It’s all systems go in the Western parts of Kenya as the circumcision season sets in. Since the 1800s, the Bukusu clan has been practicing this traditional every even year, and this year (2018), is no exception.
Circumcision is a rite of passage, and when performed on young adults and adolescents, it marks a transition from boyhood to manhood. But for the Bukusu tribe in the western part of Kenya, it isn’t all black and white, a series of cultural aspects go into the process.
Before a boy faces the knife, they have to go through a spectrum of rituals, both publicly and privately. For instance, they are required to bring two chickens to a local blacksmith as a price for two bells that they’ll ring across villages to invite their relatives to the ceremony.
As part of the practice, the candidates from each area gather at a central location every night, and jog for many kilometres chanting circumcision songs, and blowing whistles until a few hours to dawn.
A few days before the circumcision day, the boys ring their bells while singing their songs as they head to the homesteads of all their relatives, to invite them officially. During this time, they undergo lots of bullying from those who already went through the initiation process (with the intention of hardening them).
On the last day before the ceremony, the boys go to their maternal uncles and have a cow slaughtered in their honour, and some raw meat placed on their shoulders.
At wee hours of the circumcision day, the uncle takes the boy to the river, (and dips him in cold water to numb his body). Then he smears him with clay and places a piece of grass on his head (held by the clay) to symbolize that the initiate is communicating with the ancestors.
Villagers, along with other relatives then escort the naked boy back to their homes while chanting the circumcision songs – this time around, the boy does not ring bells, neither does he dance; instead, he walks upright, with courage to his father’s home, and stands on top of a paper with some ashes.
The ritual is performed out in public without any anaesthetic. The boy is expected to face it bravely, without shaking, or blinking, as a sign of courage. Once the bleeding slows, the graduate goes into his father’s house walking backward.
The people of western Kenya treasure this tradition; after all, it’s been part of their lives for centuries. However, it doesn’t come without a price.
The Bukusu community plans to circumcise more than 2,000 boys traditionally – without the help of a professional medical doctor, or correctly sterilized equipment. According to Makala, the chair of National AIDS/STD Control Programme in Kenya, out of the 2,000 young boys who are to undergo the initiation, about 800 of them will end up with complications ranging from mild to life-threatening.
Often, untrained individuals execute the cut, and do so in unhygienic conditions. But this is not the only reason why these boys are at risk of complications. After the cut, they are secluded to a place where they’ll spend a few weeks, as they recuperate. Since there are no follow-ups or check-ups, the boys suffer in solitude, even as some of them face potentially life-threatening issues like bacterial infections, gangrene, severe bleeding, and penis mutilation.
Although male circumcision is said to reduce the risk of HIV infections, Makala says some cultural practices like circumcision can increase HIV transmission risk, especially when a knife is shared amongst different boys. Besides, since these boys transition to men after the initiation, they are even encouraged to engage in sexual intercourse.
An inside look
Even with the glaring risk, boys are still willing to go through the traditional cut. We asked one of the initiates why he didn’t want to go to the hospital for the circumcision. His response was, “I fancy my culture, so I have to uphold it no matter what. In my community, circumcised men are respected. And unlike awhile back when the knife was shared among several boys, circumcisers today only use one knife, for one boy, so the risk of infections is minimized.”
Both governmental and non-governmental organizations in Kenya are striving to find a way to let the families uphold their traditions without exposing their little ones to risk. They encourage families to carry on with their practices, but in the end, have a trained medical doctor to execute the cut, instead of the traditional circumcisers.
Childhood Experiences Growing Up with an African Mother
If I may ask, why did our mothers give us that “THAT LOOK” when we did something wrong in public? Couldn’t they tell us to stop whatever it was we were doing?
Don’t bother answering. I got the answer yesterday when I took my son to the mall for some little fun. He was getting all fussy about a toy that he wanted me to buy. I tried talking him out of it, but he didn’t want to hear a word. Well, out of the blues, I found myself giving him “THAT LOOK”, and to my surprise, it worked.
My African mother
Our mothers were tough, nothing more, nothing less. You make a mistake; you face the consequences, sometimes, there and then.
I remember one day, a few church members came to our place for prayers. So my mom prepared some chapatis and chicken and told us to go out and play. It was around one o’clock, and since we hadn’t had anything since morning, my brothers, and I were starving.
So, I decided to crawl back into the house, and squeeze myself in between two ladies – my mom had gone to the kitchen. When she came back and saw me, she made a joke or two, then she said, “Olivia, good you are here, I wanted to send you to the shops. Please come with me; I’ll give you some money.”
No sooner had we left the living room, did she grasp some flesh on my thighs. Then she squeezed and twisted it tightly for about five seconds and gave me “THAT LOOK” that said, “Let me hear a sound.” Guess what happened? I walked slowly past the visitors, with a smile, through to the front door (we had no back doors), and silently cried outside.
20 minutes later, she calls me, “Olivia, come and recite that poem for the visitors.”
And don’t get it wrong, she’s just a typical African mother. Just about any other African mother does that. It’s like they were born to the same mother.
In fact, one friend told me that her mom used to say a letter for every stroke of cane, like, “I-t-o-l-d y-o-u n-o-t t-o g-o o-u-t.
Don’t get out of this house…
Growing up, my friends and I weren’t privileged enough to have fancy toys, computers, or things to entertain us at home. As bad as it was; still our disciplinarian parents didn’t want us to go out (imagine sitting at home for the entire holiday, doing nothing!) Nevertheless, that forced us to think out of the box.
We had to master the art of timelessness. By that I mean, knowing which time our parents went for work and when they came back home. The idea was to carry on with our activities and go back home before they could arrive.
We had to create our toys and fun activities. For instance, if we needed to play soccer or handball, we could collect many plastic papers and a rope, and craftily create a ball (this ball could bounce, at least three times, so it was quite something). We could also collect clay from a riverbank (which was not less than two kilometres away), to create dolls, cars, and homes.
And when she doesn’t find you home…
While at the river, we would swim or slide through a path of mud into the water, try fishing, or eat some bush fruits for a few hours, before heading back home. Surprisingly, we were disciplined when it came to timing. But every once in a while, you could get at home, only to realize your mother is sitting on the door, with a very long stick, with “THAT LOOK”, and the only thing that goes on your mind is “Today is the day I’m going to die.”
Hats off to our African mothers: they disciplined us the African way, they taught us well, to respect others and to live right by others. They also never let us go hungry even when the times got tough.
Growing up, there was nothing like child support. When a man decided not to take care of his children, nothing much could be done. So, mothers had to step up and fend for the family.
In other cases, our mothers had to endure physical and sexual violence just so that we could live in a complete home.
We cannot thank them enough.
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