Circumcision and Bravery amongst the Bukusu Young Males in Kenya

By Maurice W Barasa East African Standard 18th August 2012

Life will never be the same again for Martin Nganga and his wife Grace. Their halcyon daily routines were brought to a rude, abrupt end early this month. Nganga can no longer engage members of his age-set Bachuma in any cultural intercourse.

His candidacy for eldership in the Bukusu community has now been permanently revoked and members of his clan, Baala will for a long time to come, walk dejectedly with bowed heads.

Grace will never again freely socialise with other women and share intimate conversations with them at the market place. Her clan Babuya, has been blamed for what befell her son (name withheld because he is a minor). The activities of the morning of August 2, will forever be engrained in her mind, that of her husband and in the collective memory of the Baala clan.

On this fateful day, the gods conspired to rob her family whose head, Nganga once served as a village elder, of the dignity it had accumulated over the years as it reigned over other families in Busiraka Village of Bungoma County in western Kenya.

Circumciser’s Knife

The family’s second born son did the abominable. He, out of fear of the circumciser’s knife (embalu) and contrary to the dictates of culture, fidgeted before letting out a loud cry, calling on his parents to rescue him from the “intruders who want to mutilate my manhood”.

The class seven pupil at Kasosi Primary School soon found himself on the receiving end of a whirling vortex of crowd anger and his attempts to dash for freedom were quickly thwarted by the sea of humanity that surrounded him. To the uninitiated, the manner in which he was wrestled to the ground and circumcised was iniquitous.

However, to many within the Bamasaaba cultural macrocosm, the boy deserved the treatment that was meted upon him. Initiates among Bamasaaba are supposed to hanker for the knife and face it nonchalantly. The Bukusu of Kenya and Bagisu of Uganda share a common patriarch – Masaaba. They are thus known as Bamasaaba (children of Masaaba).

Among Bamasaaba, a circumcision candidate who exhibits signs of cowardice is regarded as an outcast and will forever not fit in the socio-cultural stratum of the society. And for bellowing out his parents’ names when faced with the traditional surgeon’s knife, the boy caused his parents and clan unfathomed agony.

An expensive cleansing ceremony, which culminated in the slaughter of a ram was held to “purify the circumcisers” whose dignity and trade the boy sallied. Nganga had to sell part of his shamba and sugarcane plantation to get the funds needed in fulfilling this cultural requirement. To compound Nganga’s misery, his first-born son is in police custody on robbery charges. “My wife has now gone into depression,” he laments.

Many would ask why the boy was forcefully circumcised. In the Bukusu community, the moment a candidate goes through the ritual of khuchukhila, which precedes the actual circumcision, his fate is sealed. He must be circumcised.

The khuchukhila ritual involves ancestors escorting the initiate to the river where he fetches water under their watch. He then returns home where he pours the water into a pot whose mouth is tied with Wandering Jew grass and its belly holding dry liquor pellets. This is a covenant between the candidate and his ancestors that he must face the embalu.

The boy says he resolved to be circumcised this year and graduate into adulthood following the encouragement from his cousin. The two have a lot in common. Their fathers are brothers.

They are both in Standard Seven in the same school and they used to take turns looking after their parents’ livestock. If his cousin went ahead and got circumcised before him, the latter’s world would have crumbled. Circumcised men do not keep the company of the uncircumcised boys. The two convinced their fathers that they were ready to face the knife. Since the two have been very close from their childhood, their parents determined that they should be circumcised on the same day – August 3 and by the same team of circumcisers.

The boy’s mother least expected her son to embarrass the entire Baala clan. “That was the last thing on my mind,” she said. “My first born son withstood the cut and I believed he had set the pace for his younger sibling,” a reflective Grace laments. Nganga says he became jittery when his son failed to exhibit signs of bravery. “On the eve of the circumcision day,” he says, “my son never looked convincing.” He alerted the circumcisers. And in the morning, an hour before the rite, elders decided to delay the cut by taking a detour with the boys as they came from the river smeared with clay.

Singing crowd

Songs of encouragement freely pierced the air. The singing crowd now hoped the boy would gain the necessary courage as they approached Nganga’s homestead. They were wrong. Nyongesa Sinino, the lead circumciser says he knew the boy would cause problems and that his team was well prepared for the resistance the initiate put up. A hopeful Nganga held his son’s hand and led him to the etiang’i (spot where he would stand to be circumcised).

Bukusu and Bagisu initiates are expected to be gutsy. Cases of cowardice are rare. During the bi-annual circumcision ceremonies held in August of every even year, boys from the two communities aged between 12 and 16 years transcend villages and counties inviting friends and relatives to witness their transition into adulthood. The two boys jointly visited their relatives’ homes inviting them to grace the ceremony that would turn them into men. Traditionally, among the Bukusu the resolve of a candidate to become a man by way of the embalu is put to test by his father who demands that the son steps on a burning ember as he (the father) takes a lap around their main hut. However, the two boys were exempted from this test.

This ritual is in reflection of the lap a serpent, endemu ya bebe took around a cave at Mwiala in Teso sub-county before it was killed by a courageous man called Mango in the 16th Century. This serpent, says Mzee Fred Makila, an author and Bukusu elder, was notorious for killing Bukusu herders and their livestock. Mango, who had immigrated with his clan Bakhurarwa from Mbale in Uganda into Kenya resolved to eliminate the snake despite repeated warnings from his mother and tribesmen that he shouldn’t dare the reptile.

A gutless Mango smeared his body with clay to conceal his body odour, armed himself with a sword and crept into the snake’s cave. In the evening the serpent arrived. It first went around the cave to ascertain its safety before entering it. And as is normal with snakes, it turned around and put its head at the mouth while the rest of the body remained inside the cave. Mango had strategically placed a log and the entry to the cave and when the snake rested its head on it, he chopped it off. The head, legend has it, bit a nearby fig tree whose leaves wilted immediately.

Age groups

A bloodied Mango emerged from the cave and having proven that he was not pusillanimous, he demanded to be circumcised. An omurwa (Saboat) circumciser from the neighbouring Mt Elgon circumcised him. That marked the revival of circumcision rituals among Babukusu, which had stalled due to migrations, wars, and natural calamities. Mango’s age-set came to be known as kolongolo and it gave rise to seven others – Kinyikeu, Kananachi, Kikwameti, Nyange, Maina, Chuma and Sawa.

Today, Bukusu initiates are smeared with clay just before they face the knife as Mango did.  After being circumcised, they enter their seclusion huts backwards imitating endemu ya bebe’s entry into its cave. The age-sets have come a full cycle. Ironically, Nganga’s son shares the age-set, kolongolo with the legendary Mango. However, he will not be allowed to associate himself with it.

The writer is a PhD student at Kenyatta University


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Wanjala Edwin Temba
    Feb 04, 2013 @ 13:37:25

    Good story about the Bukusu people.



  2. Gaston Simiyu
    Feb 10, 2015 @ 11:49:34

    The Bukusu are the antethesis tribe of peace in Kenya.



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