Recently a racy trailer for a movie, called The Wound, featuring Nakhane Touré was released which sparked a lot of controversy about the mistreatment of gay initiates at initiation schools. Every year we hear about the health and emotional risk for young initiates.
But I want to share my experience as a black queer initiate, also drawing on some of my gay friend’s unfortunate experiences when he was an initiate. His experiences made me wonder if I had a positive experience or if I was just lucky.
I was anxious and scared, and there was a time I thought of running away from home
Growing up, I always knew that I was different from the other boys in my neighbourhood. I always felt more comfortable playing with girls than with boys. I only learnt after a while who I really was. For those who don’t know, in Xhosa tradition, when you’re approaching the age of 18, it’s a must for you to go to initiation school.
Usually gay boys refuse to go, or relocate to a different area where initiation is not a prerequisite for being called a man. So everyone in my community was waiting to see whether or not I was going to initiation school, since I was almost done with my matric exams and was turning 18 soon. I knew very well that my family wasn’t going to give me a choice, and I would have to go. I was anxious and scared, and there was a time I thought of running away from home.
My friends shared stories about their initiation experiences that scared me
Some of the stories I heard from my friends who went before me about the blatant homophobia gay men have to endure during their stay at initiation school were quite scary. One of my friends kept on stressing how I needed to be extra careful or could end up emotionally scarred forever. I didn’t really understand what he meant, but it just made me feel uneasy. Then he shared some of his experiences the day before I was meant to go.
He told me about the beatings he got between his legs because his walk was regarded too feminine for a person who was being groomed into becoming a new man. When it wasn’t the beatings it was the dogs the caregivers would have chase him to “fix” his walking.
“Sometimes I would be woken up at very odd hours of the morning and told to go spend time at the graveyard so I could ‘toughen up’,” he told me. This mostly happened during the heavy rainfalls of the winter season.
My initiation experience was completely different to that of my queer friends
During this time, I was still trying to come to terms with my true identity — accepting that I was attracted to other men. So these stories made me imagine how much of this kind of torture I would have to deal with for four full weeks while I was at the school.
I did not want a public send-off, so I asked my family for permission to ukuziba, which means I would go to the school privately, with only my family and close family friends being aware that I was headed to there.
But unlike my friends, I received nothing but great hospitality from the the moment I arrived until my departure date. At some point I felt like I was receiving special treatment from the caregivers and I completely forgot about the stories my friends told me. I didn’t understand why I was treated this way until my uncle paid me a visit two days before I was meant to leave for home. It only dawned on me then that the special treatment was because I came from a well-respected family. This made me wonder if I would have received the same treatment if I didn’t come from a family like mine.
I believe that initiation school is still important. However, it really bothers me how exclusionary the ritual can be. Maybe I was lucky for not going through what my friend went through, but it’s also about time we addressed homophobia in most African practices.