Broom Handles, Circumcisions, Presidential Showers & AIDS

MAN TALK: Discussion of Xhosa circumcision ritual is spoken of only amongst men. Xhosa boys become men when they undergo a circumcision ritual sometime between 15 and 19 years old

I mentioned the challenge that Africa faces in terms of the AIDS epidemic. The truth is the epidemic is far more pervasive than anyone realizes because the official numbers are just those who have been diagnosed with the AIDS/HIV virus, and most people are reluctant to be tested until they are sick.

The South African health authorities tired a massive educational program in which they send out informative postcards by the millions with condoms attached. Of course it was after the mailing that someone realized that it probably wasn’t a good idea to have stapled the condoms to the post cards.

It sounds simple to say just use condoms, but this is going against years of tradition and is in a society where many people still lack basic education and so don’t understand the disease.

One of the things health workers were using in their educational program to illustrate how to put on a condom was broom handles. I guess that is better than the cucumbers and bananas my wife’s workers used to use when she ran a program for pregnant teens in Ventura. Knowing of the reluctance of African men to use condoms, the health workers emphasized the economic value of family planning and having fewer mouths to feed. One man angrily attacked the program when his wife got pregnant saying, “I thought if I used a condom she wouldn’t get pregnant.” The health workers visited his home and found out that he had indeed used the condom . . . it was still on the broom handle!


After a period of isolation and preparation in a circumcision hut, which will be burned after the ceremony is completed, the young man to be circumcised emerges to the male elders dressed in a red and white blanket. During the isolation period the boys entire bodies are painted in white.

This man might have been the current president of South Africa who has publicly stated that he doesn’t need to use condoms because he takes a shower after he has sex. Really! I had a very intelligent guide explain that the Zulu tribe, who unlike the Xhosa people had not traditionally circumcised young men, are now starting to encourage circumcision to prevent transmission of AIDS. That left my head swimming . . . and so I inquired further . . . since I couldn’t see any possible relationship between circumcision and AIDS prevention, in fact, at least in the Xhosa case it had been just the opposite. Until recently the Xhosa were using the same unsterilized ceremonial knife for circumcision rituals which was helping to transmit the virus. [Now, according to the young Xhosa guys I talked to, a “white guy” . . . who from their description I presume to be a nurse-practitioner, actually performs the circumcision with a sterilized scalpel in the context of all the traditional ceremonial elements.]

This well-educated person went on to inform me that tests have proven that good hygiene reduces AIDS. I countered that as far as I knew, circumcision of hygiene had nothing to do with it: you either use a condom or you don’t. Response: “Well, no African man wants to use a condom.”

Good luck Africa! Maybe the President uses Dial soap. No wonder in the state of Natal one out of three (!!) is known to be HIV+ . . .

During the recovery period, the boy is cared for by a male nurse, and if he steps outside the circumcision hut is dressed in a black blanket. During this period he can’t really drink water or anything. When I asked the guys, “Doesn’t it hurt?” they assured me that they are pretty high at the time of the operation and smoke a lot of medicinal pot during the period of recovery.
The “coming out” ceremony: the boy is now a man.

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