Death toll increases: 25 people die during initiation, largely from dehydration

It is quite disheartening to learn that promising young boys would cut short their existence in such a crude manner.

While hundreds of families in the Eastern Cape are preparing for their sons’ return from initiation schools, 25 others are preparing to bury their beloved offspring.

By Friday afternoon, at least 25 initiates [abakhwetha] had died in the Eastern Cape during the summer initiation season, most of them from dehydration.

The rite of passage process is expected to run until early January.

Last year’s summer initiation season saw 17 boys lose their lives.

This means eight more initiates have already died this season, which is still under way.

Mamkeli Ngam, provincial spokesperson for the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, said that while some initiates died of dehydration as a result of having been deprived of water, others died because they had defaulted on the medical treatment they were undergoing prior to joining the initiation process.

“Initiates who suddenly stop taking their treatment for tuberculosis, for example, or any other chronic illnesses become sick, and, as a result, they die while in initiation schools,” said Ngam.

He added that most of the boys who had undergone traditional initiation in the province were expected to return to their families this weekend and next week, ahead of Christmas.

As a result, hundreds of these newly graduated young men [amakrwala], who had successfully undergone the traditional rite of passage into manhood, would now graduate and enjoy iimigidi [traditional homecoming ceremonies].

During the iimigidi, cattle, sheep and chickens are slaughtered and the community then gathers for a feast.

Families and friends present amakrwala with gifts and arm them with words of wisdom [ukuyala] about how to be responsible men.

Ngam said the department was grateful to monitoring teams, sector departments and nongovernmental organisations for the monitoring activities it had undertaken throughout the province.

“Our view is that if these monitoring activities had not been carried out, more initiates would have lost their lives. Some initiates were rescued in time and taken to rescue centres by these monitoring teams, while others were taken to hospital for immediate medical attention,” he said.

However, he added, more work still needed to be done to prevent initiate deaths in KwaZulu-Natal, including enforcing the law and ensuring that those who broke the Customary Male Initiation Practice Act – which governs initiation in the province – were arrested and brought to book.

Ngam said more than 60 cases had been opened for the unlawful circumcision of underage boys so far, and, of those, 20 arrests were effected.

He added that all stakeholders involved in traditional initiation in KwaZulu-Natal would meet in January to consolidate all the information emerging from the summer initiation season, particularly with regard to analysing statistics, in order to consider more ways of preventing initiation deaths.

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