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Circumcision as a rite of passage

The Luhya are still strong traditionalists as far as the rites of passage from boyhood to adulthood are concerned. In Bukusu where the tradition is still strong, preparations for circumcision begins as early as early as two months before where a candidate is required to take a chicken to a local blacksmith in exchange for two bells that he will use to invite relatives to the ceremony.
Significance of bells: All candidates whose bells are ready gather at a central point each night and trek for several kilometres rehearsing circumcision songs up to as late as As the D-Day nears, each candidate visits all his relatives’ homes ringing the bells as way of inviting them to the ceremony. A day to facing the knife, a candidate visits his maternal uncles where he chooses one to stand by him throughout the process, he is also given a bull as a gift. In Bukusu the cost of circumcision can be anything up to Shs20, 000 – way beyond annual earnings of most families.

Communication with ancestors: At dawn of the special day, the chosen uncle accompanies the candidate to the river where he smears him with mud, and plants a grass on his head to signify that he (the candidate) is in communication with the ancestors. A group of villagers escort the candidate back home while singing circumcision songs, at this point the candidate is completely naked.

circumcision candidate
A candidate prepares for rite of passage into manhood. Below Omusebi shows the tools of his trade.

Custom under threat

Recently however, the practice has come under threat by critics who claim the practice is unhygienic and exposes candidates to unnecessary pain when one could achieve the same result clinically in a hospital under anesthetics. The issue of training of the circumcisers has also been called into question after reports of boys losing their manhood to poorly trained and erratic abasebi.

Bullying the boy into manhood

All those who have passed through the process are entitled to bully the candidate as a way of hardening them. The candidate finally gets circumcised at his father’s compound as relatives, friends and neighbours of both sexes watch keenly and he graduates from an omusinde (uncircumcised) to an omusiani (circumcised).  After successfully going through the knife, the candidate gets showered with lots of gifts from relatives.
Living in Murumbi: The candidates are then isolated from their homes and live in a single dwelling known as murumbi. Relatives must bring them food which they must deposit with the janitor as they must not exchange any form of contact until they are properly healed and a graduation ceremony performed.

Healing period: Usually the logic is to keep the men away from girls and women to avoid getting sexually aroused and since it might cause the wound to tear and take longer to heal. Healing normally takes two weeks if there are no complications. If there are still candidates who haven't healed after two weeks, this period may be extended but in all cases never exceeds one calendar month. More...

Traditional Versus Modern: The case of the Babukusu. CLICK HERE

Abasinde circumcision initiates
Bukusu initiates raring to become men in an ancient ritual that is now under threat.

Circumcision introduced to Babukusu by Sabaot
According to Mzee Hussein Sifuma, 92, circumcision was introduced to the Bukusu by the Sabaot through a young Bukusu man known as Mango Mukhurarwa. Perhaps, not surprisingly, it is the love of a woman that drove Mango to this rite. But with the hard economic times and the HIV/Aids scourge, this cultural exhibition is under threat among all the three communities, who now face the challenge of making the practice safer. The Sabaot are also under immense pressure to stop circumcising girls after the rite was outlawed. Experts say HIV may be spread through sharing unsterilized knives and other equipment used in the initiations. Indeed, health workers have been training the circumcisers on how to avert this danger.  But it is the economic cost that gives many parents sleepless nights and poses the greatest danger to the tradition. More...

No compromise, no surrender as custom endures test of time

By Eric Ngobilo, March 11 2011
The pomp and colour associated with traditional circumcision ceremonies among the three main communities in Bungoma is set to diminish drastically in the coming years. The Bukusu, Tachoni and Sabaot all circumcise their boys in elaborate ceremonies that are some of Kenya’s biggest and most expensive exhibitions of culture. The only difference between the three groups is that the Bukusu face the west during circumcision while the Tachoni and Sabaot face east. The Sabaot, who also circumcise their girls, perform the ceremonies in December while the Bukusu and Tachoni do them in August. More...

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