Stages of Life for Gikuyu Pt.3 – Circumcision
The necessity of circumcision
As with many African cultures, circumcision was the most crucial rite of passage in the life of a Gikuyu. Without circumcision a person never achieves adulthood, could never marry, and would earn no protection or community status. A person who refused circumcision (an almost unheard-of event) would soon be banished from the community and probably would not be able to gain entrance to other communities, including the N’dorobo.
The act of circumcision
The time and year of circumcisions was determined by a council of elders who had gathered from the various clans. Issues such as famine, war, or other disasters may put off the circumcision rite for a year or, under extreme circumstances, several years. Ideally, a girl was circumcised just before menstruation begins and a boy at about age fifteen. If a girl had her menstruation before her circumcision, she was considered to be ceremonially unclean, and a goat must be sacrificed on her behalf before she could undergo the ritual.
Each candidate for circumcision was assigned sponsors. The sponsors were an older couple who would see the candidate through the process. They become lifelong mentors after the circumcision, so they were chosen carefully. The parents choose the sponsors, but the child could overrule their choice and even choose their own couple.
In most cases, the boys in a given area stay together in one or two huts during an eight-day period of exclusion from the community. Eight days was often understood to be a time of rebirth. During the exclusion the boys’ food was delivered by their sponsors. The boys were not allowed to talk to or look at their mothers during this time, even if they went outside to relieve themselves. Girls, on the other hand, remain in exclusion in their mother’s home, but they too were fed and cared for by their sponsors.
Circumcisions always occurred early in the morning under the shade of the sacred mugumo tree, which was always located near a large stream or river. The boys and girls, were covered with ceremonial sheep grease, and walked naked to the river with a white cloth on their arms and a green branch broken from a tree. As they approached the river, younger children would line along the way, mocking them and their appearance. Once they come out of the river, no child could ever mock them again.
The boys and girls walk into the river as deep as possible, or at least deep enough to cover their genitalia. At this point they would throw their branches and watch them float down the river. This symbolized that a once-living child was dead. The early morning river was very cold and this has the effect of anesthetizing their genitalia to a limited degree before circumcision.
The circumcision of boys
Boys would sit in a row under the mugumo tree, completely naked. They sit with their feet wide apart and their arms supporting them on the ground behind them. Their family and neighbors would crowd close and watch the boys faces for any sign of fear or show of pain during the surgery.
The surgeon, standing among the crowd, would begin to chant. He would be dressed in a brilliant display of feathers and a variety of pigments were painted onto his skin. The crowd would part for his approach. The surgeon would first count the boys to be certain that there was an even number, as an odd number of candidates would spell a certain bad omen on the proceedings. If necessary, one of the boys would be removed and required to wait until the next circumcision date.
The surgeon would start at one end and work quickly down the line of boys. He would grab the foreskin and pull it over the penis head, make the cut, and move to the next boy. The boy is expected to sit in unflinching silence through his own procedure and as the other boys were cut. The surgeon then would return to the first boy and shave off any jagged edges. If the crowd approves of the boy’s behavior, they cheer and begin songs of bravery; if he fails by flinching or crying, they sing songs of mockery. A boy’s status as a warrior and his likelihood of finding a wife during his warrior years largely hinges on this single event.
As soon as the surgeon was finished, the male sponsor would carefully wrap the wound with a white cloth and lead the boy back to the hut, where he would stay in seclusion until the wound healed. Healing may take from one to six months. There was no attempt to stop the bleeding, nor was antiseptic applied, so infections were not rare. The male sponsor would bring food and gifts from the family and was the only one allowed to look at the wound, which he did regularly. If the healing was slow, he gave advice on how to speed up healing, though he made no attempt to directly interfere with the healing process.
The circumcision of girls
The process for the girls is similar to the boys in that an even number line up with their legs wide apart on the grass under the mugumo tree. The girl’s woman sponsor would sit behind and hold the girl in position for the surgery. The surgeon for the girls was always a woman. She pressed on either side of the clitoris and cut off the exposed portion. She then went down the line but did not return after the initial cut. The girls were expected to remain as stoic and brave as possible during the procedure, but there was no shame or mockery if they did cry out or show pain. The girls return to their mother’s hut and remain in seclusion until they heal, but they were still attended by their female sponsor for the duration of the recovery.
The sponsor as mentor
As mentioned above, the sponsors remain the lifelong mentors of the now-circumcised adults. They may be the sponsor of more than one candidate at the same time. The man looks after the boys under their care and the woman, the girls. During the entire recovery process, the sponsors were not permitted to engage in any sexual acts, or else there would be a bad omen placed on those under their care.
These are some of my field notes from my trip to Kenya. These notes can also be found in my book Crossing Rivers.