About this story

Author: Shayna Meliker, Christine Mehta

Date: January 2011

People: Johnson Tyelbooi (pictured) has circumcised the boys of Grahamstown for decades. In an interview in his home before a group of reporters visited "the bush," he estimated he'd performed the procedure on 40,000 boys.

Data points: South Africa is the 26th largest country in the world by population. According to Mid-Year Population Estimates 2010: Africa has a population of 49,991,300. Female: 25,662,300 (51.3%). Male: 24,329,000 (48.7%).

The count: He’s circumcised 40,000

The count: He’s circumcised 40,000

By: Shayna Meliker, Christine Mehta

Mr. Johnson Tyelbooi has turned about 40,000 boys in Grahamstown, South Africa, into men in the past four decades.

Certified by the South African Department of Health, he plays a central role in the Xhosa male rite of passage by performing the essential operation that turns a Xhosa boy into a man: circumcision. He inherited the occupation and is now training his son to succeed him as the local circumcision doctor, fulfilling a tradition that is centuries-old and that continues to be vital to black South Africans living in Grahamstown.

Two Newhouse professors (Steve Davis and Seth Gitner) and student reporter Nate Hopper visited the bush to see how Xhosa men live in the wild for a month after they are circumcised. Before that, Mr. Tyelbooi received them — along with student reporters Shayna Meliker and Christine Mehta — to answer a few questions. (Women are not allowed to visit the bush.)

How long have you been doing this [circumcision]?
I started in 1973.

How did you get involved doing this?
At home. During my time, there were not many doctors, and then my dad realized he needed me to help him. My dad was good and then he taught me.

Is this a tradition that runs in families, as it did with you?
Well, yes, of course, it is a tradition.

Why is this process so important in your culture?
Our forefathers back then before colonization did this, and we have to do this because our forefathers did it.

What does it mean to the young men who go through the process?
It is a stage of changing because you are no longer immature. You are now mature. You are no longer a boy. You are a man. You must try to do a man’s stuff now, and do away with the life of a boy.

How old are boys when they go through the process?
They are 18 years old.

What exactly do you do as the circumcision doctor?
First you must put a glove on your hands and then you examine the boy to be circumcised to make sure that he is well, and that he is strong. That he is strong for going into the bush and then strong for going to the clinic. Because first he must go to the government clinic, and then into the bush. And then I circumcise him. When I circumcise him, I take off the foreskin.

How long does the whole process [circumcision] take?
About five minutes.

What do you do in the bush for all that other time? The boys are there for a month.
Every day I go to change the bandages at 6 in the morning and then again in the afternoon. Sometimes, I go in the evenings as well to check on them and see how they are doing.

Do they have to stay in the bush until the wound is fully healed before entering back into society?
Yes. There is an initiation school out in the bush that will give the boys lessons in how to be a man. For example, when you leave the bush, you can take a wife at any time, so you need to know all the stages for taking a wife.

How many boys are in the bush at one time?
We can’t know. There could be 10 boys today from various families, but tomorrow there could be 15 coming. You won’t know, it just happens.

Are the boys nervous?
Yes, because they don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a challenge for them.


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