These teens from the Xhosa tribe wear traditional garb and paint after their coming-of-age circumcision ceremony near Qunu, South Africa. CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

Ulwaluko; an ancient initiation rite practised by the amaXhosa of South Africa.

Ulwaluko, traditional circumcision and initiation into manhood, is an ancient initiation rite practised (though not exclusively) by the amaXhosa.

The ritual is traditionally intended as a teaching institution, to prepare young males for the responsibilities of manhood. Therefore, initiates are called abakhwetha in isiXhosa: aba means a group, and kwetha means to learn. A single male in the group is known as an umkhwetha. A male who has not undergone initiation is referred to as inkwenkwe (boy), regardless of his age, and is not allowed to take part in male activities such as tribal meetings.

Boys painted white with Ingceke mixture
Photographer: James Nachtwey

The rite of passage of  Ulwaluko, also known as Xhosa circumcision, is an age-old tradition practiced by the Xhosa people in Eastern Cape, South Africa. Even though the rite was created in the 16th century, when Xhosa first settled in South Africa, today it still has the same goal as it did before. This rite marks the transition from childhood to manhood of boys in the tribe, prepares them for the responsibilities of adulthood, and allows them to gain the respect of their elders. Since ancient times, men in the Xhosa communities were hunters and warriors, who were  in charge of protecting the community, and maintaining their families. The Ulwaluko ritual was used to prove whether or not a boy in the community had the character to overcome extreme situations, like a man would do; in addition, the tests of survival, which the initiates were exposed to, were meant to teach the future young hunters how to survive in the wild with low resources, and extreme weathers.

Photo Courtesy of AP Photography

Nowadays, the ceremony still preserves the same order, and acts as it did before; however, its purpose has changed. In the present men are no longer hunters: however, they are still considered the head of the households, and the source of income for the family. Currently, the ritual is used to teach the young Abakhwetha about their own culture, what will be expected from them as men, and to help them face the reality of how hard being a man is. Furthermore, the ritual is believed to be a way in which the ancestors chose who should be seen as a “man,” and have his rightful place in the community, and who shouldn’t. In ancient times it was believed that if someone didn’t make it through the ritual he didn’t have his ancestors blessing to be a man. This ceremony is an important part of the Xhosa culture, not only it marks the transition from childhood to adulthood, but it also gives the initiates a chance to prove their tribe they are worthy of being called a “man.”  


Some 150 years ago or more, all southern African chiefdoms and Khoi-san peoples observed initiation practices to prepare the youth, male and female, for their future roles in adult society. At some unknown date in the past, the Xhosa chiefdom adopted circumcision as the principal form of male initiation, possibly from a Sotho source, and it has become closely associated with them ever since. 

Photo Courtesy of International Business Times.

In the course of time and largely as a result of Xhosa influence, circumcision was adopted by neighbouring chiefdoms such as the Thembu, Mfengu, Bomvana, Xesibe, Mpondo and Mpondomise. Undoubtedly, circumcision originally had a militaristic significance, as a worthy ordeal for the young men who were to serve as warriors before being eligible to marry. When Dingiswayo, Shaka’s predecessor, introduced the regimental system in Zululand, Zulu circumcision was discontinued.

In the past, every Xhosa initiate was presented with spears and war clubs by his father and father’s brothers at the coming-out ceremony ‘umgidi’ held to incorporate the initiates ‘abakhwetha’ back into society from the bush where they had been secluded. Circumcision continues to be practised in attenuated form by Xhosa-speakers, both in towns and rural areas, although its efficacy is presently questionable from a medical point of view. 

Since the early 1990s, the numbers of male initiates who suffer medical and psychiatric complications, and even die, as a result of the circumcision operation has been increasing every year. The solution to these vexing problems obviously lies in placing the circumcision operation itself in the hands of medically trained personnel.


The Initiation

Before the initiation camp

A new month begins, and with it the group of Abakhwetha prepares for their transition to manhood. Even weeks before the start of the ritual, the initiates are forced to live under certain rules; they are not allowed to have sexual intercourse, or activities for seven days before their ritual starts. Furthermore, they are not allowed to consume any alcohol or drugs two days before the circumcision.  The initiates are to live under these rules until their journey comes to an end. The day before going to the Sutu the initiates’ families gather at their houses, and hold a big party. During the gathering the initiates’ head, and pubic hair is shaved; to symbolize how they are leaving childhood behind, and growing into men. Later on, the family members wish them good luck, and slaughter a goat as a sacrifice to the family ancestors; with the purpose of asking them for intervention, and guidance for the initiate in his journey.  

Before arriving, they are painted with white clay, it is believed that the clay will ward off witches attacks, during their journey.

South Africa, 1992 – Xhosa young men in rite of passage. © James Nachtwey (Xhosa Teens, initiated into manhood in a centuries-old circumcision ritual called ulwaluko, stay in seclusion outside their Eastern Cape Village, wrapped in ceremonial blankets and painted with a white clay for purification.)

At the initiation Camp

The initiation ritual is commonly conducted during late June/early July or late November/ early December. During the ritual process the traditional surgeon (ingcibi) surgically removes the foreskin. According to the writers and producers of the controversial film ‘Inxeba’, after the cut is made the ingcibi says “You are a man!” The initiate shouts in reply “Ndiyindoda!” (“I am a man!”). The period of seclusion that follows lasts about one month and is divided into two phases – but this is rarely the case in modern times and/or in urban areas, where it usually lasts at least 3 weeks.

These teens from the Xhosa tribe wear traditional garb and paint after their coming-of-age circumcision ceremony near Qunu, South Africa.

During the first 7 days the initiates are confined to a hut and the use of certain foods, for example meat, is restricted, but this may differ as certain homes have their own beliefs or ways of doing things. This phase culminates in the ukojiswa rite, during which food taboos are released, marking the transition to the second phase that lasts a further two to three weeks. During these phases the initiates are looked after by the ikhankatha (traditional attendant). The termination of the period of seclusion commences when the boys are urged to race down to the river to wash themselves, yet again, depending on the location. However, no Xhosa man who has been through ulwaluko can affirm to this. In fact it has been widely disputed as nonsense. The hut and the initiates’ possessions are burnt. Each initiate receives a new blanket and is now called “ikrwala” (singular) which means new man or amakrwala(plural) (new man).

These teens from the Xhosa tribe wear traditional garb and paint after their coming-of-age circumcision ceremony near Qunu, South Africa.

The principles that lie at the very core of the ritual are respect for self (including self control and integrity), respect for family (not to bring shame to them), and respect for community (to protect them from harm). 

Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography that he went through the circumcision ceremony aged 16.

‘I felt as if fire was shooting through my veins. The pain was so intense that I buried my chin in my chest. Many seconds seemed to pass before I remembered the cry, and then I recovered and called out, ‘Ndiyindoda!’ [I am a man!]’

Nelson Mandela

“He took my foreskin, pulled it forward, and then, in a single motion, brought down his assegai. I called out ‘Ndiyindoda!’ I looked down and saw a perfect cut, clean and round like a ring. Immediately after the blow had been delivered, an assistant who followed the ingcibi took the foreskin that was on the ground and tied it to the corner of our blankets. Our wounds were dressed with a healing plant. (…) I count my years as a man from the date of my circumcision.”

Nelson Mandela; Long Walk to Freedom.

Xhosa Culture Rites of Passage:
Ulwaluko: Wikipedia
Ulwaluko Rite of Passage: Dreamfullife

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