In many ways Sub-Saharan Africa is booming. During our trip to Kenya in September this year, we saw new schools, roads, cell phones, motorbikes, and skyscrapers in places that looked economically stagnant just six years ago. And economic reports generally support this impression of a new chance against poverty. I love this progress and promise, but for many rural Kenyans these new opportunities pull them away from their roots in their ancestral villages. The family pays a price.
We saw this tension between the centrifugal forces of opportunity and the homeward pull of tradition when our host, Mr Meshak Maleche, in Mbakalo, a village of a few thousand people in Luhya land near the Ugandan border, asked us if we wanted to attend a traditional circumcision ceremony at sunrise the next morning. Who, I wondered, practices traditional male circumcision in Kenya?
After retiring from his post as headmaster of a secondary school, Mr Maleche and his wife Elizabeth moved to this town where she grew up as one of 13 children. With his pension they built a fine cement house with running water and reliable electricity. At dawn on this Wednesday he led my wife and me, along with our son and daughter-in-law, across the main dirt road to the compound where Mr Maleche’s friend Jafred would host the circumcision of his 14 year-old grandson. It only took us five minutes, but we seemed to cross this road into another era.
The compound of the Jafred family was framed by two mud huts set in an L on one corner and three newer huts set in an L on the other corner. Diagonally across the compound ran a footpath that led up from the distant river between a patch of corn and some banana trees to the road we had just crossed. We entered the compound before sunrise with the light of the full moon behind us and the glow of the morning sky showing us just a few people sitting on a few chairs and some chickens pecking the grass. The quiet, empty feel of the area made me wonder if we had missed the ceremony. And why are this boy and his grandfather engaging their family and community in this outdated ritual?
Soon the mzee Jafred appeared in his pink ball cap, well-worn sports coat, and sneakers, carrying a slighter stick than his role as host of this event would justify. He greeted us warmly and confirmed in Luhya via Maleche that we were welcome to attend. He invited our son to take pictures. He and Mr Maleche chatted for a while and then he moved along into one of the far huts. We took our places standing against the hut nearest the people in the chairs. Mr Maleche relayed to us that the boy, who lived with his mother in Kakamega, a city of over 90,000 and the capital of Western Province, was spending the week here in Mbakalo for his circumcision ceremony. Most of his urban classmates had been or would be circumcised in a clinic, without ceremony. But this family and their friends had stayed up all night feasting, dancing, and drinking, and now a crowd of them were down at the river bank preparing the boy for the circumcision.
The grass of the compound was matted flat by the dancing. I remembered waking in the middle of the night to the dogs barking at distant voices from this direction. Now inside the main hut of the younger of the mzee’s two wives—younger by twenty years—we saw the remains of the pot from which the men had drunk the traditional home-brew by straws. Eventually each of the two wives appeared and then some of the younger children and a few other adults—all of them moving with the weight of a sleepless night in their limbs. Several sat in the few chairs available, two of them glued to their cell phones. We exchanged brief greetings but there was nothing in their dress or manner or actions that would have tipped me off to their expectations for the impending event. It could have been a Wednesday morning as usual, for all I could tell….
Until the mzee walked out to the center of the compound, laid a sheet of old newspaper down, shook a small mound of flour onto the paper, and then disappeared. Soon three young men in red soccer jerseys sauntered across the compound and took their places in the doorway of the kitchen hut. Mr Maleche said, “These are the circumcisers. They will stay out of sight.” Chickens dared to approach the flour on the paper until one of the mamas scared them away. As we waited we could see uniformed children walking to school, pausing to gaze at the scene, perhaps wondering at us wazungu waiting.
The sun was well above the trees by the time the mzee came again to the center of the compound. By now some twenty people had drifted into a half-circle, including a handful of barefoot young children. The mzee briefly welcomed us and announced the ceremony would begin. We waited again. And then suddenly a wave of people arrived, swelling the circle to over sixty and the expectation seemed to vibrate through us.
Up the path appeared two women in everyday dress escorting the boy. They came to us in stride, but he walked like a soldier—his head high, his gaze fixed up where the moon had been, his face a mask, his pace in step with theirs. He was nude, covered in tan clay head to foot except his genitals, with a fine stick angling up from his hair. The three of them stopped before the paper. The two women peeled away, leaving him there, motionless, fixed on where the moon had been.
Out flashed the three circumcisers, surrounded him in a crouch, and away they flashed again. One stroke, not a word, not a flinch from the boy, his gaze fixed in the distance. There gleamed his circumcised penis, now with beads of crimson rimming the shaft. He stood still as a soldier, then raised his hand to the sky and opened it. With wails and shouts and songs rising, the crowd closed in around him.
Some pressed Kenyan shilling bills into his open hand as he stood. His aunt wrapped him in a blanket, seated him on a stool, and placed a bowl in his lap for the donations. His mother came into the circle to celebrate him. The crowd pressed in, noisy and excited, shooting cell phone shots, but he remained entranced, motionless, a mask to all of us, the center of our circle yet seemingly elsewhere, not a word uttered.
After many photos, the circle dispersed and the people moved off to home and work. Unlike the family bonds that are shored up by a bar-mitzvah or a wedding, this ceremony explicitly affirmed the communal interest in this boy’s fertility. This is the one moment in this boy’s life when it is permitted for all to view his manhood, enhanced by cutting. This family claimed him. And the mzee had drawn us into his circle, granting us the chance to see and feel why such rituals evolved: the belief that it takes a village to make a child into a man who makes children. Though he will return to Kakamega, he belongs to this village now, for life. He belongs.