Black people need to write their own stories; to keep some aspects of our lives forever secret and unwritten is not helpful at all. There is also need to fund projects that document these stories, as we cannot forever react to the deliberate distortions of our being by the global white supremacist establishment.
After watching the Inxeba movie, my impression is that it has less to do with ulwaluko/koma (initiation), and more to do with homosexuality and the prejudices generally suffered by gay men. Initiation has been used by the writers of the movie as the context within which to explore these prejudices. It is interesting that they chose an aspect of African culture that is already under siege by all sorts of ill-informed Eurocentric presumed superiority complex.
The title and the posters of the movie give the misleading impression that it is about ulwaluko. Many African nations practice ulwaluko as a spiritual rite of passage to manhood. Inxeba purports to be portraying the version practiced by the isiXhosa-speaking people. Unfortunately, both ulwaluko and homosexuality are done a disservice in this movie. Homosexuality is pushed to the background as a victim of ulwaluko. That is a gross misrepresentation of the prejudices and human rights violations that gay men have suffered throughout the world, including Europe. With the international acclaim and platforms the movie has gained, it abuses the very same platforms and exposure to scandalise and misrepresent African culture or aspects thereof as being primarily homophobic. Other nations of the world that are “more deserving” of being labelled homophobic will watch the painted barbarism of Africans from a position of innocence and superiority.
Though the movie purports to unravel the plight of homosexuality under African culture, its focus is more on ulwaluko, which is also grossly misrepresented. In fact, an uninitiated boy may never want to undergo the custom after watching the movie. Also, other nations of the world may end up believing that Africans are barbaric and sadistic.
The sterile dialogues betray the promise that you might learn something either about ulwaluko or homosexuality. There is almost zero educational content about both. If anything, the movie is characterised by a sustained vulgarity and a grotesque caricature of ulwaluko, which merely confirms the negative stereotypes entrenched by the global white supremacy over time about Africans and their culture. To be sure, whiteness has never allowed blackness to view the Black self through the eyes and mind of blackness. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, understood the importance of culture in subjugating a nation and generating self-hatred in that nation.
Less said about the singing in the movie, the better. The singing is melodically un-African. Anyone who knows anything about African culture and music would be justifiably disgusted about the discordant noise that pretends to be singing at the mountain in this movie.
And most of the songs tended to have a sexual tone, a subject that is taboo to a spiritual place like the mountain. Sexual arousal is an enemy to umkhwetha (initiate) because it tends to delay or reverse the process of healing. Abakhwetha (initiates) are even trained how to quickly contain and reverse sexual arousal once it has attacked them. For similar fears, and nothing more, women are not allowed to visit the mountain. Sex is such a taboo to the spirituality of the mountain that Africans are generally required to abstain from sex when they are attending to spiritual rituals. That includes even the person cooking for abakhwetha.
The movie gives an impression that abakhwetha are tortured, beaten up and generally ill-treated on the mountain. This is not true. Amakhankatha (caregivers) actually give care and guidance about the new life abakhwetha are about to enter. That is why they are usually carefully chosen from an experienced lot. They are educators and moulders of character – not destroyers of the body and soul of abakhwetha as portrayed in the movie.
We are shown a scene where a number of boys are about to be operated upon by ingcibi (surgeon) at the mountain. There are at least two things that trouble me here. First, all the boys are wearing brand new blankets. This is a distortion. Umkhwetha is never bought anything new, let alone a blanket. In fact, he disposes of all his meagre belongings as a sign of preparing to start a new life. At the mountain, he is left to his own devices to decide what he will wear. Usually, they are creative and sew themselves some stuff with old rags to cover the parts that matter. Though they usually walk around uncovered, in winter they may use old blankets they are given from home. The only new clothes that are bought are the ones they will wear after graduating at the mountain into the first stage of manhood known as ubukrwala (fresher or novice).
The movements of the ingcibi’s hands when he was cutting left much to be desired. His movements were completely wrong – that is, if you know how the special cut is done. That cut is done in a particular way that requires some elaborate handling of ijwabu (foreskin). You don’t cut arbitrarily as though you were cutting umbengo (braai meat). It is the speciality of that cut that makes us to be able to differentiate between a cut made on the mountain, and the one made in hospital.
In a number of scenes, elderly men can be seen overnight at the mountain around a big fire. This is unusual. Elderly men come to the mountain during the day for special inspections and quality control. One time, Vija (ikhankatha) assaults Kwanda (gay initiate) in full view of the seemingly approving elders who make no attempt to intervene. This is a gross distortion. No such abuse would be allowed at the mountain.
In the presence of the elders, and with the elders, abakhwetha are seen enjoying themselves with booze. It is a bash of sorts. They are drunk together with the elders with the fire burning. This is a gross distortion. The mountain is a spiritual place where such activities are strictly forbidden.
In another scene the elderly men are sitting around the fire during the day. Each umkhwetha is asked to stand before them and tell them how they (abakhwetha) are going to conduct themselves now that they are “men”. That is a distortion. Our communities never regard Abakhwetha as “men”. Accordingly, when ingcibi operates on umkhwetha, he asks him to chant, “Ndiyindoda!” (I’m a man!). Note that ingcibi never says to umkhwetha, “Uyindoda!” (You’re a man!). That is because the elders still regard umkhwetha as a boy. Even when they have completed their term and service on the mountain, the elders will say, “Sibuyisa amakhwenkwe” (We’re bringing back the boys). Man-making is a long process for which umkhwetha must take full responsibility in terms of good conduct and prosperity. He still has to go through a number of stages of manhood; which include marrying, starting a family and [owning] livestock. That process would be slightly different with urbanisation and change of times.
In one of the scenes amakhankatha smoke marijuana and ask the abakhwetha to smoke it apparently because it works wonders in accelerating the healing of the wound. This is a gross distortion. Smoking marijuana is never prescribed by amakhankatha for any purpose at the mountain, let alone wound healing. It is true, though, that those who smoked it before initiation continue to smoke it at the mountain. But they have to be discreet about it.
There is a scene where Xolani (gay ikhankatha) takes Kwanda (gay umkhwetha) to the river to wash his body. This is a distortion. Umkhwetha never washes unless the time for him to leave the mountain has come. He has to keep on applying ingceke (white substance, or calcium carbonate) at all times. It has the antiperspirant and deodorant properties to keep you dry and smelling like other animals at all times. That makes you to be part of your habitat – and not a stranger to animals and other creatures.
At the early stages of the movie, Xolani can be heard correctly counselling Kwanda to remember that happenings at the mountain remain on the mountain. It is only towards the end that we get to know that Xolani (ikhankatha) may have meant that Kwanda (umkhwetha) should never divulge their secret sexual relationship at the mountain. The only homosexual relationship that is known even by abakhwetha is the one between Xolani (ikhankatha) and Vija (ikhankatha). The two are peers who were friends, who went to school together. They meet at the mountain as amakhankatha (caregivers). Xolani makes moves on Vija. Vija yields, though he seems to be doing it for the money that Xolani showers him with. Vija’s heart is not in this relationship, but he needs the money because he is a married man that has a family to take care of. This desperation seems to suggest that Vija may be married to a hopelessly dependent “housewife”. The two have their sexual encounters at the mountain, which amounts to the violation of the sacredness of the mountain. What makes it worse is that they are on the mountain as the guardians of abakhwetha. Vija is extremely abusive and beats up and strangulates Xolani during their sexual encounters at the mountain. It is surprising that the elders would not have disciplined amakhankatha for such a grave violation.
Kwanda makes moves on the seemingly reluctant Xolani. Kwanda plays Vija against Xolani to make Xolani jealous so that he could do what Kwanda wants. Kwanda spotted Xolani and Vija having sex. The “culprits” ran away, while Kwanda was pursuing them. We only pick up at the end of the movie that Kwanda also slept with Vija. Kwanda is reported lost when the rest of abakhwetha are being prepared to return home. Later, Xolani is seen walking with Kwanda, and imploring him not to divulge “mountain secrets”. Kwanda tries and recruits Xolani to dump Vija and go with him to Johannesburg. Kwanda makes a mistake of his life when he warns Xolani not to think Vija had sex only with him (Xolani). At that stage, Xolani strikes Kwanda with a rock. Kwanda presumably falls down the cliff and dies.
Your attention is once more drawn to sex as a taboo at the mountain for two reasons: sacredness of the mountain and the reversal of healing. Besides, Xolani as a caregiver and guardian, would have violated the ethics of his spiritual and character-moulding assignment. He would therefore be liable for serious punishment, which is not considered in the movie.
White supremacy rears its ugly head when abakhwetha and amakhankatha take a stroll looking for waterfalls. They stumble upon a white farmer who is about to open the gate of his farm. All of them stand slavishly away from the master while Xolani goes to engage the farmer about directions. While the engagement is taking place, Vija and abakhwetha steal a goat from the farmer’s truck. The caricature of blacks as have-nots and livestock thieves had to come out. Would the storyline have suffered without this racist portrayal of blacks? Did the writers care to probe how the white man came to “own” livestock when his forebears first came to Africa with nothing, but opted to steal the livestock of the Africans?
While the movie begins with Xolani at the back of a truck going to work in “Queenstown”, Eastern Cape, it ends with him at the back of a truck to “Johannesburg” to struggle for a leaving. That is how whiteness views blackness.
Not surprisingly, this movie is written by a white male, John Trengrove, who is also the executive producer. Thando Mgqolozana and Malusi Bengu have added their endorsing ink to the caricature of African life. The rest of the many producers are white males and white females with one uninitiated black young male.
Not surprisingly, the actors and producers of the movie have received global accolades. Any project that either distorts or negatively stereotypes black life always gets massive funding and awards.
If anything, my experience of Inxeba is that blacks need to write their own stories. It is not going to help to keep some aspects of our lives forever secret and unwritten. We should find a way of positively documenting them while treading carefully where we have to. Blacks need to make funds available for these projects. We cannot forever react to the deliberate distortions of our being by the global white supremacist establishment.
Otherwise, all The Wound does is to wound the wounded.
* Nelvis Qekema is Director of Research and Content Development, Department of Science and Technology, Republic of South Africa.