Human Stories, Boldly Told.
When Dakwa returns later for an inspection of all the boys’ progress, he observes that Nkqinqa is faint and unresponsive. The wound has changed shape and color. Urine no longer is discharged from his urethra, seeping instead out of other parts of the shaft. “This guy is beyond the control of the traditional nurse,” Dakwa thinks to himself. He brings Nkqinqa to Holy Cross hospital, about an hour away by car, on a Saturday evening at about six p.m. The next morning, Nkqinqa wakes up confused about where he is or how he got into this white and blue gown. He lifts up the sheets to look at his groin area and finds a devastating absence where his penis once was. He sobs bitterly. A visit from his best friend offers little consolation. Even though Nkqinqa explains that his penis is gone, his friend cannot metabolize the information. “I will explain when we are out of the hospital,” he says. Then, Nkqinqa begs his friend not to tell anyone about the situation. Nkqinqa’s case is not uncommon. Most amputations happen a few days after the actual circumcision, the result of unsanitary dressing practices which in turn lead to infections like gangrene. Once the flesh is necrotic, nothing can be done — though if the doctors can save any part of the flesh they will tend to opt for a partial amputation. Dakwa visits Nkqinqa too. Because Dakwa has counselled several amputees in the past, he knows how important it is to dispel the myths that are spread by some traditional nurses — the worst of which being that the penis would grow back. Dakwa addresses the misinformation head on. The penis is gone forever, he says sternly but tenderly, and Nkqinqa should not entertain false hope. D riving into Flagstaff, the first thing one notices is how incredibly dense the traffic is. Cars must slow down to avoid pedestrians, as well as the occasional goat crisscrossing the main street. This part of the country is where most of the between 80 and 250 penis amputations in the country happen every year. The dire economic and social conditions in the province can be observed in the dilapidated storefronts and the treacherous roads. This state of affairs is inextricably tied up in the country’s past, going back to the decision by the government in 1913 to designate some of the land here a “homeland.” (This term was a disingenuous euphemism used to describe a small section of the country — just seven percent — in which black people could legally own land. The lion’s share was reserved for whites.) The extreme concentration of citizens trying to pursue subsistence farming here has perforated the landscape with divots, caused by rampant soil erosion. In 2015, only 31 percent of the local working-age population was employed.
Nkqinqa is feeling particularly insecure. It is customary for the patriarch in a family to send a boy off, but Nkqinqa’s father has not been a part of his life for several years, and three of his uncles are dead. So a neighbor named Patrick Dakwa has agreed to take responsibility for him. Dakwa is a community volunteer who spends a lot of time trying to make circumcisions safer, running seminars near the Eastern Cape town of Flagstaff, teaching traditional surgeons how to safely dress wounds. However, since previous initiates are sworn to secrecy about the ritual’s details, as he lies in a hut with the other boys, rabid speculation is Nkqinqa’s only close companion. The next day, the 13 boys in his cohort consecutively go to see a surgeon. Using a blade about the size of a steak knife, he slices off each of their foreskins. Dakwa and his fellow health volunteers recommend in their seminars that separate, disposable razors be used for the circumcisions so as to eliminate the risk of HIV transmission. But this is an illegal initiation school that shows little regard for regulations. All boys go under the same knife here. The surgeon wraps Nkqinqa’s penis with a traditional dressing comprised of medicinal leaves. The pain is unremitting and debilitating, but Nkqinqa tries not to let his discomfort show. He doesn’t want to appear weak in front of the other emerging men.