South African Rituals— Rite of Passage (RELS 348)

Journalist Wendell Roelf’s article, “World’s first penis transplant performed by South African doctors”,[1] published in The Globe And Mail introduces ‘problematic’ rituals that occur in South Africa. In particular, the Xhosa tribes are known to hold rituals that require young boys to undergo a process of circumcision. This entire process begins with the young shaving their heads, and subsequently covering themselves with white clay, and then to live away from the community in special huts. This process is finalized by undergoing ritual circumcision. Only after this ritualistic process, young boys are able to mark their passage into manhood. However, such ritual has raised health concerns within domestic and international health communities on the issue of non-medical individuals carrying on these ritualistic practices. Such rituals conducted especially by Xhosa tribes is responsible for the deaths of more than 20 youths in May 2013, followed by 30 more deaths after a few months later. It is approximately estimated that 250 South African young men lose their penises each year after rituals go wrong. In response, after performing world’s first successful penis transplant, Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town and the University of Stellenbosch have reached out to help by offering surgical operations to those youths who have unfortunately had their male reproductive organs amputated.

The article closely relates to the discussion introduced by Dr. Hexham in our religious studies class. Rites of transition, passage, or life cycle is a type of ritual that is concerned with the social world—in particular with the changes in the individual’s status, role, or position in it. In this light, one can observe that there is a bridge between religion and anthropology. Rites of passage are a form of a ritual; which most often are, by definition, religious. It is also a belief in action—sacred action— that provides a sense of solidarity, and thus relates to anthropological thinking. In relation, Dr.Hexham articulated that from both taking a religious and anthropological stance, rituals—a form of passage of transition—throughout life allows society to function for it creates a sense of belonging; an identity similar to a group. Moreover, from taking a religious studies approach, rituals being a core element of religion, the role of the story of narrative paradigm is critically important in supporting and acting as evidence to these rites of passage. That is, religion legitimates a lot of activities and allows things to progress and move forward.

Dr. Hexham extensively mentioned rites of passage as being a form of a ritual that occurs in three consecutive events: 1. Separation 2. Transition 3. Reincorporation. Arnold van Gennep who is a noted ethnographer in the early 1900s, articulated that, there are existential similarities can be found in tribal rituals: “…among ceremonies of birth, childhood, social puberty, betrothal, marriage, pregnancy, fatherhood, initiation into religious societies and funerals…all were rites of passage and consisted of three distinct phases: separation, transition, and incorporation”.[2] In this sense, the rites of passage that every individual, including the Xhosa tribes, is or are event(s) in life that every individual goes through, and it subtly conveys how these highly formalized patterns of behavioral processes entail meaning and add meaning to our lives.

To further emphasize on such meaningfulness, The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences denote that, rituals or rites of passage

“provides a means of shaping and controlling human emotions and biological drives and then explaining them within wider cosmological frameworks them within wider cosmological frameworks”.[3]

Nevertheless, although I am aware of, and recognize the critical importance rituals have on an individual and to a community, there must be more attention paid to the physical harm done to these young men of South Africa as a result of non-medical individuals conducting circumcision without any training or any medical or sanitary equipment. In my opinion, if there were a regulation and government laws of South Africa that requires these individuals some type of medical training and to possess the right equipment to conduct this ritual, it would be alleviate the problem with health issues associated with it. Moreover, as opposed to viewing South African ritual with gruesome and labeling it as something grotesque, it would allow for people around the world to be more understanding of the importance of their rituals.



[1] News source retrieved from

[2] Arnold van Gennep qtd. in

[3] “Rites of Passage.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Ed. William Darity, Jr.  2nd ed. Vol. 7. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2008. 256-259. Global Issues In Context. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.


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