Under the shadow of the Baobab Tree

The Baobab Tree
The Baobab Tree

Written by Sithembele Xhegwana

They sit under the big shadow of a baobab tree with their legs wide open. The chief circumciser, a respected man in the village, moves upside down singing inconceivable chants as if to scare them. His assistants make sure that every -bijii is correctly placed so they could be properly cut by the traditional surgeon. Are they scared? The traditional assegai that will soon consume their prepuces is the only thing they need to transform the dreaded -bijii that they are to the status of the nthaka that they have always desired since the day they became aware of their sexuality. In between sterilisation of the traditional weapon in the traditional beer, the chief circumciser – together with his assistants-  quickly run through the operation like a bolt of lightening. The echoes declaring the achievement of a new status run up to the women, children, uncircumcised boys and strangers in the far away village who are forbidden to witness such occasions. In tandem, they celebrate. Everybody celebrates.

This happens after a two - year waiting period after which they underwent a pre-circumcision ritual. This is where through a medium of local mythology and tribal legends they were sworn to a vow of secrecy. The Tharaka, “part of the larger Ameru Bantu ethnic group who occupy the Tharaka Nithi County in the Eastern slopes of Mount Kenya which is located about 300 kilometres from the city of Nairobi”[1] are one of the African tribes who though negatively dealt by British colonialism still value their cultures. Traditional male circumcision is one those cultures that although have been almost wiped out by “civilisation” have managed to exist parallel with “modern” forms of male circumcision.

The kirimo-swallowing ritual, whereby each candidate is ushered from junior boyhood -mwiji to senior boyhood or circumcision candidate -rugu takes place in the solace and the mystique of Mount Kenya. Besides the veil of secrecy embedded in the ritual, candidates are prepared to be strong warriors and responsible owners of land, property and women. After the long-winded ritual, they get sent back to the village, with a quasi-new status of course. This is because after roughly a period of two years they still have to under-goe circumcision which this process was preparing them for.

The first male circumcision to take place in a hospital setting in Kenya was in 1929, at Chogoria Mission Hospital. From the focal point of Marimanti District where this hospital is located, this new kind of circumcision disseminated to almost all districts of rural Kenya. This was popular amongst the highly educated and Christians. This was when new circumcision calendars were introduced, as opposed to the indigenous knowledge-based (that most of the times were linked to honouring ancient African gods) festivals that took place in the villages.

As convenient as this new circumcision method sounds, it had its own challenges. As it was directly linked to school calendars, boys who did not perform well at schools were literally left behind. This directly resulted into psycho-social challenges. As traditional male circumcision still continues up to date, the former also presents a cultural conflict of some kind. To mitigate these challenges, a certain kind of a compromise had to be reached. As opposed to those circumcisions that happened completely in hospitals (in terms of candidates also recovering in hospitals); there was also an option where initiates could be outpatients. The latter allowed for the traditional method still to be integrated within this new “modern” way of circumcision. Also, the inmates were denied certain types of visitors who were viewed as “impure” and still allowed a traditional “crash course” in hospital. How these two methods were successfully in mitigating cultural stigma on those who went through the “modern” route is still a story for another day.

Looking at how the story of male circumcision has evolved in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa since the two centuries of recorded history, one would vow that there were cultural exchanges between these two African regions. Excluding the mandatory kirimo- swallowing ritual two years prior the actual three – four weeks circumcision ritual in Kenya, every other stage is a carbon stage of the other. One would safely argue that in the case of the Eastern Cape amaXhosa the former was tightly integrated with the latter in formative times as initiation candidates used to spend in excess of six months in the bush.

The impact of missionary funded education and Christianity has also had its effects in the Eastern Cape Province TMC practices up to a point that at a certain group of amaXhosa not only called for its modernization but also for its complete abolition. Taking into consideration the high rates of both initiate morbidity and mortality ,academics and activists questioned the authenticity of the custom. For a lack of a most competent word, the media also played a prominent role in exposing these cultural ineptitudes. This opened an argument for the possibility of introducing Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision (VMMC) not only as a safe haven against initiate morbidity and mortality but as a possibility of preventing sexual transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS. Of course, some amaXhosa traditional loyalists like Prince Zolile Burns-Ncamashe would not take that with arms folded.

[1] Moywaywa, C.K. & Akaranga, S.I. (2017). Pre-modern and Modern Male Circumcision Rites among the Tharaka of Eastern Kenya. Journal of Education & Enterpreneurship. 4(10) 48 – 59.