Bana Ba Tau le Nkwe

The Great Roman Empire created the Christmas holiday to appease Christians and pagans with a day worthy of a festival. But for the great Mapulana nation of South Africa who are largely based in Mapulaneng, the biggest festival in their calendar is the annual initiation school graduation. It wasn’t different last month as thousands of boys became men and girls graduated into women. There were more than ten such schools in the kingdom.

This year’s initiation graduation was captured by a television crew for an SABC commissioned series which is funded by the National Lottery Distribution Fund. It will be screened in 2012. The documentary, aptly titled O’Mang seeks to unearth the roots of South Africa’s often forgotten Black cultures. It is being filmed all over the country and various tribes feature in the series. The core focus is on events that shape each tribe.

Kasiekulture followed the crew over three days as they explored the story of Mapulana and their initiation (koma). The Mapulana chapter of the documentary started in their ancestral land of Pilgrims’ Rest, which according to historian Billy Malele is where Mapulana settled after defeating amaSwati at Moholoholo mountain by hurling rocks at them. “They deployed various chiefs to guard boundaries. they deployed Mogane, Mashego, Mashile, Malele and Chiloane to various outposts. Every terrain was allocated a chief to guard against the return of the Swazi army”, he relates in the documentary.

On the subject of initiation another historian Jonathan Malele elaborated about how around 1830 Mapulana decided their men had to be trained to withstand any threat they might face in the future as they were fresh from a battle that saw them flee from Barberton to Hoedspruit under the barrage of amaSwati Army. “They chose the harshest of weathers, Winter to conduct the training. It had to happen far from women so a mountain was chosen. Everything that a boy is taught and trained for in our initiation schools is meant to make them brave, never fear cold, understand astronomy, how to start a family and treat his wife”, Malele said.

Unlike the much-hyped and controversial amaXhosa, Mapulana initiation is only held in Winter. He added that circumcision (lebollo) was also added to go with the training as there needed to be a measure to counter venereal diseases which made the foreskin stiff around the glans. Initiation took six months then – which is a far cry from the six weeks of nowadays.

"Government demands that it be six weeks to ensure that learners are back to school in no time. So we are guided by legislation but we still initiate them correctly even though circumcision is not a big part of it”, says Sehule Initiation School minder Robert Mashego, who is also the chairperson of initiation school minders in Limpopo Province. His younger brother Linos was running one school in Thabakgolo this year.

The O’Mang crew, led by veteran film and documentary maker Bjorn Rudner filmed the graduation ceremony from August 4, 2011, when the initiates leave the burning school behind, watch a stick-fighting (matube) until Saturday when they go home. The Mapulana chapter of this groundbreaking documentary is hosted by artist Zakhona Mogane and revolves around her journey into Mapulana history and culture.

“The people here have a colourful culture and some of the things we have seen exceeded our own expectation”, said producer Rudner, who was excited by how the script started writing itself on the second and third day.

Linos Mashego told this newspaper that this year they initiated 166 boys and 93 girls and all of them returned home safe. His older brother says it’s a far cry from what is happening in the Eastern Cape where the journey into manhood is often the last journey taken. “They need to come to Mapulaneng and learn how initiation can be performed correctly. It’s a birthright, not a commercial enterprise”, Robert, who is also a traditional healer said.

Next year, another bunch of Mapulana boys will once again take the journey into manhood at one of the 13 or so initiation schools in Mapulaneng – and the custodians of Mapulana culture are adamant that they will continue returning home in one piece – minus a foreskin.

* O’Mang will be screened some time next year.

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