HIV, has increased in modern times, and diseases can be passed from one initiate to another if unsterilised instruments are used.
Traditions sometimes have to alter as times change in order for a society to continue to grow and thrive
In addition, young men’s commitments to jobs or school mean that initiation ceremonies often take place during holidays – usually in the heat of summer, rather than in the cool autumn, as was traditionally the case. This increases the risk of infection. If traditional methods of circumcision can expose initiates to these and other serious dangers, how should such traditions be approached?
Traditions sometimes have to alter as times change, in order for a society to continue to grow and thrive. Traditional practices evolve in order to remain meaningful, relevant and safe: to protect the still-important components of a ritual, and discard those aspects that can do harm.
How have some artists depicted initiation rituals? For a number of South African male artists, initiation rites have been a pressing issue and a key subject in their work.