In August, about 5,000 boys in western Kenya were rounded up, brought into the forest and ritually circumcised.
They’re members of the Bukusu tribe, and they were marking the transition from boyhood to manhood in the traditional way. The elders who performed the procedure used homemade knives and no anesthesia, as they have done for centuries.
But this time, something went horribly wrong. On August 6, Kenya’s The Star newspaper reported: “Boy, 13, loses penis in Bukusu circumcision rite gone bad.” Local officials say the circumciser wasn’t properly trained and botched the surgery.
An estimated 10,000 boys from various tribes in Kenya’s Bungoma County are circumcised every year, says Florence Lukoosi, the county’s cultural director. About half of them, mostly Bukusu tribe members, go through the procedure in the old-fashioned way, which relies on traditional knives instead of surgical tools. Other families opt for a hospital procedure.
To minimize injuries and disfigurement, Bungoma County conducts two training sessions a year for traditional circumcisers. The one-day voluntary program teaches them to make the cut safely, how to practice proper hygiene, how to dress the cut after the surgery and how to administer antibiotics if necessary. Lukoosi said that the elders who perform the ritual prefer to use their own knives, in order to be true to tradition.
About 600 elders have taken circumcision training so far this year, Lukoosi says, but she admits that some still make mistakes. In the August case of the 13-year-old Bukusu boy, she specified that the county had not trained the elder conducting the rite and that he had attempted the procedure at 3 a.m.
For an additional perspective, she put me on the phone with Murmbi Njibwakale, a 59-year-old Bukusu elder. Njibwakale was circumcised when he was nine years old and remembers it “like it was yesterday.”
I asked what he thought of the boy whose penis was cut off. “Accidents are accidents,” he said, emphasizing they seldom happen. “It is not dangerous. We have done this since time immemorial.”
And why continue?
“It is a test for endurance, of how courageous a man can be in his life,” he said.
Other circumcised men aren’t so sure about the value of the traditional ways.
“They took me and a group of other boys into the forest,” says Joash Akwiry, 32, remembering his circumcision 22 years ago. For two weeks, elders from his Kisa tribe mentored him, preparing him for the experience. “On D-day, they smear you with clay, which signifies you are ready for circumcision.”
After the cut, he says, they rubbed ash from burned berries into the wound to stop the bleeding. His most vivid memory is of the pain.
Akwiry says his ethnic group no longer practices ritual circumcision. He says people in his tribe have slowly moved away from the practice over the years, adding that families worry the traditional method can spread diseases such as HIV.
“It’s a breakdown of traditions,” says Elizabeth Meyerhoff, an American anthropologist who has lived in Kenya since the 1970s. “Circumcision was an initiation ceremony, but a lot of the initiation has gone by the wayside.”
But not in the Bukusu tribe, whose elders even force circumcisions on men from other tribes who want to marry Bukusu women. Men from the Turkana tribe fled their homes last month to avoid this forced circumcision, seeking refuge in nearby police stations.
Njibwakale, the Bukusu elder, defends the practice of circumcising adult men from other tribes who choose to live among the Bukusu. “Because they will be a part of us, they should adhere culturally,” he says. But any elder who botches a surgery should be banned from future circumcisions, he adds. The circumciser who mutilated the 13-year-old Bukusu boy has been “blacklisted,” says Florence Lukoosi.
The transition away from ritual circumcision reflects a changing Africa. But even some of those who would not subject a son to traditional cutting still respect the cultural significance of ritual circumcision as a initiation into manhood. Among the Bukusu, an uncircumcised man is given less respect and stature than a circumcised man.
“Most Africans still believe in their culture,” says Akwiry. Among the Bukusu, circumcision is a rite of passage into manhood. For most Kenyans, by contrast, it’s just the cultural norm. Akwiry will have his sons circumcised – but in a hospital, and at a younger age than his own when he was led into the forest at 10.