It is Sunday evening at around 7:30pm, barely minutes after the sun has set and the surrounding is chocking with song and dance. As the rest of Kenya is ushering the night with rehearsals for sleep time, the Bukusu are busy negotiating manhood for their sons, a traditional rite of passage done in the month of August biannually.
In most if not all societal settings, the man is expected to be in charge of the home. And thus it follows that manhood has to be imparted in each male child upon attaining a certain age. And surprise, the initiation season has set in on high gear. This is to mean residents of Western Kenya are going to have sleepless nights as the initiation spirit makes its way into the veins of cultural diehards who will sore their throats as they chant the initiation songs.The Bukusu, arguably the largest sub-tribe of the Abaluhya community is among communities that undoubtedly usher their boys to men in style. Under the community’s customs all males were to brave the knife to be considered men. This follows after the tale of one Mengo. Ok, once upon a time in Bukusuland there existed a big snake that used to attack the people of Bungoma and their cattle. Efforts to kill it proved futile until that fateful day when a young man by the name Mengo smeared mud on his body and dared to go to the caves where the predator was believed to be staying. And to the shock of many the young man successfully killed it and demanded to have his foreskin removed as a symbol of his heroic act and bravery. Consequently the Bukusu circumcise their sons as sign of manning up.
The brewing of a local brew sends out the official message that a boy in the home is a few days away from admission to the institution of manhood. Everyone is welcome to drink from the pots with the exception of a special pot reserved for the ‘surgeon’ Omukhebi who will be enjoying his drink while giving advice to the candidate.
Throughout the preparation phase, a candidate is to move around to invite his neighbours and friends to come witness his transition to manhood. He will be in the company of followers who will be singing to him as he plays the traditional metal pieces Chinyimba. The singing serves to motivate him and ridicule bad characters in society: witchcraft, meanness, adultery among other moral faults. When visited, a host is to hand the candidate a gift as way of motivation. The climax of the invitation is at one of the maternal uncles Ebukhocha which is normally a day before the cut. There, a bull is slaughtered and the brisket part put on his neck. Some uncles smack the candidates in the name of putting their courage to test. After the visit to uncle, he (the initiate) is to head back home (previously, it was usually by foot but nowadays bicycles can be spotted in the caravan of followers).
Back home, another bull would be slaughtered and the stomach placed on the boy to replace the brisket part from the uncle. This move appends to the preparation phase and at this point there’s no turning back; the candidate has to face the cut by all means. He is then allowed a rest in preparation for his D-day the following day as people continue with the feasting.
Come dawn, all roads head to the sacred mudding ground Esitosi usually next to riverbanks. This is a no-go zone for women who wait far from the scene. A candidate is then stripped naked and smeared with mud with a few beatings that are normally evident from the red eyes after the mudding. The mudding exercise is believed to serve in reducing bleeding and to prevent the candidate from blinking while facing the cut. The mudding process is finalized with the planting of a strand of grass on a hill of mud on his head.At this stage our candidate is set for the knife, he is walked back home but avoiding the route they followed earlier; this is usually a precaution to prevent a calamity from befalling the candidate in case something had been planted along the route by individuals who don’t wish him well. The circumcision anthem Sioyayois sang as the now nude boy is walked to his initiation spot back at home. His father leads him to the initiation spot which is marked with white flour. While facing East and surrounded by all his witnesses, the team of surgeons emerge from the crowd and within seconds blood starts dripping
An aunt to the newly endorsed man ululates then joyous sounds and celebrations follow. A circumcision inspector Omuloli then inspects the wound to confirm if the cut was properly done. Gifts are then dished to our ‘man’ for the courage shown. And this continues in Bukusu homes the entire month of August.
I strongly support cultural preservation; however, I must say the circumcision rite has some loose ends that ought to be adjusted. First, the directive by the Health authorities on the use of sterilized surgical equipment on each candidate need to be monitored to ensure it’s complied with. This could help control infections such as HIV/AIDS that can be transmitted from the sharing of knives. The exercise should also be conducted in the presence of professionally-trained medical personnel so that any arising emergencies could be attended to.
Also the circumcision period appears to be so long (a whopping 31 days); this translates to 31 manpower days negated from the region’s economic productivity as there are many individuals who get so possessed by the circumcision spirit Bukhebi to the extent of leaving their workstations unattended to as they move from home to home following the candidates until the season ends. I suggest the period be shortened to a compromise period having in mind that Kenya as a nation is gearing up to realizing Vision 2030.
There’s also the need to do away with the obscene songs lest the circumcision exercise lose its meaning; unless of course the message being sent is that before admission to the clan of men, one has to be vulgar.
Lastly, the traditional rite should be a voluntary one and not a forceful exercise. I happen to know of cases where boys underwent the traditional cut against their wish. Sincerely, what’s there to celebrate over imposed manhood?