We drove out to Ezakheni today to help prepare for a massive, district-wide male circumcision campaign. Although the jury is still out on the degree to which male circumcision reduces the risk of HIV infection (with some folks saying it doesn’t help at all and that the correlation noticed is due to other factors like genital ulcers or high-risk behavior), the South African government (traditional as well as modern) has whole-heartedly jumped onto the male circumcision bandwagon.
In Xhosa and Zulu tradition, circumcision is but one part of a coming-of-age ritual for young men (due to a high post-circumcision rate, the Zulu monarchy had suspended the circumcision part of the rite for years and has only recently revived it in light of the HIV/AIDS epidemic sweeping the nation). Young men go off to the mountains in groups with a sangoma (traditional healer) to be initiated into the ways of manhood. Part of this includes circumcision and the burial of the foreskin (and thus, of childhood). Since circumcisions have picked up in recent years, so has the infection rate. This winter alone, 40 boys have already died from infections acquired because of circumcisions. So in an effort to prevent the deaths and disfiguring infections, the government has mandated that the public hospitals run these circumcision camps.
In a nod to the tradition of going away to the mountains for the whole process, we set up the clinic in an old technical college in Ezakheni instead of running the campaign out of the hospital which would have been considerably easier (it was supposed to be in a more remote area but the location wouldn’t have been feasible for the medical staff). Some 250 adolescent boys will come through there this weekend, so there were a lot of preparations to be made. Although I definitely think that using the time to teach about HIV infection and safe sex would be more helpful (isn’t manhood about accepting responsibility for your actions and making decisions that will benefit you and your loved ones?), this does seem to be a step in the right direction. I disagree with the whole circumcision thing (genital mutilation is genital mutilation whether practiced on boys or girls), but if it’s going to be done, better in a sanitary setting where there are doctors performing the procedures than out in the bush. At the end of the day, it’s about saving lives, right?