Monday, February 4, 2008

Dispatch: A New Man and A Birthday

Saturday was another extraordinary day -- a day when I recognized the rich relationships which I have cultivated in this fascinating place and homes away from home that are mine.

The first time I saw Sandile, a student in the Creative Arts Workshop I taught in 2005, I immediately noticed his clothes and knew the meaning of this dress. He wore nice slacks, a buttoned down shirt buttoned up to the collar, a 3-buttoned suit jacket and a hat. Always a confident person, he walks with a new stature, seems to stand a bit taller, and feel a bit more ready to take his place in the world. As Sandile’s dress indicates, in Xhosa tradition, he is now a Man. Just as my parents must have anticipated my sister and my Bat Mitzvah’s from the time we were young, Sandile’s parents have anticipated this day for years. It is a huge moment when a Xhosa boy, usually between the ages of 18 and 21, becomes a man.

This is a very secret tradition – a man’s tradition and women are generally not privy to the details of what happens in the bush when men go to perform the ceremony. I know what I know because I am nosy and asked Sipho as much as he would tell and then Sandile. Some boys have their initiation in this area, but since Sandile’s parents, like most people here are, are originally from the Eastern Cape, they went there. A boy generally stays there for about four weeks and I can't tell you much more as the details are kept for men - even Xhosa women don't know everything.

For the next 6 months, when he is outside of the house, Sandile must wear his jacket and hat. I think that if he is in the company of other men, he is permitted to take his jacket and hat off, but I am not entirely sure.

Saturday was the big ceremony and party for the community where he lives to recognize his manhood. I decided to bring some new friends to share in this tradition, so bottles of brandy in hand, Katie, a senior at the University of Connecticut, and Jeff, a grad student and R.A. on Katie’s program, and I headed out to Khayelitsha.

As we were driving into Mandela Park, I heard a scream outside the car and there was Luando, one of my former students. We hugged and caught up and then there was another scream and my former student Phila was running down the street. She hugged me, but I tell you this because in her enthusiasm promptly hugged Katie and Jeff too.

When we walked into Sandile’s, there were several “Mamas” or older women sitting in the living room. One was in the middle and she began singing for us. Katie and I sat down and Jeff was ushered into the garage with the other men where he had his first sip of African beer. Then the ceremony began.

Video camera in hand, I followed everyone into the garage. Benches were set up on either side, lined with men and the women sat further in the back. Sandile was on a bench in between the men, hat and jacket on. As the ceremony went on, people would get up, explain to Sandile what it means to be a man, how he needs to act and behave in his new role, and what is responsibilities are to the community. Then each person would announce that they were giving him money – usually 20 rand – and put it in a bowl by his feet. Before the women spoke, they would start singing, then everyone would sing some, then the woman would make her speech and also give money. Sandile’s mother was wearing a stunning red traditional outfit and cried as she told him how happy she was (See attached of her dancing.) The ceremony took about an hour and as things progressed, the men passed around a tin bucket filled with Umqomboti, homemade African beer. It tastes a bit smoky and looks kind of creamy and people drink it out of a communal bucket. (Again, see photo of me enjoying the tradition.)

Then there was the presentation of the gifts. This was done by the women of the community who had arranged everything – the new bed set, the electronics, and the dresser – at the opening of the garage. Several women spoke as they presented the gifts to Sandile. The tradition is that members of the community buy the gifts for each new man. Sandile’s mother had bought a bed set for the man next door so they bought one for Sandile.

Then the party began. Everyone separates – the men in the garage, the women in the living room, girls somewhere else, young men in another room. Case after case of beer and other alcohol were brought in. One woman told me that as a man Sandile wasn’t supposed to drink – I told her I guess that starts tomorrow! We were handed massive plates of a big slab of meat, potato, rice, cabbage, and samp, which is dried corn kernels that have been stamped on and broken and are similar in consistency of rice. Then the drinking began. Katie and I were encouraged by the mama’s to join them, so we took a seat on the floor and grabbed the bucket of African beer. Then came the brandy. There was a woman walking around giving all the women shots of brandy. She told us she couldn’t give us any because were not women and were not wearing head scarves and pointed to the females around us who were not in head scarves and had no drink. But in a quick second, she smiled and said, “But you are visitors!” and the libations flowed. I tried to imagine of my mother and my aunts and her friends sitting around singing and drinking brandy, but I don’t think it’s a tradition that will catch on in Chevy Chase, MD.

We left Sandile’s and headed to celebrate my friend Max’s mom’s 70th birthday. We got there just in time for me to make a speech to Hilda and present my gift. Once again, we were given big plates of food, but this time, since this feels like my extended family, I told the woman that Jeff didn’t eat meet. “Oh, a vegetarian,” a woman echoed from the next table. Katie encouraged us to find our second stomachs, but none of us were able to eat much. We moved outside to Max and the other men. I had a great conversation about politics with 3 men. We talked about Clinton and Obama, who I thought would and could win. We talked about Bush and one man was incredulous that the U.S. could have elected him twice. We fantasized about what the world would look like if Gore had won. Of course his incredulousness allowed me to open the Zuma door. I knew Max, a former member of the armed wing of the ANC and a major housing activist, didn’t like Zuma, but I had never met these men. They all said they wouldn’t vote for Zuma. But then who? The ANC is their party and the party of the struggle, they would never vote for another party. So if Zuma were the candidate, they said they just wouldn’t vote. But then, he explained the dilemma, “If we don’t vote, we are giving away all of our power.” How tragic it seems that people fought so hard for the right to vote and 14 years later are considering giving it up for one election. Here’s hoping that Zuma is not the candidate, but I think it will take several decades before the ANC is no longer the party of the people and there is a shift in what democracy means here.

I end this on an extraordinary note. Today is the first day of school for Mongamo, Noluyanda and Amanda at the University of the Western Cape. Noluyanda said it’s great and I smile imagining them sitting in class, walking through campus and simply being university students. So if you need a lift today, think of them and smile, for this simple act of getting an education for me represents so much.

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