What is ‘ingqithi’?

By Malibongwe Dayimani

An ancient Xhosa custom of amputating the joint of the little finger, or of the ring finger on babies is seen by many as an act of cruelty and torture.

The Ingqithi custom is practiced by certain Xhosa speaking tribes and is common in the Tembus. Amongst clans that practice it are amaQwathi, amaZangwa, amaHala, amaMfene, amMvulane and amaJwara. Unlike circumcision, the surgery is usually performed on a newborn but in some families it is left until later if the child has any physical or psychological problems.

Khayelethu Ngalo, 43, is a traditional healer and bishop and belongs to AmaMvulane household, residing at Qhitsi Village in Cofimvaba. He says, “If a child didn’t do Ingqithi at an early stage of his or her life, they start developing the habit of wetting the bed, become mentally disturbed and or even start to injure themselves by biting the little finger.”

Ngalo says he neglected the custom until he was 18 years old and had started wetting his bed. His parents were forced to get the traditional surgeon to tear off the flesh on the tip of the little finger. The mauling of the flesh becomes an alternative for older people to avoid the excruciating pain of cutting through the matured bone joint.

Ngalo’s nephew, Samson Siviwe Feketha, a 21-year-old journalism student also performed the ritual. He says, “I was five years old when my little finger was removed and I have no regrets because it is my culture and I would do it again if necessary.”

“People who are not subordinate to our culture must not be quick to judge and second guess it by demanding scientific proof, we black people base our beliefs on history and experience.” He says experience shows them that after a sick child performs Inqgithi, illnesses and bed-wetting stops immediately for good, therefore the ritual is effective.

On the day of the surgery a child is taken outside to the kraal and tied carefully. Then a black cloth is tied around the face to cover his or her eyes. A specialist surgeon different from the one who circumcises boys comes with a very sharp knife and performs the surgery on the infant. After that soil taken from a mole-hill is put on the wound. Other families put fresh cow dung on the wound and it is supposed to heal over a period of three to five weeks.

According to the African Studies book by G. Jansen from 1966, the Ingqithi is very rare among the educated and Christians living in urban areas.

Nwabisa Pondoyi, a 20-year-old journalism student who comes from Queenstown and belongs to amaQwathi clan, says, “I was 3 months old when the surgery was done to me and I think it was unfair because it was done without my consent and I don’t even believe in that custom and I would not advise anyone to do it. I would never impose it on my children because there is nothing good out of it besides torture.”

Simthembile Mgidi is a second year journalism student in East London and a born-again Christian and says: “The Lord died on the cross for us. If you believe in him you’re fully protected against anything on this earth. Therefore you won’t have to chop fingers to have a smooth sailing in life.”

Thandeka Sakhela is a spiritual healer and works at the Icamagu Institute, an organisation teaching communities about African Heritage and instilling the recognition of the power and presence of ancestral spirits.

Sakhela says: “Inqgithi symbolises a body-part sacrificed to the ancestry and sparing of life of the affected child, and those who think they can avoid it must be careful of the wrath of the ancestors.” – WSU-SNA


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