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Lister Haig Hunter


Male Circumcision Ceremony


Initiation to Manhood


Presenting in colour slides the story of the Abakwetha.


Photo Set A




Lister Hunter - Umtata Agencies - Tourists Paradise


Lister Haig Hunter was born in South Africa in 1919. After WW 2 and up until his death in 1981, he traded in Umtata, the capital of the former Transkei. He dealt  in traditional herbal medicines known locally as Muthi or Muti, as well as curios and ethnic artifacts, the latter sold to foreign visitors. His close association with his native clientele helped develop his keen interest in tribal customs, which  led him to the pursuit of photography. The two passions came together at "Umtata Agencies - Tourists Paradise - Indlu Ya Mayeza". There he sold postcards to tourists which he produced in Durban from his photographic collections. He also sold slides that detailed the customs of his photographic studies. To learn more about Lister Hunters life, business or postcards click here.




'Abakwetha' Postage Stamps - Transkei Government - Circa 1979



Lister Hunter compiled his slide collections into seven sets totaling 163 ethnic studies of isiXhosa speakers. The majority of the slides were taken between Umtata and Elliotdale in the Eastern Cape. The seven sets were labeled A to G. Gallery Ezakwantu digitalized the slide collection.


© Photographs and text are copyright protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act - (DMCA)


The Abakwetha


 The text that follows was authored by Lister Haig Hunter




In the Xhosa Language, aba means a group, while kwetha meats to learn, hence the word “Abakwetha”, meaning a group learning. What are they learning? To become men through circumcision. Five youths at a time are circumcised, ages 17 to 20 years The group of five live together in a specially constructed hut (sutu), which becomes their home for three months while they undergo the transformation from youth to manhood.





Before circumcision young men wear “Gourds” (calabashes) over private parts. Like this considered fully dressed even in front of women.




Some with “Gourds” removed, proving uncircumcised.




Date of circumcision announce. They become chi-cha boys wearing fantastic headdress for two to three weeks before circumcision.



On day of circumcision men begin erection of skeleton framework




The completed framework.




Women take over and begin thatching framework.




Each initiate has head completely shaved.




Sheep are slaughtered for initiates.




The initiates to be circumcised, heads shaved, have last meal in sheep kraal before operation.




The newly thatched hut, Sutu, which will become their home for three months.




The Witch Doctor ready with spear before operation.




The start of actual operation, 500 yards from newly constructed hut. (Sutu)




The severing of the foreskin. No modern medicine used.




Completely severed. At this moment the boy shouts NDIYINDODA (I am a man).




The severed foreskin being stretched over the boys thumb.




The bandaging. Goat skin strip around waist becomes bandage.



The herbs used. Left hand ‘swadi” stops bleeding. Right hand “isichwe” antiseptic.



Operation complete, faces smeared with mud. Not white paint.




Entering newly-constructed hut - their home for three months.




The way the initiate must eat for the first seven days, never touching food or drink with his hands.




The eighth day. Emerging for “Jisa” (the day of the roasting).




Initiates seated, watch, as two strips of meat taken from flank of sheep just slaughtered are placed on coal. Note green leaves on coals to make meat bitter. These leaves are from the famous stinkwood tree (Nukani).




Roasted, each strip of meat is cut into five small pieces. Then each piece is offered on end of: stick to initiate, first piece he must spit out, second piece he may eat.




Roasted mealie held between two sticks offered to initiate. As in 23, first mouthful of first mealie he must spit out. The second mouthful of second mealie he may eat.



Beer from can offered to initiate. First mouthful he must spit out, as seen. Second mouthful he may swallow.




“Jisa” (roasting) competed, initiates enter hut remove mud from faces, then paint themselves completely white from Ingceke mixture made in large hollow stone.




Outside showing themselves painted completely white. This ensures, they say, that the complexion of the youth changes under paint to the complexion of manhood.




The incision of the forehead, after which black powder Ntsisyabatwa, is rubbed in, by witch doctor. See black mark on forehead, also drop of blood. Initiate then takes rest of black powder by mouth.




A month after circumcision, completely healed, they dress for dancing.




Dancing (Nchilo) fully dressed in their palm leaf skirts, head and face gear.




Beautifully dressed older women of the tribe beat an ox hide drum from which the boys obtain the rhythm for dancing.




A view of the huge crowd watching the dancers.




During dancing, the most energetic dancer is chosen. His reward is to be painted like a leopard which they maintain is the most agile of animals. He is then known as the King of Dancers for the rest of the ceremony. Corn cobs burnt to charcoal provide the black substance creating the dots.




A close-up of the Leopard Man with spear, dancing in full regalia.



Lazing around their hut which is encircled by white flag representing presents sent by girl friends.




Last day of three-month ceremony, in the river, white Ingceke paint is completely removed.




After washing, returning from the river amongst the cattle to ensure their nudity is obscured by the beasts.




Arriving back at their hut, appointed with ox fat which they rub into their bodies until it glistens.




He fits the "Sidla" (cup made of sheep skin) to private part. This replaces the "Gourd" (calabash) and is his proof of completing the ceremony from youth to manhood.




He then receives his Red Blanket of Manhood.




As the new men and the crowd move away, the hut (Sutu) is set alight.




A close-up of the burning hut, burnt to obliterate everything concerning their youth.




Reaching main kraal, new men enter hut. Two mix red Mdiki powder and water on stone, then begin painting themselves red.




The others follow, and soon all are plastered in the red Mdiki paint of manhood. They are now known as "maqualas".




To-night they dance the Ntiombe. This flashlight taken after midnight shows their hazy faces from consumption of beer.




Next day, seated in cattle kraal, they listen, as older men lecture them and hand out presents. Note new blankets on laps.




Next day ceremony ends. As the new men in black turbans and red faces emerge from hut, they are met by double line of women waving mealie stalks and bidding them farewell. The rigorous ceremony completed.



Many months later, as fully-fledged men, dressed for dancing, we see them with "sidla" (sheep skin cup) fitted, not calabashes.




Close-up of these men showing the "sidla" (sheep skin cup) in place, whilst next slide...




Shows the close-up with the "sidla" removed, proving that he has indeed been circumcised.


So ends the full story, with slide No. 1 showing the boy uncircumcised, wearing a calabash, whilst slides Nos. 49 and 50 show that, as men, the calabash disappears and the sidla takes its place on the Circumcised Men.    

FULL SET 50 SLIDES  R15.00       (Circa 1960)


© Photographs and text are copyright protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act - (DMCA)


Slide sets A through G have dedicated pages. Click a thumb to enter the section / category.




Ethnographic Photographs - Ethnic Photographs - Ethnographic Photography

Ethnographische Fotografien - Völkerkundliche Aufnahmen  - Ethnographische Fotographien


We hope you have enjoyed this page dedicated to the lifelong interest of African enthusiast Lister Hunter.









Galerie Ezakwantu

Southern African Tribal Art - African Art 


Central and Southern African Tribal Art


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