Asanda Ncwadi carefully smeared red clay along his jawline, using his fingertips to spread the sticky color over his nose and forehead. “It protects my skin from the sun and helps my skin to be lighter,” he said.
The makeup, called embolla in the Xhosa language, wards off evil spirits and protects Ncwadi’s “essence” from the curious stares of others as he goes through the months-long process of becoming a man in the Xhosa culture.
Becoming a man, or bhuti in Xhosa culture, is simple at its core: when a boy turns 18 he must be circumcised. Ncwadi has lived in Hlalani “location” (or neighborhood) in Grahamstown, South Africa, his entire life, nearly 19 years. Hlalani is a township in South Africa — the ghettos and slums reserved for black residents in the apartheid era. In South Africa, several indigenous African cultures and languages dominate different regions of the country; in Grahamstown, the Xhosa people (pronounced with a clicking of the tongue in place of the X) and their customs are dominant.
As a Xhosa boy, Ncwadi began the process of male initiation shortly after he turned 18.
“This is the thing that must be done,” Ncwadi said. “This thing you are not forced to do, but it is something that was done in the beginning by our ancestors. Every young boy is expected to do such a thing. Every person in a boy’s family is happy and is hoping to see their son become a man.”
The entire process begins with a trip to the circumcision doctor. Mr. Johnson Tyelbooi has been circumcising Xhosa boys since 1973.
“My father was a circumcision doctor as well. I learned from him,” Tyelbooi said. “The boy must come to me before he goes to the bush and I must say that he is healthy enough.”
The circumcision is the most important part of Xhosa male initiation, although it barely takes five minutes. Anywhere from 15 to 30 Xhosa men at one time, with faces painted white, live for a month in “the bush” — a secluded area outside Grahamstown — after they are circumcised. The wound from the circumcision must be completely healed before the Xhosa boy is allowed back into society. When he emerges from the bush, there is a celebration by families and friends in honor of the newly initiated man, who must then wear a formal suit, hat, and the red embolla makeup for another month to signify that he has been circumcised in the bush.
When a boy becomes a bhuti, he gains certain privileges, such as contributing to township politics, drinking alcohol and choosing a wife. If a Xhosa man opts not to undergo the initiation process, his chances of marrying are slim.
“No woman would take a man who never became a man,” Ncwadi’s grandmother said.
In the final stage of the process, Ncwadi changes his makeup from red to brown. Soon after, he begins to dress normally and show his natural, makeup-free face to society.
“I’m so happy that I am a man,” he said.