09/02/2018 02:58 GMT | Updated 09/02/2018 04:01 GMT

Let's Talk About The Inconvenient African Wound - 'Inxeba'

Many black males find it hard to believe that black people can be gay. It’s embarrassing. Once again, masculinity is at it.


The invitation for the movie screening didn't specify which movie it was, hinting only that the subject was an "aspect of LGBTI life in southern Africa." Months prior, the trailer for the South African movie "Inxeba (The Wound)" had hit the internet. A direction debut for John Trengove, the film promised to showcase the ceremony of traditional circumcision performed by the amaXhosa.

Many Xhosa people were outraged. The film allegedly was an affront to Xhosa culture and a desecration of the sanctity of their rite-of-passage ritual, which involves teenage boys being sent to the mountains incommunicado from their families for cultural education and, ultimately, circumcision.

Upon returning from the mountains, the boys are welcomed back into society amid pomp and fanfare, and touted as "men".

Infamy plagues this tradition. The circumcisions are performed by a village elder that has been doing this sort of thing for decades. Fine, the guy is a seasoned foreskin chopper. Fine, Xhosa people have been doing this ritual for millennia. He was trained by his father, who was trained by his father before him and so on – fine.

Inxeba/ The Wound
Inxeba/ The Wound

But it has been reported for many years that sometimes the elder's blade cuts more than just foreskin, causing genital mutilation in the boys. Due to excessive bleeding, fatalities have been reported as well.

Because of the so-called secrecy around this practice, unverified figures put the death toll of this ritual at more than 1,000 since the 1990s.

Opting for a circumcision at hospitals and clinics is heavily frowned upon. One is considered not to be a man if one doesn't go to the mountains.

In fact, Xhosa men are known for looking down on the rest of South African men whose culture does not include circumcision. By extension, that includes other African men, since there are a lot of foreigners domiciled in the republic.

The Xhosa king was outraged. He allegedly tried to get the release of the film stopped nationwide – after it had garnered critical international acclaim at a film festival in one of South Africa's destination cities.

The Xhosa people grew angrier, and death threats started pouring in against the star of the film, Nakhane, who is openly gay.

A musician and a Xhosa man who had undergone the ritual himself, Nakhane was forced to cancel a gig in his home region because of the thousands of threats.

Other races can send spacecraft to Mars and to the edge of the solar system, while some of our people's biggest concern is about some ancient and unsanitary manly wounds.

Ironically, none of those people, including the king, had even seen the film.

Clearly, the offence taken wasn't about culture or tradition. It never is.

Whenever humans screech "culture and tradition", something else is triggering the bellowing.

In this case, the outrage – which is ongoing – is about the connection between a gay storyline and the supposed "manhood" of not having a foreskin.

Black societies all over the world are obsessed with male homosexuality. Many black males find it hard to believe that black people can be gay. It's embarrassing. Once again, masculinity is at it. Xhosa women have been incredibly supportive.

I flew out to South Africa late last year for a private screening, which placed an embargo on social media because the release of the film was uncertain at the time, due to the public backlash.

The South African deputy president and the likely next president, Cyril Ramaphosa, had been invited to the gathering too, but didn't show up.

The South African government has a rich history of turning a blind eye to local and international LGBTI issues, even though same-sex marriage is legal here and has been for 12 years.

The movie is indeed about the boys and men on the mountains of Eastern Cape. The men are assigned to nurse the circumcised boys into manhood. Starvation – fasting if you like – is part of the healing process.

The men who play the village elders are outstanding actors and show how mature the South African film industry has come. Nakhane stars as one of the mid-life aides – a cultural mentor to the young initiates. The complication is in his character's love-hate affair with another caregiver, who has a wife back at home.

Getty Images
QUNU, EASTERN CAPE, SOUTH AFRICA, 14 DECEMBER 2013: Xhosa Initiates pass by close to the funeral of Nelson Mandela, Qunu, South Africa, 14 December 2014. These initiates have recently been circumsized traditionally and without anesthetic. They will spend up to two months dressed this way and learning the tradtions of Xhosa culture. Nelson Mandela, an icon of democracy, also went through this tradtional ritual. Mandela was buried at his family home in Qunu after passing away on the 5th December 2013. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images.)

Theirs is a secret affair, which plays out only when the two return to the annual task of mentoring new sets of boys "into men".

The movie explores the toll it takes on the two lovers to keep the little fragments of their relationship a secret, while keeping it together as seemingly straight men to the world. The "down-low", or the DL, is a phenomenon of men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM) that is all too familiar in black societies.

Though it narrowly missed out on a nomination for the best foreign film at this year's Oscars, the idea that "The Wound"is "insulting" to Xhosa culture is completely unfounded, as all there is to know about it is already known.

Other races can send spacecraft to Mars and to the edge of the solar system, while some of our people's biggest concern is about some ancient and unsanitary manly wounds.

Despite what they are saying, there is absolutely nothing to admire about the sometimes fatal Xhosa boys' initiation rite. Even worse, there is nothing to condone in Xhosa men protesting and attempting to infringe upon artists' freedom to create.

Sonny Jermain is an award-winning Zimbabwean public health, child, sexual and reproductive health rights freelance journalist, facilitator and African traditional medical practitioner.

"Inxeba/The Wound" is showing in cinemas in South Africa. In Zimbabwe, where a minute Xhosa population exists that also adheres to the circumcision practice, cinemas contacted for comment have ruled out showing the film because of its gay storyline.