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OPINION: The road to manhood: Learning my culture from an outsider

I visited Grahamstown, known as Rhini to the locals, for the National Arts Festival. One afternoon I went for a walk with video camera in hand on the lookout for any interesting goings-on. It was my first time in the city.

I came across a poster reading 'Fine art photographic exhibition: a Xhosa Male's Road to Manhood.'

I was taken aback. This exhibition purported to feature one of the most secretive rituals in African culture where, among other rules surrounding this tradition, the Umkhwetha (male initiates) are not permitted to have pictures taken of them.

As a young Xhosa woman, I still carry the teachings of my uncles with their warnings to not to talk to or ask anything about esuthwini (initiation school). This exhibition sounded like a misguided Western exposé of indigenous culture, something I didn't expect to see here in the Eastern Cape where the culture is still deeply respected.

Rationalising that Xhosa male initiation had already been exposed to some extent by mainstream media, I thought that a cursory look at the images wouldn't hurt. The first thing I saw on entering the gallery was a white man. We greeted. I was taken in by the pictures, which were beautiful. I asked where the exhibitor was. "_Ndim (It's me)," a voice replied. It was the same man. "Surely not," I thought, yet he carried on in my mother tongue "Ndim umntu wezi-pictures _(I'm the one who took these pictures)." At this point I felt irritated, thinking it was just another Mlungu (white) taking the culture for granted because it meant nothing to him.

But he carried on and I listened. I was struck by the fact that he knew more about the ritual than I did. I felt a rush. He got me so excited about my culture through his pictures. He carried on talking about how he stayed with the initiates and learnt about the culture and how he gives a certain portion of the money he makes off his exhibition to the initiators. Invigorated, I asked to interview Michael on camera, having never seen any 'outsider' as interested in circumcision culture as he was.

Below is my interview:

Philela Singama is a Primedia broadcasting videographer working across all four radio stations and LeadSA. She is a recent Bsc graduate who's passionate about film making. Follow her on Twitter: @ThatsCodie

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